Make-Up as Understructure: Renaissance Cosmetics as Renaissance Self-Fashioning

Titian, "Portrait of a Lady at her Toilette, 1512-16Make-Up as Understructure: Renaissance Cosmetics as Renaissance Self-Fashioning

By Michelle Laughran

Paper presented at the Costume Society of America, Region 1 Annual Meeting, 2003

Introduction: Cosmetics – like fashion in general – clearly seem to have experienced a notable expansion in their use toward the end of the medieval period. In medieval Italy, their ideal backdrop was a pale complexion, apparently untouched by the sun’s rays to give the impression that one had the luxury of avoiding going about outside on any daily labors. Indeed, as early as the twelfth-century in Salerno, women had even worn cremes as sunscreens which simultaneously gave their skin “a nice coloring”.

In addition, wealthier women often used expensive saffron in order to highlight their lips and cheekbones, and in Tuscany they seem to have worn a bright- and fairly expensive – pink rouge, while others less affluent apparently wore a less expensive earthy red. Eye makeup was apparently also common among affluent women at this time: antimony or soot would be used to darken eyebrows and eyelashes, and they were sometimes lined with a black liquid and shadowed with brown, gray, blue-green or violet. As in the case of the idealized pale complexion, cosmetics had gone beyond the mere medieval polychromatic aesthetic to become socio-economic indicators: these were at times the very colors which were also being contracted by the patrons of late-medieval and early-Renaissance art, precisely because it would have been well-understood exactly how costly these pigments were to produce and use.


Indeed, politician and author Franco Sacchetti (1335-c.1402) would declare that the women of Florence were themselves “the greatest painters in the world”: they could turn black into white, yellow into red, and – he claimed – they could be as “ugly as cockroaches” but they could still transform themselves into beauties.

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