This Timeline of Women's Fashion Proves Beauty Standards Are Arbitrary
When you stop to think about them, female beauty standards are pretty bizarre. When did hair-free limbs become the norm, and where was hair dye invented? The history of women's beauty is as fascinating as it is strange.
The ancient Egyptians started many of the grooming habits that women still follow today. It's not surprising - after all, Egyptian culture was considered highly advanced. The heyday of ancient Egypt might mark when shaving started, though it was largely for hygienic rather than cosmetic reasons. As for plucking one's eyebrows, that procedure is a bit more modern; thank the ladies of the 16th century court for it. Once you hit the 20th century, everything speeds up. New innovations in makeup, hair styling, and hair removal meant that women began spending a considerable amount of time on personal grooming.
Whether you consider grooming a chore or a treat, it's interesting to read about how - and why - women began altering their appearances.
Unknown: Women Threaded Their EyebrowsPhoto: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Threading is likely one of the oldest beauty practices still used today. It's unclear when exactly threading came to be, but it is believed to have originated centuries ago in Asia and the Middle East. For Persian women, brow shaping was often considered a mark of adulthood.
During a threading session, an aesthetician uses a loop of knotted cotton thread. By expertly moving it across the skin, they can quickly remove hair from the root.
1500 BCE: Women Dyed Their HairPhoto: Maler der Grabkammer der Nefertari / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
The Egyptians were likely the first civilization to popularize hair dye; they used henna to mask unwanted gray hair.
Around the same era, the Greeks and Romans began coloring their hair with plant extracts. They also developed a permanent black dye, but it was toxic. As a work-around, they began using a dye made by steeping leeches in lead vessels. Black was the only color available.
The Phoenicians, meanwhile, reportedly used gold dust to give their hair a blond shimmer.
1500s: Women Reddened Their Lips And CheeksPhoto: George Gower / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
When Queen Elizabeth ruled, women strived to have very pale skin. Skin problems and pox were common, so those who had unblemished white faces were considered very beautiful. Those who could afford it used ceruse, a mixture of white lead and vinegar, to lighten the skin on their neck and bosom. Sixteenth century women also used vermilion (mercuric sulfide) and other products to redden their lips and cheeks.
Unfortunately, there were side effects. Ceruse made the skin gray, and toxic ingredients in cosmetics could cause lasting skin damage.
1500s: Women Plucked Their EyebrowsPhoto: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
In addition to pale white skin and ruby-red lips, women during the Elizabethan period strived for a high hairline with perfectly formed eyebrows. In order to achieve the desired aristocratic look, they plucked their eyebrows into high, thin arches. Sometimes, women removed their eyebrows and eyelashes entirely, the better to highlight their foreheads; big foreheads were all the rage then.
Late 1800s: Women Used ExtensionsPhoto: Anonymous / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Hair extensions and wigs are nothing new; people were wearing them in ancient Egypt. In the Western world, powdered wigs became the must-have look in the 18th century.
Towards the end of the 19th century, however, more natural looking hair extensions became the norm. Piles of curls added volume to the elaborate updos favored by Victorian women. Human hair was favored for these pieces. Supposedly, more than 220,000 pounds of hair were sold in France in 1873.
1915: Women Shaved Their ArmpitsPhoto: Philippe Ortiz / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
The ancient Egyptians were likely the first civilization to practice widespread body shaving, though it was mostly for hygienic purposes (to ward off fleas, for example).
But shaving didn't really catch on in the United States until much, much later. In 1915, the first razor was marketed towards women. That same year, Harpers Bazaar showed a model wearing a sleeveless dress and rocking hairless underarms. By 1917, McCall's magazine included anti-underarm hair ads. And in 1922, the Sears, Roebuck catalog featured razors and depilatories.