Special project

Monobrow, Antimony, and Other Beauty Tricks from the Harem

Thick eyebrows meeting above the nose, feet covered with henna, plump lips—this is how feminine beauty was celebrated in paintings of the harem during the Qajar dynasty of the late 18th to early 20th century. These examples can be seen at the State Museum of Oriental Art, where the exhibition “The Twilight of Luxury: Iran during the Qajar Epoch” is running for a few more days. We have recreated the makeup of harem ladies, borrowing from the makeup tricks of those times, and have rethought them in the context of modern beauty techniques.


The Iranian beauties’ favorite cosmetic product was antimony. It was widely used in makeup—as a liner to draw moles, to define the contours of the eyes, and to connect the eyebrows. The ritual of applying the antimony was to draw a line around the eyes, which was repeated several times a day, as by nightfall the gaze was not supposed to lose its languor.

The depth and expressiveness of the almond-shaped eyes were attained with the help of bold lines drawn and shaded along both the upper and lower eyelids. In 2021, exactly the same technique can be spotted at many fashion shows, for example, those of Chanel and Dior.
A silk blouse
In the paintings one can often notice a transparent blouse worn by harem ladies under bodices. Their deep neckline is an attribute of a casual indoor outfit, while open dress-fronts spotted in some picturesque visual narratives are merely the fruits of the artists’ imaginations. Women’s outfits revealing entire breasts never actually existed.
One of the main accessories in the Qajar era, typical for both men and women, was a hookah. During meals, tobacco or psychoactive plants were also smoked in harems.

Instead of hair gel, girls applied starch for styling. Also, they used it to make tiny white balls—fake pearls that served as wonderful hair decoration accessories.

Face framing curls
Curls partly covering the forehead and cheeks were meant to emphasize the softness of the face’s oval shape. During the Qajar epoch, Iranian women deliberately cut hair short around their ears, while we have decided to act in a less radical way—styling the hair along the hairline with gel.
Sirwal pants
Iranian women monitored the European fashion of the 19th century, borrowed some of its elements, and changed them to match their own tastes: they used narrow caftans to imitate slim-fitted dresses and wore sirwal pants the size of which was bigger and wider than that of the traditional ones in order to make the pieces look more similar to bouffant ball gown skirts.
For an ideal Iranian beauty, thick eyebrows meeting above the nose were a must. Those naturally deprived of this facial element had to recreate the bridging line with antimony.
The palms and fingers were stained with red henna: the contrast helped to create the effect of excessive whiteness of the wrists. We have emphasized their snow-white shade in a different way—again with artificial pearls.
At that time in Iran, moles were considered an extremely piquant feature of one’s appearance: if a girl did not have any of her own, moles were drawn on her face and exposed parts of the body. In our interpretation, pearls are used with the same purpose.

In portraits made in harems, girls were not only depicted lying indifferently among cushions or dancing. Sometimes, just like our model, they might freeze in sad poses: that’s how artists hinted at their longing for true love, while their whole life was focused on bringing delight to the shahs who owned them.

One of the main advantages of the Iranian beauty was rosy cheeks. Today, one can achieve the desired degree of tenderness and roundness by means of draping—a technique that supposes a generous application of two shades of blush to the cheeks, cheekbones, and the area around the eyes.
Rose is the national flower of Iran. Harem dwellers used it to decorate both themselves and their interiors: flowers were woven into the hair and floral patterns were present in dresses, brocade cushions and carpets—even the cuffs of blouses on the wrists resembled flower petals.
When painting women, artists made their lips look heart-shaped and sensual, exaggerating their size with the help of a light line drawn along the upper lip. Nowadays, makeup artists achieve this effect with a highlighter applied close to the contour of the upper lip.
The Team

Models: Milana Batieva, Anastasia Korotkova, Maya Soerova
Photo: Ksenia Makarova
Video: Kirill Alexandrov
Style: Lorin Mai, Ruslan Nasir
MUAH: Arina Viscera
Idea, production, text: Lana Gogotishvili
Editor: Nastya Indrikova

The EastEast editorial board would like to thank Vertigo Brand and Merzavchik.Store for accessories and utensils used in the photo and video shoot.