Beauty Through the Ages: Classical Greek Period

Hair and makeup is not just an accentuating element of fashion, it is fashion. Just like clothing trends, there have been a multitude of hair and makeup trends through the ages.

History is a subject that greatly interests me. So, I decided to do a four-part series encapsulating a brief history of hair and makeup through the ages.

Every trend has a cycle, and we often borrow from or are inspired by previous trends nowadays. We often take these trends at face value but don’t really know what we’re pulling from or what the reason is behind the existence of these trends. For example, a while ago, punk was having a revival. Many of us blindly incorporated punk elements into our wardrobes and looks, but not many of us questioned ourselves- Why is it coming back now? Why did this trend begin in the first place? How has it evolved? (if you want some answers, you should check out my post Punk: Chaos to Couture!)

So I made sure that each era I cover not only gives us an insight into the distinct hair and makeup trends of the time, but also an idea of the socio-economic-political reasons that influenced these trends. This series will mainly dive into four eras: the Classical Greek Period, the Medieval Era, the French Revolution, and the Victorian Era.

Some of the reasons behind these trends and the items/ingredients used may shock you and seem bizarre in the 21st century. Keep in mind, this was a time when science and research were not very advanced, and censorship through fashion still existed.

So, let’s have a look at the first part: the Classical Greek Period.

Ancient Greek Paint

Although makeup was worn throughout the classical Greek period, anything obvious was frowned upon, especially by the male elite who believed a woman’s main role in life was to be virtuous, stay in the house and oversee its running.

Thus, generally speaking, when it came to makeup, less was definitely more. This led to women often wearing the ‘no- makeup makeup look’, and it was important that it was minimal and well-blended so that no one knew. ‘Natural’ beauty was ideal.

Olive oil was widely used in all of their cosmetics. The small olive tree is indigenous to the Greek, and it was used in both hair and makeup, along with other cosmetic, food, and pharmaceutical uses.

There was usually a light dusting of white powder over the skin, and a hint of colour to the lips and cheeks using ingredients like plants or fruits – or more harmful substances like lead and mercury based dyes. In terms of plants and fruits used, roses, anemones, mulberries, lotus flowers, marigolds, lavender and chamomile are just a few examples (O’Neil, 2018). Lipsticks and balms were made with red iron oxide and ochre clays, or olive oil with beeswax. Many women would use eyeliner made with olive oil and charcoal to darken their eyes too.

Olive oil was an essential ingredient of eyeshadows as well. It was mixed with ground charcoal (Beauty History: Cosmetics In Ancient Greece, n.d.). If they wanted a shinier, glowy look, they’d add a few drops of olive oil to their ‘foundation’ or put it onto the highest points of their faces- what we now call ‘highlighting’, in the world of modern makeup.

But, pale skin was still a prized possession for them. They made conscious efforts to not go out in the sun and covered themselves up every time they stepped out. In Ancient Greece, pale skin was a sign of prestige and beauty. It meant that women and men didn’t have to work for long hours in the fields to support themselves. They were wealthy enough, and their skin was proof of it (Beauty History: Cosmetics In Ancient Greece, n.d.).

Later on, white chalk replaced white lead. This was great as it was much less harmful to their skin and overall health. Another major advantage of using chalk was that it could easily as well as quickly be removed (Ancient Greek Makeup, n.d.).

For brows, they could be defined using ingredients like burnt cork and soot. And if they met in the middle, all the better- the unibrow was seen as a great sign of beauty during those times. In fact, a lot of Greeks often glued on animal hair to fake one.

It is interesting to note that even back then, the pressures to conform to societal beauty standards were so high that women and men quite literally shortened their lifespans by using such harmful ingredients and actually managed to glue animal hair to their foreheads. Then again, cosmetic sciences weren’t highly developed at the time and the ill-effects of using these makeup products could only be physically seen after prolonged use.

Centuries later, the conversation of rejecting societal beauty standards and the lengths people go to conform to them has just begun. This just shows how deeply embedded these ideas are in our minds, years and years of evolution and discovery have passed us by and somehow, we’re still where we started.

Crowned with Glory

When it came to hair, the ancient Greeks took it very, very seriously. Saying that it was their ‘crowning glory’ would actually be a massive understatement.

Ancient Greek men and women took extremely special care of their hair. Long hair was prized for both sexes, and their hair length reached anywhere from the shoulders to below their hips. While men simply wore their hair free and long, women wore their long, luscious locks elaborately styled.

