Culture of Iran

Cosmetics, Styles & Beauty Concepts in Iran
By: Massoume Price, December 2001


Flowers of Henna
Use of cosmetics is documented from around 10,000 BC, however the bulk of our information comes from around 3000 BC and from the written records of the ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts and artifacts. These ancient people were a lot more at ease with their body and sexuality compared to the later periods. Both males and females used make up, had long or short hair as they desired, wore jewelry, colored their body parts and dressed elaborately and colorfully. Men had no problems wearing skirts and fashion and style was not as yet used to emphasis marked gender differences, however it distinguished class and status. Body was used freely and sexuality was often perceived as a gift from gods and was celebrated. Judging by the number of nude male and female attendants and personalities depicted, nudity did not seem to be a problem. However high-ranking females would not expose their bodies as much as ordinary females did as a sign of high status.

Scented oils and ointments were used by this time to clean and soften the skin and mask the body odor. Dyes and natural paint was used to color the face, mainly for ceremonial and religious occasions. Rich people applied minerals to their faces, skin (Iranians use roshoor) and used oiled-based perfumes in their bath. Aromatherapy was used extensively by all the major civilizations of the time including Chinese. An ancient Chinese medical book dated around 2,700 BC contains cures involving over three hundred different aromatic herbs. Traditional Indian medicine, known as Ayurveda has also used some form of Aromatherapy for over 3,000 years. Primitive perfumery probably began with the burning of gums and resins for incense. Eventually, richly scented plants were incorporated into animal and vegetable oils to anoint the body. Even in Neolithic times (7000-4000 BC) the fatty oils of olive and sesame were combined with fragrant plants to create ointments. Egyptian Papyrus manuscripts as old as 2700 BC has recorded the use of fragrant herbs, oils, perfumes and temple incense, and mentions healing ointments made of fragrant resins. The Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the legendary king of Ur in Mesopotamia (modem Iraq) burning incense made of cedar and myrrh to put the gods and goddesses into a pleasant mood. A tablet from neighboring Babylonia contains an import order for cedar, myrrh and cypress; another gives a recipe for scented ointments; a third suggests medicinal uses for cypress.

Egyptian aromas were potent: pots filled with spices such as frankincense (kondoor) preserved in fat still gave off a faint odor when opened in King Tutankhamen's tomb 3,000 years later. As depicted on wall paintings, solid ointments of spikenard and other aromatics were placed on the heads of dancers and musicians, where they were allowed to gradually-and dramatically-melt down over hair and body while dancing in the temples and for other occasions. People rouged their lips and cheeks, stained their nails with henna, and lined their eyes and eyebrows heavily with kohl (sormeh), a dark-colored powder made variously of crushed antimony, burnt almonds, lead, oxidized copper, ochre, ash, malachite and chrysocolla, a blue-green copper ore. Black and green eye shadows were used extensively by the Egyptians.

Such measures were intended not only to be aesthetically pleasing, but also to protect the individuals from the sun and the dust of the desert. Throughout the African continent people also coated their skin with fragrant oils for protection. This practice was used extensively in the Mediterranean, where athletes were anointed with scented lotion before competing. Lavender, lily, myrrh, thyme, marjoram, chamomile, peppermint, rosemary, cedar, rose, aloe wood (Ud), olive oil, sesame and almond oil provided the basic ingredients of most perfumes. Many were used in religious rituals and in the process of mummifying and preserving the dead. One of the most common oils was olive oil. The Olive was a native to Asia Minor and spread from Iran, Syria and Palestine to the rest of the Mediterranean basin 5,000 years ago. It is one of the oldest known cultivated trees. The Phoenicians spread the olive to the Mediterranean shores of Africa and Southern Europe. The olive culture was spread to the early Greeks and eventually to the Romans who spread them all over their territories.

Henna was made from the henna plant and other colors were made from animals such a the blood of black cows. The dyes were sometimes mixed with crushed tadpoles soaked in warm oil for added benefit. Henna was used to color the hair and also to paint body parts such as hands and nails. Thick hair was regarded as the ideal and braided hair extensions were often added to wigs to enhance a woman's appearance. Hairstyles were elaborate and pins were used to hold a wig or extensions in place. Tattooing was also popular and mummies are discovered with tattoos over their bodies.

Facial masks and frosted make up was prepared by grinding ant eggs mixed with face paints. In Egypt crocodile excrement was used for mud baths, sheep fat and blood for nail polish, and butter mixed with barley was used for pimples. All substances were transported and exported all over the area and were commonly used by different nations.

