After the writings of the ancient period, the next major text to focus on makeup was the Trotula. A group of three secrets on the subject of women’s medicine written in the Italian town of Salerno in the twelfth century, the Trotula contains a section titled On Women’s Cosmetics,‚ which focuses on how to preserve and enhance beauty. Through references made in the text itself, it appears that the section on cosmetics was, once again, written by a man unlike the rest of the Trotula, which was authored by women. It provides fascinating insight into the local traditions of the time, including this description of a rouge made in Salerno: The Salernitan women put root of red and white bryony in honey, and with this honey they anoint their faces and it reddens them marvelously.‚6
If you explore the use of makeup through ancient times, it soon becomes clear that the freedom and rights accorded to women during a given period are very closely linked to the freedom with which they painted their faces.
Generally speaking, it’s during the times when women were most oppressed that makeup was most reviled and seen as unacceptable. Compared with women of later centuries, Egyptian women actually had a fair amount of autonomy. They could own and inherit land and property (in fact, an early document known as the Wilbour Papyrus shows that ten to eleven percent of landowners were female), control their own businesses, and instigate legal proceedings against men. Physical exertion was not frowned upon, and some lower-class Egyptian women would have worked as laborers.7 Considering this, it makes perfect sense that though ancient Egypt was one of the earliest societies to use makeup, it was also one of the most experimental and accepting. Unfortunately, later civilizations would not prove to be so open-minded.
In Iran, the earliest evidence of rouge comes from the city of Shahdad in the province of Kerman, where archaeologists found massive quantities of white powder in every tomb. At the bottom of the vessels used for storing the white powder, which seems to have been used as a foundation by both men and women, they found very small metal bowls or saucers painted red, believed to have contained rouge for lips or cheeks. Known as surkhab, ghazah, or gulgunah, the rouge was made from powdered hematite or red marble, and even from plain red earth, to which a natural red dye like runas (madder) would have been added. Excavations of very early sites, such as those at Shahdad, show that rouge may have already been in use before the Bronze Age, and recent finds from the tombs of Iranian women dating back to the fifth and fourth centuries have uncovered rouge that was applied with a reddened cotton pad, which seems to have been the method of application right up to the Qajar dynasty (1796 to 1925).8
“Red protects itself. No color is as territorial. It stakes a claim.‚