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How Makeup as We Know It Began On-Screen

By Renée Batchelor

Top PhotoA vintage advertisement for Max Factor lipstick featured a quote from actress Lana Turner.

Painting one’s face is an act that dates back to as far as 200 B.C., where ancient Greek women applied a mix of a white lead powder and chalk to lighten their skin. But it was in the theatre that makeup really saw its birth out of necessity — as powerful lighting called for makeup to restore colour to washed-out complexions and to define the facial features of performers while they were on stage.

It wasn’t until actor Carl Baudin of the Leipziger Stadt theatre in Germany created a greasepaint made out of zinc white, ochre and vermillion mixed in lard that the first commercial “foundation” was created. The greasepaint was used to help performers conceal the joint between their wigs and their foreheads, and proved so popular that Baudin sold it — creating what was essentially the world’s first theatrical makeup. Greasepaint continued to be produced and sold in a stick form for the next half century or so.

With the birth of the Hollywood film industry in the early 20th century, the demand for makeup that had a thinner texture and better colour match to the actors’ skin on camera, led to the creation of Max Factor’s Pan-Cake. This too became commercially available in 1914, and proved to be popular beyond the set of a movie. The product sold so well that by 1940, it was estimated that one in three American women wore Pan-Cake makeup. Factor also created special shades for Hollywood actors — among them Platinum for Jean Harlow, Light Egyptian for Lena Horne and even special makeup for silent film star Rudolph Valentino to “mask” his tanned complexion on screen. While it was still a much more edited number of shades compared to the 50+ colours that modern cosmetics brands like Fenty Beauty carry, this customisation was perhaps the first attempts at skin colour inclusivity. Max Factor would continue linking its brand to Hollywood both with its branding as Max Factor Hollywood, and by featuring celebrities in its advertisements.

As camera technology evolved, makeup had to adapt along with it. The invention of high definition (HD) cameras in the ’90s led to the creation of HD makeup from brands like Make Up For Ever — that promised to be seamless and undetectable even under the lens’s unforgiving gaze, thanks to smart adaptive pigments that could adjust to the complexion.

More recently, in 2005, another makeup staple was born out of necessity. The Beautyblender is an egg-shaped sponge that allows makeup to be blended precisely and evenly. Its creator, Rea Ann Silva, was a television makeup artist. “I was working on the makeup set for the show ‘Girlfriends’ which was shot in HD, so I needed something that made the actors and actresses look flawless on camera,” she says. Silva experimented with wetting sponges and cutting them into different shapes, and when she finally settled on the egg shape which has a pointed tip that is perfect tackling the small corners of the face, it proved so popular that people began stealing them from her on set. Eventually, these inventions transcended their initial use in theatre and film to become a part of the makeup lexicon.