Earlier this month, Hong Kong was gripped by a controversy involving Lancôme, after the French beauty brand scrapped a concert by prodemocracy Canto-pop star Denise Ho Wan-sze. Social media got into a tizzy as outraged Hongkongers flushed their Lancôme products down the toilet and rallied for a boycott of every brand owned by its parent company, L’Oréal.
In contrast to today’s conglomerates, the cosmetics business in pre-industrial China was very much a cottage industry, with “artisanal” products “hand-crafted” from ingredients “harvested from nature”, buzzwords that would set modern tills ringing.
However, a closer look at the constituents of traditional powders, lotions and unguents reveals some less swoon-worthy ingredients, such as animal fat, bovine bone marrow, pig’s pancreas and lead, a harmful metal that gave the illusion of a fair complexion.
Make-up trends differed across periods and many would be considered comical, even ugly, by contemporary standards: eyebrows painted into little puffs or moth wings, bold uni-brows, bright yellow foreheads, decorative scraps of paper stuck to the forehead and cheeks, and lips painted to look smaller. While most of the women, and sometimes men, who wore make-up regularly were members of the ruling and leisured classes, actors and sex workers – deemed the lowest of the low – did so as well.