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Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Lipstick, powder and paint


My topic for the Wednesday Wonders Handling Table was about the way Roman women looked their best to attract men and be more beautiful than rival women by using different natural and (what we consider poisonous) materials for beauty treatments.

Roman women were anxious about their hygiene and looks. They spent hours to attain that ‘natural beauty’ look and it had to seem it was no effort, although some writers like Ovid mentioned that the treatments were horrifying to a man, so it was better if he avoided his wife’s boudoir while she was getting ready. He also mentioned that the ingredients women used for their body sometimes were too strong and led to hair loss or skin problems. Satirists wrote many plays about women’s finery and made fun of the painted matrons who used makeup to hide their real self and old age.


Romans associated white skin with nobility therefore women avoided sun and tanning. When she went out for a walk her body slave always carried a parasol to protect her mistress against sunshine. Nero’s wife liked to use donkey milk to bathe in, as she thought it would give her soft, white skin. Clean teeth were also important and Romans made a big effort to keep them clean.

Hairstyles were different under every emperor since their wives dictated fashion. People in the countryside learned about the new styles from new coins that featured the new empress. Blond hair was extremely popular in ancient Rome, even blond slaves from Germany were worth more than others, and women most commonly dyed their hair with saffron to reach the so wanted German blondness. They also made wigs and hair extensions out of the slaves’ blond hair. Wigs and hair extensions were popular since noble women thought about their hair as ‘jewellery’. Apuleius, a Roman writer, said a woman is not dressed if the hair is not properly fashioned.

Women were also keen on hair removal as a part of their hygiene routine. They removed the hair from legs, armpits, arm and the private parts using different methods such as plucking, rubbing with pumice or shaving with a bronze razor. They plucked their eyebrows with tweezers.


Makeup was also an important element of Roman beauty. For reaching the fashionable paleness they used white chalk and white lead. Since lead was extremely poisonous many patricians died from lead poisoning. For eyeshadow they used ash and saffron. For red lips and cheeks they used the sediment of red wine, ochre or cinnabar.



Visitors were interested in my handling table and the chance to learn more about it through handling objects from the collection. It made them stop and listen. Nevertheless they realised, there is not much new under the sun about women’s vanity and the love of fashion; maybe just the ingredients are less poisonous today.

Eszter, Leicester University MA placement

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