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I’m Your Venus: A Virtual Exhibition on the Reception of Antiquity in Modern Cosmetic Advertising and Marketing

Laurence Totelin, Cardiff University, Jane Draycott, University of Glasgow, Makeup Museum

Cleopatra soaps, Venus Gillette razors, Ishtar moisturisers, Medusa hair products, and Pompeii Red perfume: names and themes harking back to antiquity are omnipresent in the modern cosmetic industry. But why? The ‘I’m Your Venus’ conference, held in September 2023, examined the reception of antiquity in cosmetic advertising and marketing from the nineteenth century to the present day. Through invitations and an open call for papers, the conference boasted a stimulating and international programme of 22 papers. We are working on the publication of the proceedings of the conference for a volume in the Bloomsbury Imagines series.

Thanks to the generous funding of the Institute of Classical Studies, the conference was accompanied by a virtual exhibition created in partnership with the Makeup Museum. The conference and exhibition aimed at better understanding the centrality of antiquity in the construction of modern standards of hygiene and beauty, as well as examining and critiquing the image of antiquity that emerges from the modern material. While the conference examined cosmetics in a broad sense, to cover perfumes, creams and lotions, and hair products, the exhibition focuses on makeup, to reflect the field of expertise of the Makeup Museum [figure 1].


Palmolive advert
Figure 1: Palmolive 1924 advert for soap, with Egyptianizing theme and references to Cleopatra. Cleopatra featured prominently in the conference and exhibition.

The exhibition, hosted on the Makeup Museum exhibition site, includes around 40 artefacts, presented in an attractive tile format. Visitors can click on each tile to read a carefully curated museum label, with interpretation and context. The visitor will find compacts, advertisements, palettes, and more. Introductory pages gives the reader some background on makeup in antiquity; discusses the importance of a dreamed antiquity in the construction of modern beauty standards; asks why the popularity of antiquity endures in the industry, even though it promotes often toxic standards, such as whiteness or exoticism (which are not mutually exclusive in cosmetic advertising), thinness, femininity and masculinity, and youth; and presents the contributors and sponsors.

The exhibition illustrates various themes in the reception of antiquity in modern makeup advertising, themes which we discussed in the conference. We see that certain ancient figures, both divine and human, dominate: most prominently Aphrodite/Venus and Cleopatra VII. We observe how cosmetic advertising intersects and builds on other media, such as Hollywood film. We find tropes such as those of secrets, journeys and discoveries, and rebirth and metamorphosis.

Most importantly, the exhibition has allowed us to broaden the scope of the conference by including materials from a wider range of cultures. The conference focussed mostly on the Greek, Egyptian, and Roman worlds. The exhibition demonstrates that ancient Chinese, Indian, Thai, and Mesoamerican cultures also feature in the visual language of makeup advertisers.

The exhibition has enabled us to reach a broad international audience of people interested in the history of makeup. It has also allowed several of the conference participants to use the materials in their teaching. The virtual exhibition format is flexible and can grow as the Makeup Museum acquires more artefacts. We have learnt immensely from our collaboration.