Naturally Beautiful: Ancient Korean Makeup

Written by on January 12, 2012 in Worldwide Korea Bloggers

* This post is written by Michelle Correa, one of the Korea Blog’s Worldwide Korea Bloggers.

If you like watching Korean historical  dramas, you’ve probably seen scenes where women color their faces with various concoctions laid out neatly in tiny ceramic containers. In Hwang Jin-Yi, for example, there’s this scene were the courtesans were being taught and trained in applying makeup, using charcoal to define their eyebrows.

K-drama Hwang Jin Yi

K-drama Hwang Jin Yi

This scene (among many others) got me curious about how Korean women from the olden times prettified themselves. Charcoal? For the eyebrows? Really? But why?

Makeup according to class

A quick Google search got me some preliminary answers. Based from articles I read from the internet, I learned that makeup of upper class women and common people differed, so you can usually tell which class a woman belonged to based not only on the way they dressed but on the way they colored their faces as well.

An 18th century Korean beauty. Attributed to Kim Hong-Do (A.D. 1745- ?) © Seoul National University Museum

An 18th century Korean beauty. Attributed to Kim Hong-Do (A.D. 1745- ?) © Seoul National University Museum

Simple and light makeup was especially preferred by the upper class women and was seen by them as the ideal look of beauty, according to the Record of the Chinese Embassy to the Koryo Court, Xuanhe fengshi Gaoli tujing (1123) . Applying too much makeup was a no-no, so the only cosmetic they colored their faces with were powder without rouge. They also liked drawing eyebrows in the shape of a willow leaf.

During the Chosun period, aristocratic women began using a mixture of flower ashes, indigo plants and gold powder for the eyebrows. Makeup made of saffron flowers and cinnabar, meanwhile, were used for the cheeks and lips. A pale skin color was preferred, in accordance to the Confucian ideal of dignified and simple demeanor.  They avoided white powder for the face, since this was associated with the lowly kisaeng, or women entertainers who were trained in the art of music, dance and poetry. Instead, aristocratic women of the time used light-peach-colored makeup.  To make their hair shiny, upper class women applied peony flower oil.

The common people of Chosun were not to be left out. They also enhan

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