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The History of Blush

Colorful cheeks are found on women all over the world—from bright pink circles on a little flower girl in California to thin red streaks on a model strutting down the runway in Paris. Blush, also known as rouge, is a common beauty product applied to the cheeks of women today. But did you know that blush has actually been around for thousands of years?

Historians disagree about why red or pink cheeks first came into fashion, but some speculate that it emulates a healthy “glow” which would be desirable when people are choosing sexual partners or partners for marriage. Although we don’t know the whole story behind why rouge was first used, we do know the earliest recorded use of the product.

The earliest recorded use of rouge was in Ancient Egypt, where make up was worn by men, women, and children. In addition to heavy black liners worn around the eyes, rouge would be applied to the cheeks and lips to give them an eye-popping red color. Even men would wear rouge! Most rouge at the time was often a thick paste, similar in consistency to lipstick today. One popular recipe was made from strawberries, and other recipes called for the use of certain red fruit and vegetable juices. Some ancient rouge was powdered, such as one surviving recipe that primarily consisted of finely crushed red ochre powder. Rouge was also worn in other countries during this same time period, and it was most popular in Greece and throughout Europe. Like most beauty products, rouge was typically worn by the wealthy elite who could afford the raw materials required to make rouge. In a tactic that would later be employed during make-up and rouge bans, men and women who could not afford the expensive rouge would simply pinch their cheeks to achieve a red color.

The popularity of rouge continued until the rise of Christianity and more strict dress codes diminished the popularity of artificial cosmetics. However, many men and women still desired to appear pale with bright, “robust” cheeks, and used covert methods to wear products that could not be condemned by the church. One beauty tactic employed by women in the Middle Ages was to bleed themselves regularly to retain pale skin, and to swipe a fine mixture of water and strawberries over their cheeks to achieve a shaded red color.

It was not until the 1600s that heavier make-up and thus heavier rouge was once again accepted by the churches and the populace. Make-up in the 1600s often consisted of white pastes and paints to give the face a pale white look, while the rouge during this period was usually brown or earthy orange. More natural colors were favored, rather than red or pink, because they were considered to be the colors of common street women. Many recipes of rouge from this time consisted of vegetable juices and pastes mixed with dangerous chemicals like leads and poisons—talk about killer beauty!

The fondness for rouge continued during the 18th century, when the use of rouge reached its all time high in popularity and notoriety. During the 18th century, the popularity of ultra-pale skin continued, but the unpopularity of pink or red rouge faded away. Once again, bright pink and red rouge was the more popular choice for cheeks!. Rouge in the 18th century was typically a woman’s beauty product, however certain royal and aristocratic courts did approve of rouge on men when they were required to be wearing formal court attire. Unlike rouge in Ancient Egypt or the 1600s, rouge in the 18th century was not meant to appear natural—extremely bright, highly saturated circles were in fashion.

Rouge also held political significance in certain countries during the 1700s. In 18th century France, the use of rouge was legally restricted to the class of nobility. Someone found wearing rouge without holding a noble title could be fined for wearing it, and the use of rouge was even further restricted within the nobility itself! For example, at the palace of Versailles, only the queen or highest ranking woman at court could wear a specific amount and color of rouge. The rouge worn by French female aristocrats was so colorful and overpowering on their faces that many visiting nobles and ambassadors often wrote home with descriptions of the strange, doll-like French aristocrats. Marie Antoinette’s own brother teased her about her abundance of rouge on her cheeks—although to the French it was considered an honor, to her Austrian brother used to the simple court attire of Austria, it was silly and degrading.

However, the use of rouge plunged in popularity during the French Revolution, and by the mid 19th century, make-up itself had a somewhat bad reputation. It was considered common, low, and even promiscuous for women to wear make-up.  Many countries began to ban the use of make-up. However, many resourceful people recalled the earlier techniques of poor men and women and simply began pinching and pulling their cheeks to give them a red color.

By the 20th century, the taboo on make-up faded and rouge once again found itself on the cheeks of women all over the world. By this time, it was simply a female beauty product and men did not commonly wear it, outside of theater performances or games. The rouge of the 20th century came most often in powder form, though a liquid based rouge was also popular. Because of the advancements in science, harmful products were no longer used in the production of rouge, and it was also manufactured and sold for much cheaper prices. This made rouge affordable to almost anyone, and rouge was no longer a luxury of the wealthy elite and nobility. Rouge throughout the 20th century did not change drastically in style or popularity, although heavy red and pink cheeks still retain somewhat of a “promiscuous” reputation that held over from the Victorian make-up taboo bans.

Today, rouge is more often referred to as blush, and is sold in a variety of colors and forms. Many people use rouge for contouring their face, and more subdued shades of brown and pink are often more popular than the striking reds that dominated the 18th century.

Although the ingredients, style, and even the acceptability of rouge may have changed over the years, it has been applied to our cheeks since at least 2000 BCE, and will likely remain a staple of the female face for years to come!

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