10 Fashion and Beauty Items That Are Older Than You Think

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Master of the Blue Jeans, Beggar Boy with a Piece of Pie

1. Blue jeans

Maybe you think blue jeans started in the 1950s, with too-cool-for-school rebels like James Dean. Or you may have heard that they began in the 1850s, when Levi Strauss developed durable pants for miners following the discovery of gold in California. Mr. Strauss did help clothe the miner-forty-niners and make Levi’s synonymous with jeans, but the hardwearing trousers go back much further. Around 2004, a Parisian art dealer and a Viennese curator independently chanced upon the work of an anonymous-17th century northern Italian painter. He (or she?) depicted working class people wearing an indigo blue cloth, which was often ripped, revealing white threads. In The Barber Shop, a shaft of light penetrates the darkness to reveal the classic blue-jean indigo of the customer’s pant leg. Curator Gerlinde Gruber dubbed the artist “Master of the Blue Jeans.”

2. Bikini

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When French mechanical engineer Louis Réard introduced a revealing two-piece women’s swimsuit on July 5, 1946, he called it the “bikini”—after the atomic bomb that rocked the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific a few days earlier in peacetime nuclear tests initiated by the U.S. But navel-baring two-piece athletic wear for women is much older. Villa Romana del Casale is a Roman villa in central Sicily built early in the 4th century AD. The palatial complex holds a rich trove of mosaics, including a remarkable one on the floor of a room called “Chamber of the Ten Maidens,” or informally, “the bikini girls.” Young women show off their athletic skills, running, lifting weights, throwing discuses and playing ball. In their brief bandeau tops and bikini bottoms, they appear ready to hit the beach in Malibu.

3. High heels

Despite the pain and restricted gait high-heeled shoes inflict on their wearers, many women crave them for the long-legged look they impart. Early elevated shoes served a much less glamorous purpose. In medieval Europe both men and women would slip “pattens,” high wooden or metal clogs, over their thin-soled shoes when they ventured outdoors to protect themselves from mud and excrement. According to legend, women began wearing high heels after Catherine de Medici arrived in France in 1533 to marry Henry, the future king. The petite fourteen-year-old Florentine supposedly wore specially made high heels to increase her stature and status.

But Elizabeth Semmelhack of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto tells a different story. She traces the high heel back to 16th century Persia, where Shah Abbas I commanded the world’s largest cavalry. The horsemen’s spiky heels helped them grip the stirrups, just as cowboys’ raised heels do today. Persian style swept through the courts of Western Europe. High-heeled shoes gave aristocratic men the look of virile horsemen. In the 1630s, fashionable women adopted the masculine style with short hair, epaulettes, pipes and high heels, Semmelhack told the BBC.

4. Lipstick

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The first known lipstick was discovered in the Sumerian region of Ur, in what is now southern Iraq. It is believed to date from 3000 BC. Ancient Egyptians, including fashionable men, painted their lips. The most popular color was bluish black, followed by orange and reddish magenta. Women of ancient Greece reddened their lips too, with respectable wives showing more restraint than prostitutes. And in Rome, both sexes colored their lips.

5. Eyeliner

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If you’ve seen the bust of Nefertiti (ca. 1370 BC – ca. 1330 BC) or a movie depiction of Cleopatra (69 BC –30 BC), you know the ancient Egyptians wore eyeliner. And if you’ve checked out some Egyptian tomb paintings, you know that men and children also painted dark, dramatic outlines around their eyes. The inky cosmetic was kohl, a sulfide of antimony or lead.

6. Eye shadow

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What about the vivid blue-green eye shadow Elizabeth Taylor sported as Cleopatra? Next to hers, the eyelid shadings of movie Cleopatras Claudette Colbert (1934) and Angelina Jolie (2014) look downright tasteful. La Liz may have gotten it right: Ancient Egyptians used sparkling eye shadow made from ground malachite and beetle shells.

7. Nail polish

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Punk rockers weren’t the first to flaunt scary nail colors. According to one source, a solid gold manicure set containing nail coloring made of green and black kohl and dating from 3200 BC was uncovered in the royal tombs of Ur. Several sources claim, without further elaboration, that the Chinese invented nail polish about 3000 BC. The ancient Egyptians stained their nails with orange henna, a more appealing polish than the Romans’ mixture of sheep fat and blood.

8. Hair coloring

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Thousands of years before platinum blonde bombshells exploded onto the movie screens of the 1930s, both men and women colored their hair to cover gray. Plant products such as chamomile, indigo, logwood, henna, and walnut hull extract, as well as fruits and flowers, made up the first dyes. The ancient Mesopotamians and Persians dyed their long hair. Greek gods were envisioned as blond and ancient Greeks lightened their hair with a mixture of potash water and yellow flowers. The hair lightener used by the Romans often made their hair fall out, so they made wigs from the fair hair of slaves brought from Gaul. Around the same time, Saxons were dyeing their hair blue with the extract from the leaves of a plant called woad.

9. Skin care

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Facial masks are nothing new. The ancient Egyptians used egg-white masks and smoothed and tightened their complexions with cucumber juice. The Romans prepared a pungent night cream, the ingredients of which included sweat extracted from sheep’s wool. Women in pre-Columbian Latin America moisturized their faces with avocado.

10. Tattoos

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Customizing one’s body with inked words and pictures may be a global trend now, but tattooing is far from new. Egyptian figurines dating from about 5,500 to 6,000 years ago show women with tattooed thighs. But until the 1990s the earliest examples of tattoos found on actual bodies were on several mummified women about 4,000 years old. In 1991, the frozen body known as the Iceman was discovered on the Italian-Austrian border. Carbon dating showed the tattooed body to be about 5,200 years old.

So, if you think you’re fashion-forward, look over your shoulder. The ancient Egyptians may have had your look first.

Additional Sources: “Mystery of Denim’s Origins Solved by Art,” Discovery.com;  Kremer, “Why Did Men Stop Wearing High Heels?,” BBC News Magazine; Lineberry, “Tattoos: The Ancient and Myterious History,” Smithsonian.com; Nails Magazine; Lipstick: A Celebration of the World’s Favorite Cosmetic; various articles in Daily Life through History; Chemical Composition of Everyday Products; “Villa Romana del Casale,” Wikipedia.

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July 9, 2014 - 3:30pm
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