Sali Hughes’ Make Up Bag .V. Ancient Roman make up bags

Sali Hughes is as straight talking in person as she is in her Guardian column. Rufius noted instantly that her eyebrows were perfect – although, unlike Rufius, Sali has not plucked them smooth and drawn them on with thick black kohl. More on what was in Sali’s make up bag later …

Sali Hughes







Sali joined the Lewes Literary Society on a windy February evening. She looked stylish in her print coat (which she kept on as it was chilly) and signature red lipstick. All Saints Church was packed with a younger crowd than usual.

woman ancient make up

Keeping up appearances in Ancient Rome was a controversial mission. Today the Italian word for make up is ‘trucco,’ meaning ‘trick.’ I think Sali would agree that make up is magic! As she said, ‘not everyone is pretty, but everyone can be beautiful.’ The philosopher Seneca thought that wearing cosmetics led to the decline of the Roman morality. There are no texts written by women indicating the female attitude towards cosmetics at the time, but if Sali had been around in the 4th Century, Rufius would have undoubtedly been a fan!

Sali read from the intimate introduction to her hit 2014 book, Pretty Honest. We are taken into the bedroom of her grandmother as Sali’s young self is inspired by the ritual of making up watching her grandmother apply her make up at her dressing table.

Pretty Honest is an apt title as Sali’s popularity is largely due to her honest approach to beauty editorial. Unlike some columnists, she doesn’t get paid for reviewing a product or accept what I used to call ‘industry bribes’ when I had a college job for an industry beauty column in the 90s – and she avoids the irritating pseudo-scientific codswallop spewed out by big brands that doesn’t serve to tell the reader anything about the product. Sali tests the products she reviews on friends or herself if it suits her skin type. Her approach is ethical and readers can sense it in her writing. Sali’s presence carries that honesty in the direct manner she answers questions.

She clearly explains the complexity of the beauty industry – and how the big brands have pressurised China to stop testing on animals, which she is against. On age, she’s delightful. For the older women she advises us to be bold, daring and embrace the lipstick – she’s not a fan of gloss for adults. To the teenagers, she advises no foundation – ‘you’re as lovely as you will ever be.’

make up pots 2

Like Sali, Ancient Roman women as well as cinaedi liked strong red lips. Bromine, beeswax, beetle juice with a touch of henna puckered up their lips. I wonder what Sali would make of those ingredients!

Sali is so much more than a beauty columnist, but as often happens when someone achieves fame for one thing, their other equally excellent achievements pale into comparison. Long before her famous Guardian column, she has been an opinion columnist for UK newspapers and magazines.

Rufius was as impressed too. He was more interested in what Sali had to say about women’s products than her comments on male grooming. Cinaedi plucked every whisker on their faces, as well as their eyebrows, which they painted on thick and black.

EGYPT - DECEMBER 11: Make-up was in common use in Ancient Egypt and focused particularly on the eye, in order to replicate the appearance of the sun god, Re. Kohl eyeliner was frequently used to achieve this effect. It was made of powdered antimony, burnt almonds, black copper oxide and brown ocher. Granite kohl pots like these were used to mix the ingredients together. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Rufius was enthralled when Sali opened her make up bag in response to a cheeky request from the audience. Several red lippies, a Clarins body moisturizer, eyebrow pencil, concealer all came out and were put in full view on the table – in much the same way as Rufius’ body slave, Apollinos organised his master’s boudoir ready for the morning ritual of plucking and face painting in Rufius.

As a boy Rufius stole his mother’s cosmetics, but as a man he sent his slaves to hunt out the best foundations and eyeliners and application techniques around the Empire. That Egyptian diva, Cleopatra started the fashion for smoky eyeliner, which Rufius took up when he was exiled in Alexandria.

Like Sali, Ancient Roman women would have carried a compact mirror made from polished metal or mercury in their make-up bags. Wealthy women (and cinaedi) bought expensive make up palettes to match.

Beauty masks were as essential as they are today, made of a mix of sweat from sheep’s wool, placenta, excrement, animal urine, sulphur, ground oyster shells and bile. More appealing ingredients used in beauty treatments were rose water, eggs, olive oil, honey, anise, almond oil and frankincense.

Like Sali, who carried a mascara in her make up bag, Ancient Roman women liked their lashes long and lush – and used burnt cork to achieve the Eastern look they coveted.


Sali’s eyebrow pencil wasn’t quite bold enough for Rufius. He prefers to paint his eyebrows on with soot and antimony – applied using a rounded stick, made of ivory, glass, bone, or wood.



By the end of the evening, Sali had a new fan. Rufius was getting his toga in a twist in anticipation for Sali book-in-progress, which is promised to be part autobiography, part beauty journal. In the meantime, Adam from Waterstones (who afterwards told me Sali’s male grooming tips were spot on), readied books for Sali to sign.


Rufius is itching to buy a ticket to win a hamper of cosmetics Sali generously offered to Lewes Literary Society as a Christmas gift. Anything is better than the pong of his face whitening foundation made from marl, dung and lead – I do wish he’d use my Channel products instead!



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