Home » The History of Highlighting and Contouring

The History of Highlighting and Contouring

It seems like everyday brings about a new must-try makeup trend, but they method of contouring has been around since the 1500’s! Contouring combines a mix of darker skin tone shades to chisel your features with lighter shades for highlighting and making cheekbones pop. Contouring gives shape to an area of the face and enhances your natural facial structure through subtle makeup.

We decided to take a look at our history to document exactly how the contouring craze reached the peak it has today. From Elizabethan England to silent films, keep scrolling to find out the fascinating history of the makeup trend we all know and love.

The 1500’s

If you think contouring is a modern development, one confined to the era of red carpets and editorials, think again. The art of contouring started as early as the mid-1500s. Stage actors in Elizabethan England would apply chalk and soot to their faces so audience members could read their expressions more clearly.

The 1800’s

The 1800s marked the introduction of artificial lighting—i.e., everyone would notice if actors had soot on their faces. Thus, in the flood of new electric lights, it became necessary for performers to use other means to accentuate their faces under the spotlight. These actors were the pioneers of what we know now as contouring, using “pancake makeup” and even greasepaint on themselves to help accentuate the emotions they conveyed on stage.

During the 1800s through the beginning of the 1900s, you usually could only find stage performers and prostitutes wearing makeup. Queen Victoria, had declared that makeup was “vulgar” and should be reserved for actors. Supposedly, cosmetics were so unpopular that they couldn’t even be bought in department stores; they could only be purchased at costume shops.


Contouring eventually made it’s way into the film world, where screen legends like Marlene Dietrich started incorporating contouring into their film makeup. Dietrich was said to believe in accentuating the natural lines of her face with shading and sculpting. According to sources, she always paid close attention to overhead lighting, and knew the power of a perfectly cast shadow.


Legendary makeup artist Max Factor was the go-to for creating and applying makeup for screen actors. He was influenced by stage actors’ technique, but added his own spin on shading the face for film so it didn’t appear too flat. In 1945, his makeup school released the first step-by-step tutorial on how to contour your face, even breaking it down by face shape. Today, many makeup artists credit Factor for coining the contouring term and technique.


Ben Nye was named the makeup director/artist for 20th Century Fox in 1944. Nye was another legendary makeup artist, who created characters for iconic films like Gone With the Wind and Planet of the Apes. A makeup line seemed the next logical step, and his products are still used by professional artists and everyday women—supposedly, the queen of contouring herself (Kim Kardashian) swears by his Banana Powder ($13) to set her makeup.

The 1950’s

The ’50s were a time of old Hollywood glamour, with actresses like Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Elizabeth Taylor filling giant movie screens with doe-eyed glances. If you look at portraits from this era, almost all of them feature subtle contouring and shading—you just wouldn’t know it at the time, since makeup secrets weren’t shared with the masses back then.

The 1990’s

Ah, the ’90s. The decade of all things tight and cropped, stenciled brows, and the hint of contouring migrating to the mainstream. Celebrity makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin made a subtle sculpted, chiseled look his signature on clients and friends like Gwyneth Paltrow, Cindy Crawford, and Janet Jackson. Still, contouring remained an industry-only technique.

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