Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Beauty, 19th Century Style, Part 1: Detestable Compositions

Today it’s no big deal for young women to use lipstick, eye pencils, and any other number of cosmetics to improve on nature or conceal temporary blemishes. In the early 19th century, however, it was rather a different story. For one thing, in those days, make-up could kill—literally!

Up until the 20th century, the ideal of feminine beauty was a white skin tone, untouched by the sun. For those not naturally gifted with a pale, clear complexion, there was always “paint”, the “detestable compositions” of today’s title—compounds usually containing heavy metals like lead and antimony which might give one the desired, smooth, white skin, but were also highly neurotoxic (and, in the end, actually corrosive to the skin). Furthermore, there was an association of make-up with the stage and actresses, who were thought to be of uniformly light virtue. So is it any wonder that the use of anything to alter the appearance of one’s skin was regarded by most with at least deep suspicion?

But even the most curmudgeonly of 19th century texts agree that sometimes, Mother Nature needs a little help. All agree good general health and cleanliness to be the best promoter of a clear, handsome complexion, though they don’t always agree on just how to achieve them (is cold air a bane or boost?) But when Mother Nature doesn’t come through, a little rouge to the cheeks—the extract of safflowers or red sandalwood or cochineal (made from the crushed bodies of an insect native to Mexico and South America) is permissible…and that’s about all. Don’t even think about lipstick or eye make-up:

The article of rouge, on the grounds I have mentioned, is the only species of positive art a woman of integrity or of delicacy can permit herself to use with her face….nothing but selfish vanity, and falsehood of mind, could prevail upon a woman…to lacquer her lips with vermilion….Penciling eyebrows, staining them, &c. are too clumsy tricks of attempted deception…. (from The Mirror of Graces, 1811).

Of course, if a young lady wished to impress a young man with rosy lips to match her complexion, there was always the old trick of raising one's fan before one's mouth and biting the lips into pink plumpness...

Our next installment on 19th Century beauty will be Skin Care Recipes, or Everything I Need to be Beautiful can be Found at the Supermarket…but first, we’ll be welcoming Regency author and dog expert Judith Laik back to Nineteenteen next week with a look at the one of the century’s most enthusiastic dog fanciers.


mary sullivan said...

This was fascinating, Marissa! Times have changed, but sometimes when I'm applying makeup, I wonder whether it could contain harmful ingredients. You just never know what manufacturers are willing to do to sell a product.

QNPoohBear said...

Jane Austen's World recently blogged about deadly cosmetics in the 18th and 19th centuries

I also listened to a podcast from Colonial Williamsburg about beauty. It's a fascinating topic.

Marissa Doyle said...

Oh, I'll go have a look, QNPoohBear!

Mary, believe me--it's a lot safer to wear makeup now than even 75 years ago. At least there are safeguards in place now for harmful materials like lead and other metals.