Naturally Beautiful: Ancient Korean Makeup

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.

18th century Korean Beauty

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 enhanced their features with color, but with less expensive cosmetics. To highlight their eyebrows, they used a piece of charcoal (which explains the charcoal-for-the-eyebrows scene in K-drama Hwang Jin-Yi). For the lips, they used dried red pepper.

Natural makeup, which didn’t contain preservatives, was made in small batches according to what women needed per makeup application. Makeup items were kept in small containers with narrow openings to prevent contamination and spoilage.

Kyuhapch’ongso: Aristocratic women’s guidebook  

More can be learned about how Korean women beautified themselves through the book Kyuhapch’ongso (1809), which contains a comprehensive guide for Chosun period’s upper class women on how to make cosmetic products and fragrances, perfumes, and oils for the hair. The book even has descriptions of shapes of eyebrows.

Aside from beauty, majority of the book’s contents details other useful advice for women, such as cooking, cloth-making, gardening, and family life, among other things. It was written by Lady Bingheogak Yi.

I tried searching for more information on Google (in English) but didn’t find much. A trip to my local library didn’t yield many results either. I wish I can get a hold of this guidebook to learn more about women’s lives in ancient Korea, preferably a version that’s been translated to English. =) Sigh. I suppose that will be one of my projects for the year. So if anyone of my readers can point me to the right direction and resources, please do. Someone here really wants to try making her own natural and organic concoctions and potions the Korean way! =)