Honorary Oscars were awarded for makeup in 1964 and 1968 (for 7 Faces of Dr. Lao and Planet of the Apes, respectively) but a competitive category honoring makeup effects wasn't introduced until 1981, due in large part to complaints that the makeup for The Elephant Man was not honored the previous year. From 1981 through 1992, the category honored only makeup but starting in 1993 the rules were changed slightly to include hairstylists on the condition that "hair effects contribute greatly to the appearance and effect of the characters." I would imagine that this change tipped the scales in The Young Victoria's favour because, seriously, have you seen Jim Broadbent's hair in that movie? It's awesome!
This year's nominees:
Aldo Signoretti, Vittorio Sodano, Il Divo: This is the 3rd nomination for Signoretti and the 2nd for Sodano. The team has already won the David di Donatello Award (Italy's equivalent to the Oscar) for their work on Il Divo. If you're curious as to why there's all this fuss over the makeup in Il Divo, I suggest you find a photo of lead actor Tony Servillo from one of his other films - he's almost unrecognizable.
Barney Burnam, Mindy Hall, Joel Harlow, Star Trek: This is the 1st Oscar nomination for all three. Normally I would assume that a film like Star Trek would have a lock on the win, but I'm not so sure this year. The other two nominees suggest that the category is favouring a different type of makeup effects than you see in films like Star Trek.
John Henry Gordon, Jenny Shircore, The Young Victoria: This is the 1st nomination for Gordon. Shircore previously won in 1998 for her work on Elizabeth. Given the amount of love AMPAS has showed to The Young Victoria, albeit not in any of the "big" categories, I think it might be the frontrunner here.