The history of theatre makeup is rich and varied. Humans have for thousands of years sought to express themselves through drama, and the accompanying makeup is a natural offshoot of this wonderful form of art.

Coming from the Greek word for “action”, drama and theatrical performance is indeed accompanied by the actions of unique characters and representations. The earliest documented drama is considered to be Aristotle’s Poetics written around 335 BCE, but the first evidence of dramatic makeup came later, around the 6th century BC.

Earliest History of Theatre Makeup

The earliest known use of theatrical makeup was by the Greek actor Thespis, who, in an effort to stand out from the Greek chorus, painted a toxic covering of white lead and mercuric sulphide to create a white and red face paint. It is debated whether these toxic substances continued to be used in Greek drama because linen masks representing comedy and tragedy (based on the muses Thalia and Melpomene), were used to convey expression. Although contemporary performance uses theatrical makeup to convey character, and facial expression and tone to convey emotion, these Greek masks continue to exist an instantly recognizable symbol for drama.

Use of Theatre Makeup Grows and Evolves

The use of makeup for theatre appears to have become more common in the 1500s and 1600s. In the 1500s, performers in medieval religious cycle dramas utilized face paint to depict certain characters. Performers in Elizabethan England used chalk and soot on their faces to depict characters and show expression. False makeup beards also appeared on the performers. Also during this time period, the Japanese Kabuki theatre emerged, and the performers wore elaborate face makeup.

Pigments and Powders

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The crude face paint used in these early decades evolved to more sophisticated methods with the emergence of the industrial age. With artificial lighting available for productions, it became necessary that performers have a more polished look. In addition to the previously mentioned compounds, before the mid 1800’s, substances used for makeup included white powder or chalk, burnt cork and paper, and pigment powders.

Greasepaint

Greasepaint was a unique invention that was a vast improvement for both stage and film. Developed by a German actor, the paint was achieved by combining lard with pigments. The result was a smoother and more versatile application. Ready-made grease paint was later produced for retail sales. More items, such as lipsticks, liquid liners, waxes, and makeup sticks were introduced as the 1900s approached.

Pancake Makeup

Another big innovation in stage makeup emerged in 1914 when the icon Max Factor developed pancake makeup, which was a water based makeup that provides thick, matte coverage. This innovation has carried on through today, although formulas have continued to evolve.

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