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Home » Culture and Art » Cosmetics, Styles & Beauty Concepts in Iran
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Cosmetics, Styles & Beauty Concepts in Iran
& Mesopotamia
Last Updated: October, 2009


The arts and techniques used to make cosmetics and perfumes remained more or less the same for thousands of years and only changed during the middle ages. The discovery of alcohol by the famous Iranian scientist Razi (9th century AD) introduced major changes. Alcohol based perfumes still in use today replaced the old oil based 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, one of which 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 the 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 behaviour 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, colours 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), included a series of illustrations showing the life of the citizens, trades, crafts etc.

The pictures show a variety of designs and colours 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 routes. Illustrations from a Persian dictionary of the 16th century show the same varieties of colour and design.

Perfumes were in great demand and in fact shops selling herbs and spices were called Attari, 'atre' meaning 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 that despite all restrictions imposed by the Islamic codes women still consumed such material en masse. The situation is comparable to the present-day Iran where cosmetic use and plastic surgery to enhance looks are booming right now. In fact, the introduction of polygamy (one man with 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 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, colouring 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, neighbours 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 the parents and their 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 the young boys mostly living in the West have become fashionable. The traditional families, who regard such habits as womanly, resent this last trend and as well as when males dye their hair. As a result 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 bathhouses 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 the Arabs to the 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) are constantly praised. 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 the 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 supermodels of today.

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 fate; 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, following the 1979 Islamic revolution, has again created a double culture, the inside and the outside look. The modern middle and upper class females might look like they came straight out of Cosmopolitan magazine at private gatherings, but are covered up when in public. Black as the desired colour was very likely introduced and forced upon women during the Safavid period (16th century). Modest and virtuous women were expected to look simple, shy, quite, dressed modestly with no colour and make-up. Still many women especially the middle aged and older women prefer dark colours to bright and happy ones.

In Iran some of the old formulas were still in use until the beginning of the 20th century. Sepeedab a facial makeup, sorkhab to add red to the cheeks and lips are found in bazaars. Sormeh is still 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 and henna paintings and designs once used by men and women in Africa, India and the Middle East are currently fashionable in the West. Even bandandazi has made its way to North America and is practiced by the 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 colourful. Once again women are forced to look plain, avoid colours and make-up. Ironically the make-up/fashion business along with plastic surgery is booming in the country. The voice of protest has found a new medium for expression.     


Recommended Readings

Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian
"Haft Qalam Arayish: Cosmetics in the Iranian World":
The Journal of the Society for Iranian Studies (Summer/Fall 2000)

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