A lady’s hairstyle was also a way to tell her social class and marital status. Only female slaves wore their hair short. Free women had long hair, but could only wear it loose until they remained single. The moment they tied the knot, they’d tie it up, usually in a bun (Beauty History: Cosmetics In Ancient Greece, n.d.). An interesting metaphor, isn’t it?

Different types of decorative hair accessories included jewelled combs, hairpins, and bands. Wigs were also frequently worn during this era. During the Hellenistic period, women had also mastered the technique of artificially waving and curling their hair.

Hats were also an important part of Greek culture. Depictions of religious figures in historical paintings and artefacts show women wearing three-tiered cone-like hats or flat hats with elaborate decorations on top, including statues of animals and feathers such as peacock plumes (Greek Headwear, n.d.).

Furthermore, veils were often worn in public by women to cover their heads and faces (5 Ancient Greek Fashion Accessories You Must Know About. n.d.). This was because light skin and hair was the beauty standard at the time in their society, and so they preferred to reduce the tanning effects of the sun as much as possible. They often tried to lighten their hair as well, by applying vinegar throughout their locks and then sitting for hours in the sun. To prevent a tan, they’d wear broad-brimmed hats with a hole in the middle. Moreover, to keep their hair soft, moisturised, and shiny, they again turned to olive oil. Applied and left on the hair for hours, it acted as a conditioning treatment (Beauty History: Cosmetics In Ancient Greece, n.d.).

As the years went by, their hairstyles became more restrained. Men started cutting their hair shorter or tying it back, and women leaned towards up-do’s, accessorising with bands to keep their hair in place. These metal bands were called ‘Stephane’ which looks like what we now call a tiara. Short curls were in also vogue during this time.

In terms of men’s accessories, Greek men wore hats for functional purposes, not fashionable ones. Farmers, soldiers and travellers wore caps for work or travel. Again, they didn’t just try and protect themselves from the sun, but also kept in mind their preference for lighter skin. Decorative headgear usually included wreaths made of natural branches or golden ornaments that were worn for special occasions and to signify great honours.

After the Greek ruler Alexander the Great came into power, he quickly popularised a clean-shaven face, and men started shaving off their beards. Before this, keeping a beard was more a matter of personal style and taste. Common styles included keeping it full, pointed, or closely cropped, and with a moustache or without (Greek Headwear, n.d.).

So, what are your thoughts on the trends of this time? Was there anything you were shocked to learn about? Let me know in the comments below!

Subscribe to stay updated on the series – I’ll have the next part coming up soon! And don’t forget to follow me on Instagram too.

Love,

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Posted by

Makeup geek, writer, and musician from New Delhi, India. Pretty much in a constant mood of casual existential despair, but hey, I’m trying to make the best of it x

10 thoughts on “Beauty Through the Ages: Classical Greek Period

  1. Wonderful post as usual Khanak! This was really intriguing and really shows us the difference between the way we are now and our beauty expectations as opposed to those during the classical greek period. The Greeks used olive oil for practically everything, even to wash with, so I’m not surprised they even snuck it into cosmetics! x
    Marina Rosie x
    https://marinawriteslife.blogspot.com/

    Like

    1. Thank you so much, Marina! I agree, I think it’s interesting how they basically went for the no-makeup makeup look, and now everyone is doing heavy glam on social media. I suppose the Insta-glam brows are common though, haha.

      Like

  2. I think the realization that what we view as a “modern look” really isn’t that modern was what got me. See? They knew the harm of the sun… even if they had different reasons for protecting their skin!

    Thank god we don’t put lead and mercury into our cosmetics… but they were onto something with the olive oil!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree! And our modern no-makeup makeup look really does come from way back here. It’s funny how ‘natural beauty’ has been an actual look for centuries now!
      With olive oil, they were definitely on the right path. But the lack of research or awareness about what they were putting on their face is horrifying. Then again, I don’t think they tested this makeup in labs and got it FDA approved so… I suppose we can give them a pass, haha.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I get a second one to read today!
    I have to say, I’m actually shocked that people were filling in their brows this far back in time! I also can’t believe to what degree people went to avoid darkening their skin. It makes sense that it showed you were wealthy and not working in the fields, but at what cost?!
    Another amazing job, Khanak 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yup, the obsession with light skin and the idea of it being superior is clearly not just a modern phenomenon. I loved coming across these facts in my research because it really opens your eyes to the actual roots of these thoughts.
      Thank you so much, and thanks for reading Sam!

      Like

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