Makeup & the Patriarchy

By Krystal Lambert

Last year around this time I posted a Facebook rant that can be summed up with this simple thesis statement. “Women don’t wear make-up for men.” As a woman who frequently wears black lipstick knowing full well the tired mantra that “men prefer natural make-up” I find it bewildering that men still think we factor their opinions into our cosmetic routines. Sure, there was a time when I tried to mold my look around what I thought my crush liked but then I turned 14 and grew my very own brain and personality. Clothing, makeup, accessories, hair etc. all belong in the category of personal style which has little to do with gender.

 As a result of this post, I ended up in a debate with a male “feminist” who seemed to think he was a better feminist than myself and apparently all the women who commented praising and agreeing with my post. This guy had rubbed me the wrong way a few times because he always condescending to me, and seemed to be in pursuit of some “Male Feminist Trophy.” Rather than listening and considering what AN ACTUAL WOMAN had to say, he was here to tell me that cosmetics are strictly patriarchal and I was no feminist if I loved makeup. I explained that I had always loved dressing up and costumes and dresses etc. and that it was just a creative expression. What about men who put on dresses in the comfort of their own home, to soothe some aching hunger for self-expression they can’t otherwise satisfy? Where they doing this to appease the patriarchy? What about Drag Queens? Were they dressing up and putting on shows for straight men? Bitch, please.

 I admit that the roots of modern day cosmetics may seem to stem from the era of the 50’s housewife but that doesn’t mean we can’t or haven’t reclaimed makeup for our own. Humans, of all genders, have been painting their bodies since the beginning of civilization. In many eras throughout history it was customary for men to paint their bodies, faces, wear wigs, etc. Just as The Bible warns against women painting their faces or “adorning themselves” it seems to me the only patriarchal thing about make-up is men are still telling women NOT TO WEAR IT. So, this is not just a history of make-up, this is a history of men wearing make-up. Have a seat.

-In 2010 The University of Bristol found evidence suggesting Neanderthals wore makeup over 50,000 years ago. Ancient seashells were unearthed in Spain that appeared to be containers for mixing yellow and red pigments with a reflective black substance, undoubtedly used for cosmetic purposes. This was the time of “hunter-gatherers” or “cavemen” so the concept of makeup being inherently feminine seems pretty absurd right?

-Egyptian males’ masculinity was also not questioned due to their use of makeup. Kohl eye-liner, and a green pigment made from malachite, and red ochre lip stains were commonly used by men as early as 4,000 BC.

  • Makeup_Egypt

    -Tribal or Cultural Face Painting has been associated with hunting, religious reasons, and military reasons, to camoflauge or to scare the enemy. Some warriors entered battle naked except for a loin cloth, with their bodies streaked in red and black paint. Painting the face in various patterns and shapes has been a part of the culture of many societies since the beginning of time. This includes Indigenous American tribes in North America, and various tribes in Africa and South America, and Native American tribes. Indigenous peoples of the Amazon have said that in this power to change ourselves, we demonstrate our humanity and set ourselves apart from the world of the animals.

    -In China and Japan around 3000 BC, both men and women used tinctures of gum arabic, gelatin and egg to stain their fingernails to signify their status in society.

    -Alexander the Great was ridiculed throughout ancient literature for wearing make-up. He was undefeated in battle and ruled the largest empire of the ancient world.

    -It was also common for men to use cosmetics throughout Roman society (1,000 AD). Roman men were known for using powder for lightening the complexion, rouge on the cheeks, and nails were painted using a mixture of pig fat and blood.

    -During The Elizabethan Era (1558-1603) men’s grooming was very popular. Men took part in beauty regiments including the use of egg and honey masks to smooth away wrinkles. Pale skin was the crux of beauty to Elizabethans. Sadly, much of the makeup used to create the pale complexion contained lead and often resulted in premature death. As pale hair was also all the rage during this era, many men bleached their hair to the point of balding.

    -It is important to note that the Victorian Era (1837-1901 AD) is when the church began to become the centerpoint of culture in the UK. Religious values ruled the day. Queen Victoria I declared that the use of cosmetics and makeup was vulgar and impolite, and makeup was considered an abomination or work of the Devil. This implied that only whores should wear makeup. Oddly enough, male actors were exempt from the rule and encouraged to perform in drag, while female actors were forbidden. This may be where our modern day stigma against women wearing makeup derived from.

    -During The French Era, beginning in the 17th century and continuing throughout the 18th century, both men and women in France wore obvious cosmetics.  Gender differences were less important than class differences – cosmetics marked one as aristocratic and were adopted as well by those who were trying to rise in social status. Makeup was not intended to look natural, but instead, “…to represent one’s aristocratic identity as declaratively as possible through cosmetic artifice”. Both men and women showed their status through white skin, and heavy makeup was considered more respectable than naturally light skin. The French preferred a noticeable style of makeup of pink lips, pink cheeks, and darkened eyebrows defined by burnt cork or elderberries. They even made fake eyebrows out of mouse hair from 1700-1780.


    -The Puritans considered any kind of cosmetics or outward adornment to be evil and men were not exempt from this judgement. The only cosmetic item that was permissible was soap, if you consider that to be a cosmetic item. Wigs were also banned by The Puritans for a short while, but that didn’t last long. Apparently religion is no match for the fashion of the day. By the 1700s, young men were lightly powdering their natural hair, and the colonial wigs became very popular even among preachers, lawyers and businessmen. After 1790 both wigs and powder were reserved for older, more conservative men, and were in use by ladies being presented at court.

    -For the first half of the 20th century in the UK and the USA,  make-up/cosmetics were considered to be an exclusively feminine endeavor. This is where the concept of makeup being some patriarchal construct forced on women is likely derived from. However, as we look back through the ages and more distant history we see that human beings expressing themselves through painting their body, through wigs, jewelry, fashion, etc. has always been “a thing” in every culture and it has never been exclusive to one gender.

    -In the early 1970’s Glam Rock made its debut on the music/fashion scene and we can thank these Rock Gods for what may have seemed new and revolutionary, men wearing makeup again. These musicians also wore outrageous costumes, and hairstyles, particularly platform shoes and glitter. The flamboyant clothing and visual styles of performers were often camp or androgynous, and have been described as playing with nontraditional gender roles.


    -Next up, the 80’s Glam Metal Bands popularized men having long/big hair and kept with the men wearing make-up trend. Men wearing eye-liner continued to be a trend throughout the Punk Rock era of the 80’s and 90’s and on into the Emo 2000’s.


    -The Drag Era of which we speak today first started (particularly in the US) in the 1950s and 60s. Even though the drag queen scene started around that time, it didn’t properly flourish until the 1980s and 90s. In the 1950s and 60s drag was far more underground and even criminalised. Drag is responsible for the concept that make-up has no gender, which is the entire point of this article. The fishnets/the sequins/the heels/the lipstick/the singing/dancing have absolutely zero to do with rules or expectations or gender roles, and everything to do with self-expression.



While I 100% support men and their freedom to express themselves, I’m really tired of being told that women wear something (make-up, chokers, etc.) as some kind of nod to men. Human beings in general are a bunch of showboats who want to wear pretty things and paint their faces and the Patriarchy did not create that desire or plant it solely in women. In fact, if the Patriarchy burned down tonight and was replaced with a completely Matriarchal society (goals) would we then stop having the desire to play dress-up? (You can pry my 100+ tubes of lipstick from my cold dead hands.) It is a pure and timeless human desire to create art, be it on cave walls or on the perfect canvas of our bodies.

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