Makeup dates back to the beginnings of human time. From the first use of cosmetics for healing and protective purposes, makeup eventually evolved to more symbolic applications—such as religious ritual, adornment, and sign of sexual maturity. Now, at the threshold of the twenty-first century, makeup provides material evidence about how notions of beauty and identity have changed radically over the past hundred years. In Japan, as in the West, these changes are echoed in the production and use of cosmetics. Shiseido, Japan’s leading cosmetics company, provides a lens that brings into focus some of these amazing aesthetic and social changes.

Founded in 1872 as a Western-style pharmacy, Shiseido's history parallels that of the commercial production of cosmetics, which began only in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Similarly, the development of the beauty industry’s mass-marketing tools—including product packaging, print advertisements, posters, and, later, television commercials—is epitomized in the company’s innovative designs. What sets Shiseido apart is its conscious promotion of a modern lifestyle: one in which the arts play an essential role.

Organized chronologically, the exhibition is divided into four parts: the Meiji era at the turn of the century, when Japan and the West came face to face; the years following the First World War, when Shiseido founded its renowned design department; the 1960s and ’70s, or Pop era; and the concluding section, featuring the period from 1965 to the present, which saw a revival of traditional Japanese ideals of beauty that helped fuel the postmodern trend toward global culture.

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