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Vanity or Necessity: Beauty in Ancient Egypt

It may be easy for us to project our modern idea of beauty onto the ancient Egyptians. But given that their culture was so fundamentally different from our own and that their everyday customs were imbued with powerful religious symbolism completely alien to modern sensibilities, we must not act so fast. When it comes to appearances, we must ask, were the ancient Egyptians just as vain as we are or did their beauty practices go further than just a superficial desire to look good? Trying to understand ancient an civilization’s customs can be difficult for a modern viewer. One needs to consider their material culture along with modern scientific research. Luckily the ancient Egyptians have left a multitude of objects relating to beauty, so we can start to build an image of how the ancient Egyptians viewed themselves and how they’d like us to see them.

Ancient Egyptian palettes were used to grind up minerals such as “kohl” to create an eye makeup, which was used much like modern day mascara on the lashes and above the eye to contour and darken the lids. This makeup was stored in small calcite containers, now known as “kohl” jars, and applied with small applicators. Other makeup items such as ungents and perfumes were stored in similar vessels that can vary in size, but were also contained in glass ungentariums. This preoccupation with beauty was not only reserved for the living but also carried over into the afterlife as dramatic eye makeup can be seen on cartonnage mummy masks and wooden sarcophagi.

However, beyond purely aesthetics, a duality between function and vanity can be seen in their “kohl” eye makeup. Scientific research shows that the toxic, lead-based mineral that formed the base of the “kohl” had anti-bacterial properties when mixed with moisture from the skin. Archaeologists also believe that applying “kohl” above the eyes protected from sun damage and reduced glare, which is may be why both sexes are depicted wearing the makeup. Beauty for practical purposes can not only be seen on their faces but also on their heads. Wearing wigs was common in ancient Egypt and it would have helped reduce the chances of getting lice in the dry arid climate.

This is only the tip of a massive iceberg. The ancient Egyptians were the first to invent and/or seriously impact almost every corner of what we would call nowadays the “lifestyle” market… everything from fashion and fragrance to beauty, skin care, and make up. For a more formal introduction and further reading on this fascinating subject we would highly suggest Lise Manniche’s insightful account: “Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy, and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt.” Of course we will never know for sure whether or not the Ancient Egyptian’s employed their vast range of beauty implements and adornments purely for the sake of aesthetics or on the basis of real practical needs… But such speculation is just part of what makes their timeless beauty paraphernalia so wonderful today. We encourage you to engage with this fascinating and mysterious subject through a handful of items from the collection below.

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