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MAKEUP, A HISTORY | Queen Cleopatra

Updated: May 28, 2023

Is there anything more scintillating than deep diving a certain time period to unearth what products they were using at the time, how they made cosmetics, and what the trends were? Just me? Fine. But I find it absolutely fascinating! Two of the most brilliant makeup historians that I know and trust are the famed Lisa Eldridge and Erin Parsons, a collector of Vintage makeup and talented MUA. I could watch them speak on the history of cosmetics and mix colors and pigments of that time period on repeat. I will be citing both of them in the first of this series where we will discuss the one and only, Queen Cleopatra.

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Queen Cleopatra

We’re going to take a look at what they actually would have used in Cleopatra’s time versus how she's been portrayed in entertainment throughout the years up to today.

We all know that black charcoal was used as liner during this time period, partly to protect their eyes from the sun and diseases, but also because cosmetics were readily available and worn from the very rich to the very poor. Women at this time had a large amount of freedom and could own land and rule kingdoms. There is a direct correlation between women’s freedoms to paint their faces and live equally in Egyptian times compared to other periods in history in which women were oppressed and lacked autonomy and therefore makeup was reviled.

However, the blue eyeshadow that has become synonymous with all things Cleopatra is actually false and was seen first on Elizabeth Taylor in the 1960’s when she portrayed Queen Cleopatra. Blue eyeshadow was all the rage in the 60’s. So, it’s no wonder that blue eyeshadow was the mainstay of this particular makeup design. What no one could have predicted was how this makeup design would be accepted as historically accurate by the masses.

The main two pigments we know actually were used in Egyptian times, other than charcoal, were Red Ochre (the most popular) and Malachite (a green mineral). Red Ochre is the makeup we see on the infamous Nefertiti bust. So, the only two colors that Cleopatra might have actually worn was either Red Ochre (which is the most likely) as blush, lipstick and eyeshadow or Malachite as a green eyeshadow. To see these minerals and pigments made and applied, watch the incredible video by Erin Parsons in which she actually grinds up and applies the pigments to her face, keeping it as historically accurate as possible.

Most recently, the makeup design by Shamirah Sairally and Gale Shepherd for the docuseries drama, Queen Cleopatra, is a modern take on the ancient style of makeup we know that Cleopatra wore. There is the iconic black kohl liner present throughout the show and as the show progresses and her power grows, so does her makeup.

Throughout the series, we see a red eyeshadow, a blue metallic graphic eye, and a silver & gold metallic moment. Finally, at her penultimate status as Queen, she wears a vibrant blue eyeshadow (harkening back to Taylor's infamous makeup) with a chunky gold glitter placed up to the brow.

First, the elephant in the room. Despite its presentational format, this show is not trying to be historically accurate with its makeup. Do I care? A little. Egyptian makeup was already so pigment-laden and fashion-forward that (in my opinion) you don’t need modern products like glitter. Is it still a beautiful makeup design, however? Yes, yes it is. Because of the controversy surrounding the show, there is not much to find regarding the makeup design; but, I think we can all agree that the makeup, while not historically accurate, is beautifully and masterfully done.

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To see me recreate a modern monochromatic look inspired by colors that might have been worn during that time period, check my Instagram and let me know your thoughts on the makeup for this show!

Pro Tips

If you’re a novice at creating graphic liners, remember that a cotton bud soaked in makeup remover is your best friend. Get the general shape you want, top with a bit of shadow to smooth out the lines and then get your lines razor sharp with the cotton bud used as an eraser.

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