Body Arts - Cosmetics

Sudan map



In many African societies, soft, clear, and very shiny skin is considered beautiful. To achieve this look people rub oil or fat on to their bodies.

Amongst the Nuba of Sudan, oil isnecessary to help the skin surface Cattle-horn fat container, Kenya
Cattle-horn fat container, Kenya;
appear black and shiny. Without oil, the skin becomes dry and flaky, giving it a pale appearance considered particularly unattractive.

Before a young Nuba man marries he is required to supply his intended wife with oil and ochre. Failure to do so is grounds for the relationship to be ended and the girl to become betrothed to someone else. Oil is also one of the most common gifts requested by young brides-to-be. If a girl does not have oil for her body to make her skin beautiful she will not go out.Round patch box to store patches for applying to face
Round patch box to store patches for applying to face,
UK; 1965.9.102


In eighteenth-century Europe, pieces of silk, taffeta, or even leather were stuck to the face with an adhesive in order to hide blemishes caused by skin diseases.


People also applied a thick coat of white face powder to make their complexions look fashionably pale and smooth. They then added rouge to their cheeks - the contrast that this ‘blush’ created with their pale, powdered faces was considered very beautiful. The base ingredient for cosmetics like rouge was finely flaked lead, which is highly poisonous. It is easily absorbed by the body, can cause severe head pain, nausea, dizziness, bowel problems, blindness, and, if large enough amounts have been ingested, paralysis or even death.


India MapTool for collecting soot, India
Tool for collecting soot, India,;1892.49.52

This tool from India was held upside down over oil lamps to collect lamp-black (soot), which was then used for decorating the eyes. Similar cosmetics were used in Ancient Egypt. Made from the mud of the Nile, these were known as khol.

Further Resources

Body Art Collections at the Pitt Rivers: A website exploring the Body Art collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Here you can find out more about the objects on display in the Museum, about the themes of the displays, and about the people who made and used the objects.


cosmetics intro guideFARIS, JAMES, Nuba Personal Art, London: Duckworth (1972).

Detailed information about each of the objects on display is provided in the Body Arts Gallery.

Introductory guide compiled by:
Jennifer Peck, Project Assistant, DCF Redisplay Project, 2002

Introductory guide revised by:
Bryony Reid, Senior Project Assistant (Interpretation), DCF What’s Upstairs?, October 2005

Download print version of the Body Art - Cosmetics introductory guide
(to view pdf files Acrobat Reader is required)