10 Ways Beauty Gave History a Makeover

(Image credit: Alex Eben Meyer)

Want to topple a politician or inspire a nation? We’ve got (beauty) tips for you.

1. IT SUPPLIED RED-BLOODED TROOPS WITH THE MAKEUP TO WIN WORLD WAR II.

In the early 1940s, a government procurement officer approached Charles Revson, the founder of makeup company Revlon, with a question: What did he know about powder? Revson’s reply: “Everything.” Revson meant face powder. The officer meant gunpowder. Despite the mix-up, Revson agreed to help produce hand grenades in addition to the first-aid kits he’d already been manufacturing. Other icons pitched in too: Max Factor created camouflage makeup, and Helena Rubinstein supplied kits with sunburn cream and face wash.

2. IT KEPT WARTIME SPIRITS HIGH.

At the height of World War II, Winston Churchill sat down with an unexpected crop of advisors: women’s magazine editors. He had a specific agenda. Though material supplies were limited, Churchill—an impeccable dresser—understood that feeling stylish was integral to buoying national morale. To keep spirits up, officials supplied high-profile female munitions workers with enough face powder to maintain appearances. But when they saw that magazines were urging readers to stretch cosmetics during wartime using tricks like melting lipstick ends and mixing them with almond oil, they realized a new ally was at hand. The government’s textile conservation program—the Utility Clothing Scheme—was a hard sell. It mandated that designers ration materials by using fewer pleats and seams and shunning ornamentation. Churchill asked the magazine editors to frame the changes as stylish and patriotic. Whatever misgivings they might have had, they obliged. Dressing dowdily in the name of patriotism cemented a marriage between personal style and national pride.

3. IT PUT DIVINITY AT MUSLIM WOMEN'S FINGERTIPS.

Shabana Haxton wanted to wear nail polish. Like all practicing Muslims, the California nurse couldn’t wear it regularly: The Koran states that, before prayer, worshippers must run water over the entirety of their hands, a ritual called wudu. But nail polish prevents water from reaching the nail. Then Haxton discovered a loophole. In 2009, Polish chemist Wojciech Inglot had invented a polish using the polymers found in breathable contact lenses. It allowed air and water to reach the nail, thus protecting against infection. Haxton performed an experiment, dabbing regular enamel and Inglot’s formula onto a coffee filter, letting the swabs dry, then applying water over both of them. Water seeped through Inglot’s formula! Haxton showed her imam, who blogged about the experiment in 2012. Sales of Inglot’s formula skyrocketed, and today the nail polish is certified halal.

4. IT HELPED A MAN DRESS FOR THE MOON.

Engineer Lenny Sheperd knew that his employer, Playtex, made the best bras in the business. Back in 1962, NASA noticed. Not only did the company manufacture high-quality bras and girdles, they’d also created the first household latex glove, sold to prevent chapped, reddened hands while dishwashing. So the aerospace engineers offered Playtex a contract for the space suit, but stipulated they partner with Hamilton Standard, an aircraft developer. The partnership stifled Playtex’s innovation, and they lost the contract. When NASA opened up bidding on the space suit three years later, Playtex convinced the aerospace experts to give them a second chance. Enter Sheperd. In order to win the bid, Sheperd knew his team needed to not only “borrow” back their original blueprints, they’d also need to work around the clock to advance the suit’s design. He even had to pick the lock of his own office to let his team work in 24-hour shifts. The efforts were successful: When Neil Armstrong took that giant leap for mankind, he took it in Playtex.

5. IT PUSHED THE PHARAOHS TO ADVANCE CHEMISTRY.

Egyptians famously rimmed their eyes with black makeup. The makeover wasn’t just for humans—cows led into ritual slaughter also got the face paint, as shown in art from 2500 BCE. Manuscripts from the era claimed that the eyeliner protected wearers from eye infections, but modern-day scientists were skeptical. After all, the most common formula contained lead. But in 2009, a team of chemists led by a researcher from the University of Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris analyzed samples scraped from tombs and found the ancients were onto something. Lead ions—while still toxic in other ways—also helped produce nitric oxide, a free radical that killed bacteria before they could infect the eyes. Further, some of the compounds in the eyeliner aren’t native to Egypt, leading researchers to believe that the makeup wasn’t just used because it was on hand—it was deliberately manufactured. The study’s authors dubbed the eyeliner the first large-scale chemical manufacturing process known to us—an ancient predecessor to Big Pharma.

