This section covers the use of makeup to portray female characters in pre-twentieth century settings – twentieth-century looks can be seen in the look-alike section. I have freely mixed ‘real’ historical persons and fictional characters: all films are works of the imagination.
The look of each century will be illustrated primarily through characters who, while not necessarily typical in their appearance (and certainly not typical of ordinary people), have grabbed the attention of movie-makers: eg Elizabeth I and Catherine de Medici in the sixteenth century, Marie Antonette in the eighteenth century. Much history used to be written as the great deeds of great men and movies with historical settings remain stuck in the same rut with ordinary people appearing all-too-often only as spear carriers, background setting or local colour costumed straight out of The Art Of Coarse Acting: movies like Girl With a Pearl Earring are all too infrequent
It is clear that filmmakers have often used as much artistic licence in the look of the past as they have in plotting historical movies. Just as histories often tell us more about the time when they were written than about the period they supposedly documented, so period makeups often say more about the makeup of the 1930s than of Ancient Egypt: you can see Claudette Colbert wearing her Cleopatra hairstyle in other movies she made that year that had a contemporary setting.
Historians seem to get awfully hot under their collars about ‘inaccuracies’ and ‘distortions’ in historical movies which seems really strange – I mean when did you last hear a physicist complaining that transmats between London and New York are scientifically impossible. Either historians, as a profession, have a sense of humour malfunction or they are secretly aware, but unwilling to admit, that (at least) at the level of the text all history is just stories about the past.
For reference on period looks from ancient Egypt to the near-contemporary I recommend Richard Corson’s books: Fashions in Makeup: From Ancient to Modern Times and Fashions in Hair: The First Five Thousand Years. They are pretty comprehensive in covering the history of makeup and hairstyles in Europe (and latterly North America) but limited in their coverage of other traditions.
I am well aware that this section is currently extremely Eurocentric and I hope gradually to correct this.