Makeup isn’t suddenly genderless. It always has been.

Source: Getty Images/CoverGirl

When James Charles was named the newest face of CoverGirl, many people said it was groundbreaking.

He would be the world's first "CoverBoy," for a brand that had featured only women in its campaigns over the course of its 50-year history. He would also be one of the few men who'd appear in makeup ads and commercials after launching a successful career as a makeup blogger while he's still just a teenager. 

Although a few makeup brands are slowly starting to include men, and men are building their own communities within makeup blogging, the scope and promotion of this new campaign stands as the most obvious progress to date. 

James Charles for CoverGirl
Source: 
James Charles/Instagram

Maybe because of him, boys and gender nonconforming people who want to wear makeup will know it's OK as they walk alongside their mothers in the makeup aisles of Target or Walmart. Maybe because of him, they won't be as afraid or clueless approaching makeup for the first time. Maybe because of him, the stigma against men and gender nonconforming people wearing makeup will begin to lift. 

But the thing that many may have overlooked with the announcement of Charles' role is that men wearing makeup is not new.

In fact, as with many things our society has deemed solely feminine, like wearing high heels or caring about personal grooming, men thousands of years ago actually took part. Even in the past fifty years, there have been men who embrace makeup, from actors like Johnny Depp to drag queens like RuPaul.

So in addition to Charles making history, his public affection for makeup is also a nod to the past. 

A painting dating back to Ancient Egypt
Source: 
Wikimedia

A long time coming: Makeup was documented in ancient Egypt. We see examples of this on many artifacts from the time, with both men and women wearing copious amounts of makeup, with particular attention paid to expressive eyeliner. 

According to History.com, people in ancient Egypt, a civilization that's known to have started around 3,000 B.C., thought wearing makeup gave them protection from the gods Horus and Ra. Kohl eyeliner, which they made from grinding minerals like malachite and galena, served as much of a practical purpose as a spiritual one — some believed it warded of flies, infection and the harsh rays of the sun. Turns out, they weren't exactly wrong about that, with research proving that their eyeliner mixture actually had the ability to prevent eye infections. 

One of the men who was most famously a fan of this exaggerated eyeliner look was King Tutankhamen, who was regularly depicted wearing the black or green eyeliner, especially before large dinners and gatherings as a sign of power.

A bust of young King Tut, found in his tomb, (L) and a painting depicting Tut (R)
Source: 
Wikimedia

And if you consider nail polish to be makeup like we do, then men have actually been wearing it since 3,200 B.C., with men wearing nail polish to signify class in Babylonia during this time. Men in China and and Egypt also continued this practice as well, using colors to signify a kind of social hierarchy. Beyond Egypt, men in ancient Rome were also known to dabble in makeup, often using powder and rouge and nail polish to add a bit of flair. 

How did men embracing makeup fade away? Well, history here is spotty but we do know that during Queen Elizabeth I's rule in England, which lasted from 1558 until her death in 1603, makeup wasn't for one gender in particular. Both men and women cared about their own vanity, and the look of the moment was all about having a very, very white face. In order to achieve this look, unfortunately, people started slathering something known as Venetian ceruse on their faces, which is made from mixing vinegar with lead. 

Queen Elizabeth I as depicted in a 17th century painting
Source: 
Wikimedia

And if you know anything about people's affinity for lead in anything at this time, you'll know that lead equaled death. Although the reasons behind Queen Elizabeth I's death are murky, there is a belief that the lead mixture she used on her skin and lips was directly responsible. So yeah, the most popular makeup trend at that time actually killed people. 

After Queen Elizabeth I's rule, makeup fell out of favor partly because it was so dangerous and literally toxic to wear. Then came Queen Victoria, who ruled during the late 19th century, who deemed wearing excessive makeup as impolite, associating it with and shaming sex workers. So men (as well as women) backed off a bit longer until the makeup industry modernized, and by "modernized," we mean removed all the lead in the late 19th and early 20th century. 

However, when it did come back in public favor in the early 20th century, makeup advertising was entirely focused on women, not men. So really, advertising is the reason why makeup has turned into an entirely gendered practice, creating a culture in which only women were targeted as makeup wearers, leaving men and everyone else out. 

According to a number of sources, this period of time is when men who did wear makeup started getting associated with a certain type of effeminacy and, in some cases, homosexuality. A stigma began, many years ago, that actually still lives on today. 

David Bowie in 1973 and Boy George in 1984
Source: 
Getty Images

Of course, there have been the outliers. Glam rockers, the rebels, the femmes and queer folk have long attempted to normalize the idea of people who identify as men wearing makeup. 

Think David Bowie in the '70s and Boy George in the '80s and every single member of KISS too. The thing is that those men were members of various countercultures that existed as safe spaces for more free expression by artists and performers, from glam rock to punk. By being associated with these cultures, you avoided being labeled by society because of how you decided to express yourself.

They weren't mainstream. But you know what is mainstream? CoverGirl. 

Now, not only are James Charles and male makeup aficionados like him opening the doors of possibility for men who aspire to wear or even just admire makeup, but Charles is specifically doing his best to normalize it for the men who are more likely find themselves walking through the aisles at Walmart than flipping through the pages of Vogue

Though it's unfortunate that it's taken hundreds of years for our society to go back to practices that were acceptable in 3,000 B.C., it's progress nonetheless. 

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Rachel Lubitz

Rachel is a senior Style writer at Mic. She previously worked for The Washington Post's Style section for more than three years. Feel free to contact her at rachel@mic.com.

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