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Tracing history of cosmetics

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By Chung Ah-young

The quest for beauty is an insatiable part of human nature although its standards differ with time and culture. In ancient times, makeup was used in rituals for protection against the outside environment. People used natural dyes to draw pictures on their bodies to visualize deities and dispel misfortune. Since then, interaction between cultures has spurred the exchange of makeup materials, methods and cosmetics production technology, creating a variety of cosmetics cultures and products worldwide. The Coreana Cosmetics Museum has long served to show off the human desire to become more beautiful through the beauty products of Korea from ancient times to the modern era.

Makeup through historical prism of aesthetics

Cosmetics can make people look better. But in traditional Korean society, makeup was broadly defined as care not only for external purposes but also internally.

Koreans in the past believed that a good appearance could affect ones inner self. Thus men and women cared about how they looked, creating a unique culture in cosmetics and accessories.
An exhibition hall of the Coreana Cosmetics Museum
An exhibition hall of the Coreana Cosmetics Museum
<span>Powders made from natural ingredients in a traditional<br />way</span><br /><br />
Powders made from natural ingredients in a traditional
<span>A painting / Courtesy of Coreana Cosmetics Museum and Korea Times file

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A painting "Beauty" by Shin Yun-bok, which shows the standards of beauty in the Confucian state.
/ Courtesy of Coreana Cosmetics Museum and Korea Times file
<p style='text-align: center;'>Inlaid celadon<br />cosmetics cases from Goryeo</span><br /><br />

Inlaid celadon
cosmetics cases from Goryeo

Bronze mirror from Goryeo
Bronze mirror from Goryeo
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"Bakgabun," the first powder manufactured by mass production in the 1910s

The Coreana Cosmetics Museum shows cosmetics culture and history through such diverse items as makeup containers, tools and other fashion items.

Located in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul, the museum founded by Yu Sang-ok, museum director and chairman of a cosmetics company of the same name, is marking the 10th anniversary of its opening with more than 5,300 cosmetics-related items on display.

With the gigantic facade of the Space C building, the museum has served as a cultural complex for various exhibitions and research on makeup culture since 2003.

"Many people think the current makeup is different from that of the past. But it's not that different in terms of ingredients and order, particularly its quest for beauty," museum curator Lee Ji-sun said.

She said that many natural ingredients are still used in modern cosmetics manufacturing. "Foreign visitors are interested in what Koreans used for makeup in the past," she said.

In Korea, women wore makeup to appear healthy. In ancient times, they produced facial scrubs, beauty lotions, facial creams and oils, along with colored powders, rouge and eyebrow ink.

"Jodu," or ground mung beans, were used as a cleansing soap after blending the powder with water as they contain saponin, an effective cleansing agent.

Lotions were made from juice extracted from plants such as gourd stems to be applied after washing.

Oils or plant seed extracts were used as solvents and castor and camellia hair oil were widely used as they are less sticky with a tender fragrance. Apricot and peach oils were believed to relieve liver spots and freckles. Safflower oil rich in vitamin E and essential fatty acids was good for increasing skin moisture and gloss.

But the curator said that traditional cosmetics made from plants and grains had unique odors so that women added fragrance to them. The perfume was mostly made with dried clove buds and worked as a deodorizer with a medical effect, which was used when bathing as it was believed to reduce stress and mental fatigue. Various perfume methods are included in the 1809 "Gyuhap Chongseo" (Women's Encyclopedia), written during the Joseon Kingdom.

Ground rice and millet called "mibun" or "baekbun" were used as powders. Mibun was blended with water or oil to better stick to the face.

Lee said that like today the eyebrows were a key feature. Thus eyebrow ink made from plant ash, soot in indigo, black, blue or dark brown was used to draw various shapes of the eyebrows. "Gyuhap Chongseo" describes the 10 popular eyebrow designs but crescent or willow leaf shapes were most popular. "Yeonji" or rouge extracted from safflower was applied to the cheeks and lips.

The curator said that Korean makeup history began in the Three Kingdoms (57 B.C.-668) and peaked during the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392) when people were interested in self-grooming and beatification. In the Three Kingdoms, earthenware was mainly used as containers but the growth of a celadon culture in the Goryeo era produced abundant cosmetics containers.

In the Joseon period, the practice of sumptuous makeup was restrained by the values of Confucianism. Instead, other objects such as white, blue and white porcelain cosmetics containers, mirrors, combs, hats, pendants and hairpins were developed.

"Culture tends to spread from top to bottom. But cosmetics and fashion codes are mostly the opposite. The elite and upper-class women tended to mimic the fashion of gisaeng (female entertainers) during the Joseon era," she said.

In the end of the 19th century, new makeup styles and products were in vogue in accordance with the advent of Western culture, spurring Korea's cosmetics culture and enabling mass production and consumption.

"Bakgabun," or Park's powder, was the first mass produced cosmetics item in Korea and a bestseller from 1915-30. But due to its lead content, sales dramatically reduced and instead similar products were quickly launched.

In the 1920s, Korean cosmetics couldn't develop because the Japanese brands dominated the market. The Korean cosmetics industry revived again after liberation from Japanese colonial rule but the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 once again dashed expansion hopes for the industry.

But around 1961, when a law banning sales of foreign products was implemented, the Korean cosmetics industry began flourishing and continues to do so.

"Now, Korean beauty products are very popular in other nations although hallyu (Korean wave) stars helped this. So we are very proud of that," Lee said.

"Traditionally, Korean women wore very natural and spontaneous makeup rather than showy, sumptuous makeup like in Japan or China at that time."

Museum opening hours (closed Sundays and national holidays)

10 a.m. to 7 p.m. (April-October)
10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (November-March)
Admissions: 3,000 won (adults) and 2,000 won (children and teenagers)
Located by exit 3 of Apgujeong Station on subway line 3
Inquiries: (02) 547-9177

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