Full disclosure, I am not an expert in regards to Ancient Roman cosmetics, or modern cosmetics for that matter. I thought it best to put that out on the table right away. However, it is something I am trying to master, which is usually when everything goes horribly wrong.

So, here is what I have learned about getting the Roman women’s look. Some is modern, some is based in antiquity, and some I have altered for safety purposes. Now let’s get down to business.

A light complexion was desired in Rome. It should that you didn’t have to work outdoors. This actually persisted for quite a long time and is still present in some cultures today, at lease according to my Japanese friends. And, unfortunately, some of the context has changed from a pale complexion as a sign of affluence to a pale collection to mimic the light skin of the Northern European look. The dominant and most influential of groups that hold sway over the safety and progress of groups that do not look like that. But, I regress.

In Rome there are several recipes for beauty, youth, and lightening the skin. Some unbelievable and some very toxic. However, there are enough, more educated than me, people out there that have found alternatives.


ALWAYS DO A SKIN TEST BEFORE TRYING SOMETHING NEW. THIS IS WHAT WORKS FOR ME. IT MIGHT NOT BE WHAT WORKS FOR YOU.


Here’s what I use:

Yellow Ocre: I use this primarily as an eyeshadow, saffron soaked in oil will also work but personally I love the yellow eyeshadow. Which came as a surprise to me.

Applications: I use an eye brush applicator designed for powder eyeshadow. It’s a little bushy but causes a nice blending look and may be similar to some sort of wool or hair that was used in period. Ocre, all kinds, stays where you put it, so I recommend starting in the middle of your eyelid above the lash and working out and then in to achieve the desired affect. If you are going for more of the meretrix look you may want to go heavy with it, otherwise a light application will do.

Red Ochre: I use this as a lip stain. It’s a rusty red shade and I’ve been told it’s quite flattering.

Application: I mix red ochre with a few drops of rosewater to create a watery but not quite paste solution. I use a lipstick brush to apply it and give it a few minutes to dry and apply more if desired. Remember, ochre stays where you put it so be cautious in your application.

Alkanet Root Powder: I have experimented with this powder as a lip stain, but I have had little success in achieving the desired results. More experimentation is required.

White Lead-Free Face Powder: The Romans and many cultures after that used lead to achieve a soft opalescence lighting effect to their skin. Now, we don’t want clown white, just lighter. There are recipes out on the web or you could use a light foundation but I’ve been using the white face powder from Sally Pointer. The trick I’ve learned about all these powders is that they don’t function or move like modern cosmetics.

Application: I tried mixing it with various things to create a paste. I tried applying it with a sponge mixing after mixing it with rosewater… I was not getting the look I was after. There are some recommendations on how to make it into a cream and apply it but I’ve actually, at least for now, prefer to use modern brushes. Why? Well because: 1. It’s easier, 2. I like the result, and 3. SCA events start way too early in the day and my sleep deprived ass is not going to spend over an hour getting ready. So, I use a powder foundation brush, put a light amount of the white powder in my hand, swirl it around and start to cover my entire face, repeating over areas as needed. This seems to work pretty well, is fairly efficient, and produces the desired results.

Eyebrows: If you look at portraits, frescos, and especially the Fayum Mummy Portraits along with reading about beauty treatments, kohl or lampblack come up. You can find and make these things to create thick dark brows, and for that matter eyeliner. However, I’m very sensitive about my eyes and with my allergies I’ve delved very little into eyeliner. For my brows I actually went with a modern product, a brow pomade (brown #4 which is actually black) by Addictive Cosmetics. As I have an allergy to parabens and it seems like everything else under the sun, including the sun, I’m extra weary. I’ve had no problems with any of their products (they didn’t pay me to say that).

Application: I use a small eyebrow brush to shape, fill out, and extend my eyebrows. Sometimes I go a little overboard but that was the style. So, hey, why not.

Blush: I don’t use it. But, it was the style. Alkanet and red ochre can be used but experiment with what works for you. And don’t go overboard.

Routine:

  1. Wash and exfoliate your face and lips
  2. Apply a sunscreen moisturizer (I use CereVe AM)
  3. Wait until your skin has absorbed it all or you’ll run into paste-y trouble
  4. Put some of your whiting foundation in your hand, swirl your brush and apply starting at the forehead, down the middle, the cheeks and neck, and basically the whole face. Just everywhere. And then try to even it out. I have naturally rosy cheeks so I go a little heavier there (it also gives me the appearance of blush, so, win!). You may want to keep your eyes closed in between applications. Just saying.
  5. I then do my brows, which is where everything usually goes horribly wrong. Starting at the inside I work outwards filling in lightly as I go and finishing with a thin line at the end. Then I work out from the center. You’ll notice that you might have crooked eyes or an eyebrow that is higher than the other (nobody’s face is symmetrical), start to fill in to make them appear more even. This can get out of hand quickly and you’ll end up with more brow than face, so practice and go slowly. If you are blessed with thick dark brows then a little shaping might work or you could leave them alone.
  6. Next I do my eyes. I start by putting yellow ochre in the cap of my container and, as stated above, start applying in the middle of my eyelid and work my way out to a little past the corner of my eye. And I have hooded lids so this won’t show up unless I go a little crazy with it. Then I work towards the corner where there ends up being a weird smudge. I then add to the crease and then with a little powder blend upwards. Then I go back trying to fix it all and eventually end up somewhat satisfied. Remember, once you place it, it doesn’t move.
  7. Then the lips, after mixing the powder with a few drops of rosewater I apply a few layers, letting them dry in between. This is usually the only thing that goes right on the first try. P.S. This doesn’t have much staying power. There are other alternatives that someday I will play with.
  8. Then I move onto my hair which, as was the style, I part in the middle, pull back, pull the hair in front out a bit to give it more of that wavy curly look (which is natural to all my hair except for that part), pull some hairs out – not completely – (i.e. Venus locks) to hang down the front, and then make a bun at the nap of my neck. There are many other things you can do depending on you time period. I’m 43 CE and this was a style used. I do want to get a braided chignon for over my bun eventually. As you’ll recall my objection to events starting early.
  9. Add your garments, which ever one’s are appropriate for your persons. I wear a long gap sleeved tunica and when it’s cold I wear a palla and maybe an under tunica. As my persona is not married, nor would it be appropriate, I do not wear the stola. And remember, they LOVED color. They also did not match colors like we do today so go crazy. Purple is to be used sparingly though depending on your time period.

Finished and looking fabulous… and slightly exhausted.


Note: No, I do not wear a toga. After looking into it, I have come to the conclusion (although that could be changed) that the toga was likely not worn, or at least not always, by sex workers. Yes, later years show a tendency of wearing “male garb” to attract attention so it’s possible. However, to avoid harassment and general inconvenience, I find it hard to believe that it would have been common practice. What’s a law does not always a practice make. I imagine that a well placed bribe if caught would be enough to go about your day, especially if you were not on the street. Also, there are many references to sex workers wearing see through garments and other things. However, that is for another post.


Other Resources:

EXPLORING THE OBSCURE: https://kasiagromek.com

Supplies Referenced:

Sally Pointer: cosmetic grade pigments & white lead substitute

Addictive Cosmetics: Eyebrow Pomade #4.