We tend to think of cosmetics as feminine perks of the modern life. Women treasure their favorite lipstick colors like gold, protect their skin with anti-aging creams, and spend countless hours in front of the mirror getting their eyeliner just right.
It surprises many people to know that ancient Egyptian women were just as fanatical about their cosmetics. Take a look at the portraits of ancient Egypt and you would be hard-pressed to find a woman (or a man) whose eyes aren’t perfectly lined with kohl, whose lips aren’t perfectly painted with ochre, or whose long tresses aren’t protected from the harsh desert sun by wigs.
A wealthy woman’s typical beauty regiment might begin with her waking in the morning and applying incense pellets to her underarms as a form of deodorant. Then, she might sit herself in front of a “mirror” (which was really polished bronze), and call for her servant to bring applets and grinders necessary for applying her daily makeup. Once the pallet was brought, she would watch her servant mix malachite with an oil derived from animal fat to create a eye-shadow. She would close her eyes as her servant applied the green power with sweeps of a small ivory stick carved on one end to look like the goddess Hathor. Then, when the eye-shadow was finished, the lady of the house would sit perfectly still while her servant lined her eyes with black kohl.
While these applications resulted in the beautification of the wearer, they had practical purposes as well. When applied above and beneath the eye, kohl served to protect the eyes from the intense glare of the sun. In fact, the Egyptian word for makeup palette appears to have been taken from their word to protect, which may reference kohl’s usefulness outdoors, or may even refer to the belief that outlining the eyes protected the wearer from the dreaded Evil Eye.
Once the lady of the house had on her protective kohl, she might then decide to use red ochre on her lips or dab her wrists and breasts with perfume. Having completed all of this, the lady would then dress for the occasion.