Trade routes to obtain fragrant goods were established throughout the Middle East well before 1700 BC and would be in use for the next 30 centuries-until the Portuguese discovered a way around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa. The Old Testament describes one group of early traders: "a company of Ishmaelites [Arabs] from Gilead, bearing spices, balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt". As trade routes expanded, Africa, South Arabia and India began to supply spikenard and ginger to Middle Eastern and Mediterranean civilization. Phoenician merchants traded in Chinese camphor and Indian cinnamon, pepper and sandalwood; Syrians brought fragrant goods to Arabia. Myrrh and frankincense from Yemen reached the Mediterranean by 300 BC, by way of Persian traders. Traffic on the trade routes boomed as demand increased for roses, sweet flag, narcissus, saffron, mastic, oak moss, cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, nutmeg, ginger, spikenard, aloe, grasses and gum resins. All were used for a number of purposes including making perfumes.

The prosperous ancients were avid consumers of cloths and jewelry. Headgear was popular with both males and females. Kings and queens represented gods and goddesses on earth and both did their best to dress as elegantly and as conspicuously and elaborately as gods would do. There are magnificent examples of crowns, jewelry and other ornaments at the Mesopotamian sections in British Museum in London and Pennsylvania University Museum in United States from the city of Ur (Iraq) around 3000 BC.

Iranians arrived relatively late on the scene. By the time Achaemenid (Hakhamaneshi) were established around 500 BC there was already 2500 years of tradition, culture and history in the area. At the beginning Iranians copied the more established Assyrian, Babylonian and Egyptians but soon they had their own style and trends. At Persepolis a number of males from different regions are portrayed wearing their own distinct clothing and headgear. Even Medes (Maad) are distinct from Persians. On the other hand Darius (Dariush) while in Egypt is portrayed totally dressed up as an Egyptian pharaoh (British Museum). The statuettes and other archaeological finds have provided a good picture of costumes and jewelry worn at the time. The Ouxus treasure at display in British Museum in London is a good example of jewelry and ornamental styles of the Achaemenid period.

They used the cosmetics, ointments and fragrances popular in the area and by controlling the trade routs made a bundle importing and exporting such goods all over their territories. Clothes were simple, wool and latter on cotton and silk were used as materials. Fabrics were dyed and designs were hand painted for the nobility. The needles of the day were coarse and bulky which meant stitching or sewing produced less than elegant garments unless the tailors spent enormous amount of time on the items. Clothing was held together with safety pins rather than buttons and buckles were used extensively. Footwear showed little distinction between ordinary males and females. One usually wore sandals tied round the ankle with thin strips of leather. There were outdoor footwear made from soft leather and slippers were used as well. Animal fur and leather were used extensively and most households produced their own wool and women wove their own fabrics.

The Greek conquest of Iran and the subsequent Seleucid dynasty popularized Greek style and culture in Iran and at the same time Iranians influenced Greek traditions . The Parthian dynasty popularized Iranian fashion styles all over the continent. Queen Zenoba the ruler of Palmyra (Syria) made a pact with the Parthian and fought against the mighty Rome and lost. She was very found of Iranian styles and is portrayed dressed in Parthian attire, despite the fact that Rome was the center of fashion and style at the time. The ancient cultures were very diverse and willing to adopt ideas and trends without prejudice. At the Parthian city and fortress Nysa (near Ashkabad in Turmenistan) Iranian, oriental and Hellenistic objects, ornaments and jewelry are discovered side by side. Headgear was as popular as before and gold with precious and semi-precious stones were used extensively for jewelry etc.

Sassanian period was the peak of Iranian culture and art. Hundreds of items at major museums in Europe, United States (Metropolitan in New York and Arthur Sackler in Washington DC are good examples) and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg in Russia are a testimony to their talent and creativity. The upper classes amassed enormous wealth and lived in splendor. Remnants of carpets from the period show incredible designs with animals, trees and even gardens similar to the classical designs still used. Fabrics for clothing would have been woven with the same elegance and creativity. Beards and long hair were fashionable for men and women are normally portrayed with long hair and royalty is always portrayed with their own crowns.

