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Fashion: Cosmetics














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Both men and women followed certain styles and fads in their toilette, decorating their eyes, skin, and lips. Women were the most frequent participants in such cosmetic rituals, but men fancied perfumes and color around the eyes just as much as any woman.

 

Cosmetics for around the eyelids and on the eyebrows were especially popular and very expensive indeed; the best kind after which many sought was the mesd’emt. During the pre-dynastic and the Old Kingdom eye make-up was made from malachite or copper ore, giving it the hue of green. During the Middle Kingdom, both this color as well as black paints was employed. At the start of the New Kingdom, black kohl—made from galena, a sulfide of lead!—came into prominence and eventually replaced the malachite/copper ore-based eye paint or mascara. Whatever the color, however, this eye paint was a very popular cosmetic; it gave the wearer’s eyes a larger and more brilliant appearance. It was also imported from the East or obtained from a resource near Coptos.

 

In addition, for its beautifying purposes, this eye paint was also used to recreate the sacred symbol of the Eye of Horus from their own eyes. Furthermore, the ancients considered the paint a powerful charm, the lines around the eyes helping to protect against the glare of the sun, much like the gel that football players put below their eyes, just above their cheekbones.

 

For coloring of the lips, various pigments of red ochre or natural dyes in a base of fat or gum resin were used.

 

For the finger- and toenails, henna—a reddish hair dye—was employed as polish for these appendages, which were buffed before they were polished.

 

Perfumes of various scents—the most popular being the kyphi, consisting of myrrh, broom, frankincense, buck shorn, and other foreign plants—were applied to the hair, body and the mouth.

“The mouth?!” you might say. It is true: pills were made, especially from honey. Upon chewing, the breath of the chewer would become sweet. Consider these honey pills as an ancient Egyptian version of a modern tic-tac.

 

Scents for the body—the most popular mentioned above—also included those from cedar and sandalwood; barks; flowers; and various plants. Perfumes were made from fats, alcohol or oils. The latter ingredient—oil—was a very important supply for the royal Egyptians, especially those that came from the south coasts of the Red Sea, called Qemi. This oil was often used during the New Kingdom for oiling the hair. Most often seen in depictions, a fist-sized ball was placed into a bowl of oil, the oil settled onto the ball until it was an unknown consistency, and then the ball of oil was placed atop the head of a royal. There it stayed throughout the day, most likely during a festival or a feast. The oil from the ball then slowly trickled down the hair and made it smell sweet.

 

Being an emblem of joy—or so oil was considered—it is no wonder that royals participated in this step in their toilette. It was known that when Pharaoh’s procession passed, spectators poured the aforementioned oil on their heads. During feasts, it was custom to perform the toilette as a group, eating and exchanging gifts of flowers and necklaces as the feast progressed.

 

All these cosmetics, there must be containers in which to put them all. There were, but they were not mass-produced like the cheap plastic and glass containers and bottles of modern times; the ancients took care in everything they made.

 

Royals kept their make-up in beautifully carved boxes or containers, or in chests made from ivory, wood and other precious materials. Among the tools that were used to apply cosmetics were spoons; palettes for grinding powders; brushes and sticks for applying kohl and lip pigment; and small tubes in various shapes, sized and designs in which to put lip and nail pigment. In addition to the mix of cosmetic paraphernalia were combs; mirrors, traditionally crafted from bronze and in the form of Hathor; and various trinkets for wigs and the hair, including golden ringlets and other fancy ornaments.
















Bibliography:
 

Bunson, Margaret.  The Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. New York:  Gramercy

     Books, 1991.

 

Tortora, Phyllis and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume:  A History of Western

     Dress. 3rd ed. New York:  Fairchild Publications, 1998.

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