BEAUTY’S MOST ENDURING SHADE
Rouge is the longest-standing makeup item in existence and the most multipurposed, having been used to color lips and cheeks for thousands of years. Although the extent to which rouge has been used varies throughout history, depending on the fashion and social perception of makeup during the time in question, the power of red has rarely waned. These days rouge is available in a huge number of guises, from traditional powder blush to liquid stains, lipstick and lip gloss, and creams and gels for lips and cheeks. But why is it the most popular and enduring item in our makeup kit? And what has driven generations of women around the world to color their faces with rosy hues?
Perhaps it’s best to begin with the color itself, and the wealth of associations it brings with it. Though its meaning differs from culture to culture, red is invariably associated with desirability, love, passion, youth, and health. In Eastern cultures, red is generally seen as a symbol of happiness, which is why brides in China, India, and Vietnam traditionally wear red for their weddings, and it also has theatrical associations, featuring prominently in the makeup worn in Chinese opera and Japanese Kabuki. Obviously, it has other very different connotations, too it’s the color of blood, danger, and revolution, and has political affiliations with the Far Left. If we think purely in terms of makeup and what it is meant to achieve, then the point of rouge is to add a flush of color to the skin. So it’s clear that one reason for its appeal, as evolutionary psychologist Nancy Etcoff points out, is purely biological: Blush on the cheeks and red on the lips are sexual signals mimicking youth, nulliparity [not having given birth] . . . and the vigor of health.‚1 Another scientific reason behind the age-old appeal of red is the fact that it has the longest wavelength of any color perceived by humans, meaning that it stimulates a stronger subconscious response in us than any other shade.2 Think about walking into a red room and the effect it has upon you, or how shades of red immediately draw your eye. Etcoff again summarizes it neatly: Red, the color of blood, of blushes and flushes, of nipples, lips, and genitals awash with sexual excitement, is visible from afar and emotionally arousing.‚3
It’s not just our lips and cheeks that we have painted red over history. Many ancient and modern-day tribes are known for their considerable use of red paint on their faces and bodies. The anthropologist Alfred Gell suggested one reason for this is that a new or modified skin is a new or modified personality,‚4 which is a compelling argument, but there are so many other reasons why tribes may choose to embellish their faces and bodies. It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of tradition and, on the flip side, the encroaching influence of the modern world. The Himba, an African tribe living in northern Namibia, have been breeding goats and cattle since the sixteenth century. The women of the tribe are known both for their unique hair, which is braided in different styles according to their age and marital status, and their use of a mixture of red ochre and animal fat, which they rub daily all over their faces, bodies, hair, and jewelry. The ochre mix, called otjize, gives their skin an amazing red glow that echoes the color of the earth and is considered the pinnacle of beauty in the Himba culture. Though its primary purpose is aesthetic, it also protects their skin from the effects of the sun.
The earliest rouge would have been sticks of red ochre pigment made by mixing iron oxides with animal fat or vegetable oil. These types of sticks would not have been dissimilar in shape and size to the chunky eye-shadow sticks you can find in many brands today. Until the nineteenth century, when it became available to purchase from pharmacies, rouge was hand-made from a variety of substances, creating a wide range of tones and textures. Cochineal and kermes, types of insects, were dried and used to produce carmine pigment, a blood-red tint; although extremely poisonous, minerals such as red lead, cinnabar, and mercuric sulfide were used to create a flaming flush; vegetable and plant extracts including carthamin from safflowers, alkanet root, crushed mulberries and strawberries, red beet juice, and red amaranth were all used to create a wide palette of reds and pinks, ranging from the delicate to the intense.
Some of the most refined examples of face paint and cosmetics date back to ancient Egypt, from as early as 10,000 BC. The Egyptians were sophisticated chemists and they loved makeup, blending ingredients to prepare cosmetics, ranging from moisturizer, kohl, lip and cheek rouge, to nail color. They would sprinkle powders made from a variety of natural substances including ground nuts and minerals onto a palette, dish, or spoon and blend them with animal fat or vegetable oil to transform the texture of the mixture so that it would stay put on eyes, lips, or cheeks. Mixing equipment such as palettes, grinders, and applicators have been found among the earliest burials, suggesting that they were not only essential in daily life but also valued in the aferlife. The ancient Egyptians are mainly remembered (in beauty circles) for their incredible eye makeup, but they were also renowned for their bold use of red, painting their lips with a vivid, early form of lipstick made by blending fat with red ochre. Cheek rouge, also made from the same ingredients and possibly blended with wax or resin, gave cheeks a lacquered red luster that would have been garishly offset by emerald-green eyelids and licorice-black kohl-rimmed eyes.5
A young geisha in training applies beni (lipstick) from a pot coated with dried saffower; when moistened, it turns a vibrant red. Beni has been applied to the lips this way since the Edo period.