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WCMA Blog

Cosmetics & Fashion in the Ancient Collection

A couple of summers ago, our Williams student intern Chelsea Church ’12 helped me move artwork as part of our IMLS funded ancient art digitization project.  She got very excited about many of the fashion accessory items, especially the ancient Greek gold jewelry. She got so excited in fact, that she ran up to the museum’s PR department so that she could show her friend, who was also working as an intern, just how beautiful these pieces were. As we were working with these items we came up with ideas for outfits and hair styles that would complement them. I think it is important to remember that some objects in the museum’s collection were meant to be functional. I wrote more about this topic using the example of vases in my very first WCMA blog post.  In fact, there are many objects in the collection that individuals used in far away locations and time periods for the very same purpose as we do today—to enhance their perceived physical beauty.

To start with, here is an example of an Egyptian kohl jar (of which the museum has several), which was used for applying eyeliner.

The use of tweezers can be important if one cares about the appearance of their eyebrows. This example is bronze from Macedonia, 1000 BC-1 AD.

The museum also has a Greek makeup cup from 500-400 BC made out of terracotta.

After the makeup is applied and eyebrows are tamed, some people might think that perfume or ointment is a good idea. We have several examples of unguentaria from the Late Roman Imperial Period that seem to have been used for this purpose. This particular example, made out of free-blown greenish blue glass, has some unanalyzed matter compacted inside the tubes, which seems to be helping the object maintain its shape.

Next up, some individuals might look for some fashion accessories. This Near Eastern glass bracelet is very beautiful.

Here is a carnelian Egyptian hair ring. Also, check out some Egyptian necklaces featured in my Egyptian Beadwork post.

Earrings may be a good idea. This example, made out of gold, is Greek from 300-200 BC:

In some way, all of these objects indicate that over thousands of years there is at least one aspect of human nature that has not changed very much, and that is the desire to improve one’s appearance. Now, we can get style inspiration from the elaborate hairstyle of the Flavian Portrait Head of a Woman, which is Roman from ca. 88 AD  and currently on view in the show Teaching with Art: Life and Death in Ancient Rome. You can search our collection database using keywords in the Quick Search box if you want to find more cosmetic or fashion related objects.

One Response to Cosmetics & Fashion in the Ancient Collection

  1. M. Vorce says:

    It was fascinating to view the ancient personal items used by women in the same way we still use them today. It really bridges the gap of time and ties us directly to a day in the life of an individual in early Greece or Macedonia. I certainly had a “Wow” moment.