Monday, July 21, 2014

Make-up in the Eighteenth Century - a fatal attraction.

by Mike Rendell

Have you ever wondered about Eighteenth Century make-up, and in particular about the curious fashion for wearing face patches/mouches/Court plasters (call them what you will)? They were especially popular in the latter years of the Seventeenth Century but still remained fashionable until the end of the Georgian period.

The patches seem to fall into two separate categories - those worn for high fashion, and those worn to hide pock marks. The desire to cover up a disfigurement is understandable. Smallpox affected perhaps a quarter of the population, and frequently left the sufferer with facial blemishes. To reach adult-hood and have a perfect complexion was unusual – and therefore “masking” the blemish was considered important.

Even worse, the great pox (as venereal disease was known) and its treatment with mercury, frequently caused dreadful facial disfigurements. Small wonder then, that women with ravaged faces sought to hide the evidence of disease either with a thickly applied make-up, or with patches (or more usually, both). The image is of the bawd in The Harlot's Progress, by William Hogarth (Plate 1).

A stunning gold and agate box for patches and rouge, c. 1750.
Shown courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Looking at the patches worn wholly for fashion, you need to remember that a porcelain-white complexion was a sign of high class - after all, the lower orders had to work outside and so had ruddy complexions. Her Ladyship distanced herself from such labourers by emphasizing her pale skin, often slathering on white lead. Yes, it was poisonous, and yes, that was known at the time, but it did not prevent those dedicated followers of fashion from literally killing themselves to look as white as a sheet.

How to get the white lead? According to Fenja Gunn, author of  The Artificial Face, you needed the following:

     several thin plates of lead
     a big pot of vinegar
     a bed of horse manure
     perfume & tinting agent

Steep the lead in the pot of vinegar, and rest it in a bed of manure for at least three weeks. When the lead  finally softens to the point where it can pounded into a flaky white powder (chemical reaction between vinegar and lead causes lead to turn white), grind to a fine powder. Mix with water, and let dry in the sun. After the powder is dry, mix with the appropriate amount of perfume and tinting dye.

It sounds delicious, especially with all that horse manure!

A face balm could also be made using a concoction of almond oil heated up with spermacetti (a waxy substance found in sperm whales, normally used in candles) mixed with a tablespoon of honey. 

Men as well as women would whiten their skin. The patches were then applied as a contrast - drawing attention to the pale complexion. They could be kept in a small patch box, and the patches might be made of silk or black paper (in which case they might be applied simply by affixing to the face with a bit of lick) or of velvet, taffeta or leather (in which case a dab of gum arabic might suffice).

There was a whole language attached to where the patch would be worn, borrowed (of course) from the French. Supposedly, you could show your political complexion by whether you wore your patch on yourright cheek or on the left. But ladies would use the patches as a language of flirting - for instance, a patch above the lip invited kissing. Those lips would be coloured with carmine - sometimes bright red but generally pink, applied with a pad of colour-impregnated wool or hair, called spanish wool. The red effect could also be achieved by dabbing on vinegar (fancy a snog anyone?) or distilled alcohol (yes please!). By the middle of the 18th Century coloured lip-balms became available, made from a mixture of carmine and Plaster of Paris. The fashion was for small, bee-sting (i.e. rose bud) lips - and colour might be applied by both genders. You only have to think of those ludicrous macaronis...

Dame a sa Toilette, by Boucher
Back to the patches - they came in all shapes and sizes and a lady might wear a dozen or more at one time. You might fancy a heart-shaped one, or a starry one - or even group them together to make a sort of stylized picture on the cheek or side of the neck. A sort of  dot-to-dot adhesive tattoo!

Other positions for patches had different meanings: just by the eye indicated passion; a heart shaped one on the left cheek showed that you were engaged  and on the right that you were already married. On the nose was saucy, and in the centre of the forehead - dignified. A beauty spot on the breast  was said to indicate a murderess - but then again, some books say that it denoted generosity! Wear two down your decolletage and perhaps you were murderously generous! Or a generous murderer...It is useful to remember that the neck, shoulders and bust were also whitened, not just the face, and for added glamour a lady might accentuate the veins on her breasts with blue lines.

