Introduction and brief history of Stage Makeup
Part I of II

By Alaine Haddon-Casey
B.App.Sci(SW) Curtin University
Diploma Makeup Design and Technology

We take for granted what we see on the television and in magazines, and often wonder why our makeup application doesn't look quite so good; what secrets do makeup artists hide in their tool kits? Why is it that when we try to conceal, highlight and shade we look like a muddy paint-by-numbers? Do our most glamorous actresses and supermodels really look that good - what do they look like with bare faces? And more importantly, we wonder if we can ever look that well finished and glamorous without the help of a personal makeup artist.

Many Middle Eastern dance enthusiasts come to the dance free of any previous theatrical or dance experience. For some, previous performances may have been limited to the blue eye shadow and pink lipstick applied by Mum for a ballet recital; for others, the sum total of their make up application experience revolves around day make up with the occasional adventurous foray into a darker application for evenings.

There is little doubt that day make up application, although challenging for some, is fairly basic. Handy hints and tips may be picked up from magazines or cosmetic salespeople in department stores and information is generally available to help keep your look up to date.

But performers know that the look and products that suit you during the day do not translate effectively onto the stage, where you are subject to different types of lighting. Nor do they necessarily hold well if you are performing for more than a few short minutes at a time. To put it simply, stage make up is designed to be seen from a distance, to photograph well and to stay put during a performance.

Performance, stage presence, costume and make up are all interrelated. As there is a history to the development of certain dance and costume styles, there is also history to make up design and product development. Sometimes it is helpful to know the origins to gain an understanding of contemporary practices.

In Middle Eastern dance, we look to our performance make up design from three perspectives, the theater, the effect of lighting and the origins of our particular form of dance.

Stage Makeup:

Performers have used make up in the theater for centuries, not only to look their best and to transform their appearance but also to ensure that they will be seen and recognised by the entire audience. How well a performer is seen depends upon the distance between him and the farthest spectator and the amount and type of available light.

In western society, the first recorded performer to use stage make up was Thespis, the first actor to step out of the chorus in Greek theater in the 6th century BC. Not one to be satisfied with being a mere blurry face in the chorus line, Thespis was determined to stand out. He paled his complexion with a toxic mixture of white lead, adding rouge with red cinnabar (mercuric sulphide).

Around about the 5th century AD many social and cultural refinements were lost to Western Culture. This was attributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. However, this had little impact on the social, tribal and ritual customs of the Middle East and we may thank the early Crusaders for bringing makeup from the Middle East to Europe during the Middle Ages. The use of white lead and red cinnabar continued through to the 18th century until newly invented forms of lighting in theaters made traditional stage make up look too obvious and garish.


The introduction of limelight in 1816, of gaslight in 1817, and of arc lights in 1846 created the necessity for a more subtle use of cosmetics on the stage. Unfortunately Max Factor was still a twinkle in an ancestor's eye, so performers had to be creative with common household and trade materials. The performer's make up kit contained white chalk (often scraped from whitewashed walls), carpenters' blue chalk, papers impregnated with red coloring or red brick dust, and India ink.

In the late 1890's, greasepaint made its first appearance, developed originally from a mixture of zinc white, yellow ochre, vermillion, and lard!

After World War II stage design and lighting changed and auditorium style theaters became common. The audience was arranged on all sides, bringing the performer closer to the spectator, making close scrutiny possible. Badly applied and heavy make up looked obvious. When given a choice between their traditional practices and the new water-soluble make up designed for the motion picture industry, performers stopped scraping walls and left the lard in the cupboard. Max Factor was king!

Along with the development of safer and more natural makeup products came the development of lighting technology and in particular, the use of color gels placed over stage lights to create a mood, fluorescent light to mimic day light and halogen lights for greater illumination.

Now the performer wasn't just applying makeup to make their features more visible to the audience, but they had to take into account how the type and color of the lighting would affect the color of their costume and makeup.