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There’s a Period in Your Period Piece

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When I was in my early 20s, many of my favorite films were all period pieces. Movies were a time machine for me, and I loved to dive into the visual grandeur of films like Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Filmmakers relish in recreating the stage for eras gone by, and particular care is always given to the accuracy of costume and set design.



Unfortunately, for those of us trained in professional make up application, many period pieces fall flat in the accuracy department when it comes to our craft. Historical figures are frequently made up using trends that were popular when the movie was being filmed, instead of when the story took place.

I’ll highlight a few perfect examples of this phenomenon. I’m going to use the iconic and real life historical figure, Cleopatra.

First allow me to indulge you in a quick ancient Egyptian make-up lesson. To start, they primarily only had four colors at their disposal for make-up: black, blue/green, white, and red.  Men and women wore the famous eyeliner with the long line trailing out of the corner of their eyes in shades of black or blue/green. They believed it strengthened and protected the eyes, so everybody who could afford it wore eyeliner. Eyebrows were extended out to the sides in a matching color to the eyeliner. Red was used to tint lips, hair, and nails. The nobility all shaved their heads and the women of high status wore wigs for every occasion. The white make-up at their disposal was primarily used to paint the body and mostly by men. Here’s a famous painting of a lady in full make-up.


So let’s go to 1917’s Cleopatra, played by the legendary Theda Berra. Here we see pure 1910-1920s make up, NOT true ancient Egyptian style. Berra has flattened out her eyebrows, a very trendy technique of her decade and is wearing black smoky, pencil eyeliner. She looks great for 1917, but apart from the wig and red lips, she ain’t no true Cleopatra.

Theda Berra

Moving on to 1934’s Cleopatra played by Claudette Colbert. Once again, no care is taken to make her look like a true Cleopatra of Egypt. Colbert is a spot-on beauty bombshell for 1934 and the film makers are banking completely on her hair as any visual indication that she is an Egyptian empress.

Claudette Colbert

Now here Vivien Leigh from 1945’s Caesar and Cleopatra. Leigh’s a little closer to accuracy than her counterparts, but once again, her make-up is right in line with what was popular in the 1940s.

caesar and cleopatra 1945
Vivien Leigh

Skipping ahead to Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra from 1963, we see that the eyeliner is spot-on in some scenes, but that was also super hip in the 1960s. The solid eye shadow and strong use of blush gives Taylor a contempory-chic look that is not ancient Egypt appropriate.

Elizabeth Taylor

Now, interestingly enough, there were very few films in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s that were made about Cleopatra. The new millennium however brought back a love of ancient Egypt in cinema and several depictions of Cleopatra came to the big screen. The eternally gorgeous Monica Bellucci filled our eyes with her dangerous curves in Asterix & Obelisk. However, apart from the use of wigs and the occasional extra eyeliner, her look could totally be found in any fashion magazine.

Monica Bellucci

So why is it that when it comes to true accuracy in historical depictions, film makers invest heavily in set design, costume, and in recreating technologies of the time, but fall short when it comes to cosmetics? I personally attributed this to two reasons: 1.) The actual make-up trends of the time when the movie takes place are so radically different from what is considered attractive by the contemporary culture that using those ancient trends would make the characters hard for the audience to relate to. 2.) The director cherry-picks accuracy for the sake of his/her vision of the film. Both of these reasons are forgivable, since in the end, films are a subjective work of art. Filmmakers should have free reign to express their story as they see fit.

If you have a purist mentality on accuracy, or if you appreciate when the make-up team does their research and shows off some skill, this can be a little frustrating. For those of us who have an interest in history and find it fascinating, I’m dedicating my next blog to period piece movies with legit make-up, hair, and wardrobe. Stay tuned!!!

Diva Del Mar

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