Eyebrows were often plucked - either that, or they were the first thing to disappear as a result of the white lead. This resulted in people having to cut strips of mouse hair to be glued in place, and of course sometimes they came loose during an evening's entertainment, which must have looked most odd. Even Jonathan Swift commented on the fashion:

    “Her eyebrows from a mouse’s hide
     Stuck on with art on either side”

(Curiously, the same poor mouse might also be used to provide pubic hairpieces, called merkins).  

The fashion was for eyebrows to be half-moon shaped, tapered at either end, and an especially pleasing effect could be obtained by the judicious application of lamp-black (i.e. soot) or burnt cork, or even elderflower berries. Rouge would be used to accentuate the white skin - again, more lead-based products! The red would come from vermilion obtained from mixing ground-up cinnamon with mercury, or from carmine (red lead).  Other colourants came from vegetable sources such as wood resin and sandalwood, which would be pulverized and then mixed with grease or vinegar to make a paste.

The Jelly-House Maccaroni, courtesy of the British Museum. Spot the spots!

And then of course there was the high point of your toilet (in other words, your preparations before you went out to face the world) - the wig. It was a bit of a nuisance having to keep putting on powder in order to keep the dratted thing white (the hairdresser used a puffer, while Her Ladyship protected herself with a conical mask) so the fashion developed for applying lard to the wig, so that the powder stuck to it and lasted for days. No wonder lice and other insects were attracted to the smelly concoction, and there are even tales of mice nesting in wigs which were not regularly taken off and brushed through. For ladies the wig powders were often a bluish white. The poorer fashionistas and wannabees might use flour, whereas the aristos would powder their crowning glories with dust - obtained from white lead. Lead was a Bad Thing. It caused hair loss, vomiting, acute head-aches, bowel problems, blindness, and, even paralysis and death. Add that to a regular ingestion of mercury for instance from the lip colourants) and it is amazing anyone reached adulthood!

One such tragic victim was the famous beauty Maria Gunning, who died of lead poisoning aged 27 in 1760. For a decade she had been applying liberal quantities of ceruse to whiten her skin.This compound of lead oxide, hydroxide, and carbonate proved to be a lethal cocktail as the hydroxide and carbonate combined with the moisture in her skin to form acids which slowly ate it away. Her husband obviously liked his ladies to be white as a sheet – one of his paramours (while his wife was alive) was Kitty Fisher, a notorious courtesan who similarly died in her twenties, a victim of lead poisoning. The tart had class – she directed that she be buried wearing her best ball-gown!

Rowlandson's "Six stages of mending a face" dedicated to Lady Archer.
In the finished face - bottom left - she sports patches on her chin and cheek.

Lady Archer was particularly famous for wearing vast amounts of rouge – hence the caricatures by Thomas Rowlandson, above, and by James Gillray. As far as I can decipher from the Gillray featured below and called "The Finishing Touch" it shows Lady Archer holding a rouge pot in her left hand while applying a copious amount of her trademark rouge to her right cheek. In fact I bet the old gal used a trowel...

A final quote from Jonathan Swift on the subject of cosmetics. His wonderfully scatalogical poem  from 1732 called The Lady's Dressing Room describes a man rifling through his lover's dressing table. It contains the lines:

        ...Now listen while he next produces
        The various combs for various uses,
        Filled up with dirt so closely fixt,
        No brush could force a way betwixt.
        A paste of composition rare,
        Sweat, dandruff, powder, lead and hair; 

  He goes on to describe the array of make-up jars on the dressing table:

        Here gallypots and vials placed,
        Some filled with washes, some with paste,
       Some with pomatum, paints and slops,
       And ointments good for scabby chops. 

   Serves him right for trespassing on her territory – some things are best left unseen!

Mike is the author of The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman based on the family collection of diaries and memorabilia from the 18th Century. He has also published a book about the origins of the Circus Astley's Circus - the Story of an English Hussar and is about to have published a fully illustrated book  An introduction to the Georgians. He also does a regular blog on all-things-Georgian here).

1 comment:

  1. Ah, but women wouldn't torture themselves so, if men didn't like them like this. It must have been that women saw what attracted me and tried to please -- like any mating animal. I'm quite glad modern men have discovered a delight in more natural beauty!


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