There is little information on what rich Sassanian women would use for cosmetics. However the Roman sources contain a wealth of information and the women of Persia would have used almost the same ingredients and mixes. All ancient formulas were still in use with new ones added. Face powders were made from powdered chalk (sepeedab) or white lead. Eye shadows were used, and the eyebrows were thickened or the length was added on as it is done today. Eyeliner (sormeh) was made from soot or antimony powder. Saffron was also used to achieve other effects. Some women used black patches or beauty spots on their faces, particularly if they wanted to hide some sort of blemish. Red for coloring the lips was obtained from ocher or ficus (a lichen-like plant). Ocher was also used to add color to the cheeks (sorkhab). Make-up for the face was mixed in small plates. Face creams were sometimes made of milk and flour; and lanolin (from unwashed sheep's wool) was used as a skin lotion. Face powders, make-up, and perfumes tended to be applied liberally. Rose water was used extensively and remained an important item all the way to the early 20th century.

The arts and techniques used to make cosmetics and perfumes remained more or less the same for thousands of years and only changed as of middle ages. Discovery of alcohol by the famous Iranian scientist Razi (9th century AD) introduced major changes. Alcohol base perfumes still in use to day replaced the old oil base formulas. A master of Greek, Persian and Indian sciences Ibn Sina (Avicinna, 980-1037) improved distillation and introduced new techniques that changed the science of chemistry forever. This famous Iranian alchemist, astronomer, philosopher, mathematician, physician and poet wrote the famous Canon of Medicine that was used for centuries as the standard medical text in Universities for centuries to come. Ibn Sina used essential oils extensively for medical and aromatic purposes. He wrote 100 books and one was devoted entirely to roses.

The Book of Perfume Chemistry and Distillation by Yakub al-Kindi (803-870) describes many essential oils, including imported Chinese camphor. Gerber (Jabir ibn Hayyan), in his Summa Perfectionis, wrote several chapters on distillation. The 13th-century text by physician Samarqandi was also filled with aromatherapeutic lore, with a chapter on aromatic baths and another on aromatic salves and powders. Steams and incenses of marjoram, thyme, wormwood, chamomile, fennel, mint, hyssop and dill were suggested for sinus or ear congestion. Herbs were burned in a gourd, breathed as vapors, or sprinkled on hot stones or bricks.

Islam introduced new codes of behavior for men and women with veiling and segregation of the sexes at the heart of the new ideology. Women were only allowed to be seen by their husbands or close male relatives and were covered up in public where no fashion or jewelry could expose either their physique or status. Islamic restrictions on dress code and total veiling might have affected the appearance of women in public but historical accounts of lavish marriages between Caliphs and their beautiful brides attest to the diversity of designs, colors and fabrics worn indoors. The marriage of the Abbasid Caliph to the daughter of the famous Iranian minister Jaffar Barmakid is such an example. The intellectual and the historian Hariri in his illustrated manuscript Maghamat (1237 AD) has a series of illustrations showing the life of the citizens, trades, crafts etc.

The pictures show a variety of designs and colors worn by both males and females. By this time Damascus fabrics and designs were famous throughout the medieval world and were imported all over the planet, in fact they became so famous that the name Damask still is used in the fabric and design world. The trade routs carrying spices, incense, aromas etc were fought over by all and eventually the Europeans monopolized the routs. Illustrations from a Persian dictionary of the 16th century show the same varieties of color and design. Perfumes were in great demand and in fact shops selling herbs and spices were called Attari, atre means perfume, the most commonly used was made from rose and entire cities such as Ghamsar in Kashan were famous for their production of rose water (golab). This city ritual in Kashan practiced for centuries is almost dying and is practiced by a few producers still devoted to their ancient craft. Moshk a substance obtained from the dried blood of gazelles was amongst the most expensive perfumery of the time.

The medieval texts contain numerous instructions with respect to making all the usual make up items which means despite all restrictions imposed by the Islamic codes women still consumed such material en mass. The situation is comparable to present day Iran where cosmetic use and plastic surgery to enhance looks are booming right now. In fact introduction of polygamy (one man several wives), concubines, slaves and female war captives (masters had sexual rights over these) all under the same roof, would have resulted in tense competition amongst women for looking their best. The erotic illustrated books or the so called the pillow books such as The Perfumed Garden (16th century Tunis) instructs the males ready for lovemaking to be clean, wear perfumes and be gentle with their women. Public and private baths had attendants and specialists who provided all kinds of services including massage, aromatherapy, hair care, coloring the hands and feet with henna and hair removal for women. The later was achieved by bandandazi, using special threads that are moved in certain ways over the skin. The hair is caught between two sets of threads and is pulled out. The process is initially a bit painful but the skin is left smooth and hair growth is hindered if used regularly. Body hair removal was a rite of passage and signaled passing from girlhood to womanhood. Only married women removed their body hair and the first one before marriage ceremony was a major ritual. These all-female events could include many friends, relatives, neighbors and servants. A whole day was spent in the baths with food, cold drinks tea and even musicians and dancers. Young men were clean-shaven while elderly and the more religious preferred a beard.

