The Ancient Art of Beauty

I almost never wear make-up so I had to force myself to think of the subject for this book — and what a trip it has been! Besides coming up with fun recipes like crayon lipstick, I also learned some very entertaining pieces of trivia, such as:

  • Modern day nail polish was developed in the 1920s thanks to technical advances in the car industry. Women today are painting their nails with car enamel. The Romans used crushed rose petals mashed with alum. During the Ming dynasty the Chinese used a mix of gum arabic, beeswax, gelatin and ground up pigments. The Ancient Egyptians never stopped using henna — it is still common in many parts of the world. I’ve tried to adapt all these recipes. Roman nail polish hurts when applied (it goes on hot), doesn’t have great color and washes away instantly the second you get your nails wet. The Chinese polish looks great (at least with the food coloring I used), glossy and smooth like the very best car body work, but it cannot resist water either. At least it tastes good when you suck on it, and it doesn’t kill your brain cells with its fumes… This would be a good choice for kids playing dress-up.
  • French aristocratic ladies are famous for powdering their faces with lead for a fashionably white complexion — but women used to swallow arsenic “complexion wafers” too. It was very effective, it gave them a genuine deathly pallor and they weren’t faking their languid behavior either. Then for a little contrast they would use cinnabar, the red ore of mercury to tint their cheeks and lips.
  • There’s no need to look in the past for outlandish treatments. I’m kicking myself for not bookmarking a site I found once with instructions for a DIY anti-aging formula which included instructions to do a head stand (or alternately lie down and hang your head over the edge of the bed) while slapping the cream on the face — for a minimum of ten minutes! Slapping. I have never been able to find those instructions again, which is a shame, because I was tempted to try it. Il faut souffrir pour être belle.

The above photo illustrates step one of my Egyptian-inspired eye shadow. Calcinated almonds, which I then grind into a paste with a mortar and pestle and apply to my eye lids with my finger. It makes a nice, deep brown but it also makes me smell a little burnt. Of course the Egyptians also used malachite for a bright green color, and ground-up beetles as glitter, but the 1980s are long gone, and if they come back I’ll have no part of it.

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