6. IT ROCKED THE COURT OF LOUIS XIV.

If you were a wealthy woman having husband trouble in 17th-century France, you might have turned to society’s secret weapon, a sorceress known as La Voisin. She’d sell you a perfume, a complexion salve, or a bust-enhancing cream. She might even cook up an aphrodisiac. But for really troublesome husbands, La Voisin would recommend an “inheritance powder”—that is, poison. The reputation of La Voisin, whose real name was Catherine Monvoisin, grew among the elite, including King Louis XIV’s favorite mistress, who was just one of many people poisoning rivals in the court. By the time authorities put “The Affair of the Poisons” to rest, at least 200 people were arrested, 36 were executed, and 23 were exiled, including a number of Louis’s courtiers. Proof that beauty can be deadly—or simply that soap operas have nothing on history books.

7. IT OUSTED A PRESIDENT FROM OFFICE.

When President Martin Van Buren asked Congress for $4675 for White House renovations, Whig congressman Charles Ogle spotted an opportunity. The president dressed well to paper over his modest background, but the habit had earned him a reputation as a dandy that Ogle was eager to exploit. And boy, did he. For three days, Ogle held the House floor, claiming the president had gilded mirrors “as big as a barn door” so he could gaze upon “his plain republican self.” Ogle saved his greatest contempt for Van Buren’s toiletries, accusing him of spending “hundreds of dollars in supplying his toilet with Double Extract of Queen Victoria.” He bolstered the image by describing Van Buren lazing about in the bath massaging his whiskers. The jabs implied that Van Buren was out of touch with the common man. Ogle’s needling didn’t go unnoticed: The Whigs handily won the 1840 election, with William H. Harrison carrying 234 electoral votes to Van Buren’s “plain republican” 60.

8. IT CHANGED THE ADVERTISING LANDSCAPE.

The shaving cream developed by Minnesota businessman Clinton Odell in the 1920s wasn’t doing well—until his son erected handpainted roadside signs. Spaced out in a series, the ads presented verses that families cruising by in their still-exotic automobiles could read, like: “If harmony / Is what /You crave / Then get / a tuba / Burma-Shave.” Odell’s wasn’t the first company to dabble in roadside advertising, but it proved the medium worked: Sales went from virtually nothing to $68,000 by the end of the campaign’s first year. It may have been too successful: Highways became cluttered as more companies turned to roadside advertising, prompting Lyndon Johnson to pass the 1965 Highway Beautification Act, which tightened ad regulations.

9. IT STOPPED ELECTROCUTIONS.

You know those “test” and “reset” buttons on your electrical outlets? They’re a safety feature called a ground-fault circuit interrupter, or GFCI, designed to reduce electrocutions. It interrupts supercharged currents—like when an appliance has been dropped in water. When the portable hair dryer became popular in the 1960s, people thought that as long as the appliance was powered off, it was safe around water. It wasn’t. Faced with dozens of deaths a year from wet dryers, the government mandated the GFCI in new American bathrooms in 1975. The tactic worked: Today, the number of annual dropped-dryer deaths is near zero.

10. IT HELPED WEAPONS VANISH INTO THIN HAIR.

It was September of 1180 in Kamakura, Japan, and Minamoto Yoritomo, the Genji clan’s commander, was prepping for battle. Weapons? Check. Troops? Check. Then he amazed his minions by tugging on his topknot and removing a tiny, good-luck statue he’d hidden in his hair since he was 3 years old. (He was afraid of ridicule should captors find it.) The art of hiding something in one’s hair came to be called z¯ohatsu no jutsu, and it wasn’t practiced just by military men. The wives of male samurais also trained in self-defense, and hairpins—designed to keep the hair in place—made for convenient weapons. Hiding the daggerlike pins in artful updos gave the ladies a leg up.


The article above by Autumn Whitefield-Madrano appeared in the May-June 2016 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

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