With the bride to be, all body hair was removed and once the eyebrows were plucked the girl had officially entered the kingdom of womanhood. In recent years with more traditional Iranian families moving to the West removing body hair has become an issue amongst parents and daughters. As far as the young girls are concerned these are common beauty and hygiene practices, while for their parents the act represents a major change and indicates becoming a woman without being married. Most jewelry items were specific to women since the Islamic times. Men wore rings and since the 20th century necklaces mainly chains, bracelets and recently earrings worn by young boys living in the West have become fashionable.

The last trend and also dyeing the hair by males is resented by the traditional families who regard such habits as womanly and conflict is created between boys and their parents. Public baths were common in the area since ancient times and reached their peak with the Romans who were the highest consumers of water at the time due to their bathing system. Their bath houses had several hot and cold water pools, steam rooms, masseurs, gym, aromatherapy and major spas took advantage of Hot Springs and mineral waters. Others copied the same system and structure and similar systems have survived in the Turkish baths and old style Iranian public baths. The Pagan Romans had mixed baths with no gender restrictions. Christianity banned such practices, but how Iranians bathed is not known except for the Islamic period where segregation of sexes was imposed. Soaps were introduced rather late and were made from animal fat and despite the modern productions of soaps they are still available in bazaars and stores selling traditional herbs and spices. Hair was washed with the leaves from the Lotus tree (Sedre), it was crushed made into powder and it is still used in Iran with modern variations entering the markets. Hairstyles varied as they do today, In Mogul, Safavid and Qajar paintings if women’s hair is exposed it is normally long and loose or sometimes braided. Hats were always common and the Islamic period styles are a lot simpler compared to the pre-Islamic period. Various conquerors from Arabs to Saljuk Turks and Moguls popularized their own styles and headgear from simple round hats to fancy turbans.

Classical Persian literature (all written by men) provides a very stylized and romantic picture of the perfect beauty. Long black curly hair, small mouth, long arched eyebrows, and large almond shaped eyes, small nose, extremely thin waste line and round face with beauty spots (Khal). The paintings and miniatures have used the same guidelines. Not being able to see females (except for a few related ones) the writers and the painters have used their imagination and created a very unrealistic picture of female beauty. It is fortunate that media and mass communication were not available at the time otherwise Iranian women would have had a hard time achieving such ideals, as hard as it is for the modern women to try and look like the super models of today.

A hand painted with Henna
Cosmetic industry was totally changed by the introduction of the new sciences and huge corporate establishments have dominated the world markets. Fabrics have had the same faith and the introduction of the synthetic fabrics in the 20th century also completely changed this industry. The bulk of the fabrics used in Iran are imported mainly from Asia and the local cosmetic industry is producing modern cosmetics and all major Western brands are imported. The introduction of the veil has once again created a double culture, the inside and the outside look. Modern middle and upper class females might look straight out of Cosmopolitan magazine at private gatherings but covered up when in public. Black as the desired color was very likely introduced and forced upon women from Safavid period. Modest and virtuous women were expected to look simple, shy, quite, dressed modestly with no color and make up. Still many women specially middle age and older women prefer dark colors to bright and happy ones.

In Iran some of the old formulas were still in use till the beginning of the 20th century. Sepeedab a facial makeup, sorkhab to add red to the cheeks and lips are found in bazaars. Sormeh still is widely used as eyeliner in India and some remote corners of Iran. Minerals to cleanse face, skin and body such as roshoor have made their way to North America. Henna has become very popular all over the planet and henna paintings and designs once used by men and women in Africa, India and Middle East is currently fashionable in the West. Even bandandazi has made its way to North America and is practiced by Iranian beauticians in major Iranian centers in this continent.

The fashion statements made in Iran have found a new function due to the restrictions imposed by the Islamic Republic. They are political statements as well, a voice of protest and symbolize resistance to the authorities. Contrary to previous centuries of Islamic dominance even the outer long coats and headscarves are fancy, stylish and even colorful. Once again women are forced to look plain, avoid colors and makeup, ironically the makeup/fashion business along with plastic surgery is booming in the country. The voice of protest has found a new medium for expression.