Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The 'Natural Beauty' Ideal of the Regency

by Maria Grace

As the nineteenth century dawned popular views of beauty also shifted. Garments, particularly for women, changed from highly structured garments that relied on rigid undergarments to hold both the body and the garments in the desired shape, to flowing, easy gowns influenced by classical designs of the ancient world. ‘Naturalness’ of the female form was highly prized, whether attained by natural means or not.

Move toward Naturalness

Perhaps related to the political climate of the era, fears of artifice and the romanticism of the ‘natural’ state moved to the forefront of people’s minds. People feared duplicity, particularly that of women whose artful embellishments might lure unsuspecting men into marriage without truly recognizing the condition of their bride. Artist Thomas Rowlandson satirized this fear in his print ‘Six Stages of Mending a Face’. While this may appear shallow to the modern mind, in the era, deficiencies of the body were often seen to correspond to deficiencies of moral character, a serious matter indeed.

(Ancient) Greek influence, which was free of ‘unnatural straps’, braces and other ‘wicked inventions’, permeated period beauty ideals. The Book of Health and Beauty notes: “The Greeks, then, conceived that beauty was necessary to inspire love; but that the power of Venus was fleeting and transitory, unless she was attired and accompanied by the Graces, that is, unless ease and affability, gentleness and spirit, good humor, modesty, ingenuousness and candor engaged the admirers that beauty attracted.”

These ‘decent Graces' “join hand in hand, to show that cheerfulness, vivacity, and youth, should be united with sincerity, candor, and decorum: and to assure the beholder, that unless he or she possess all these qualities he cannot boast of being a favorite with the Graces. They are in motion, because without motion there can be no grace. Their movements, you will see, are animated and soft; and the decided character of the whole group is a noble simplicity, and an unaffected modesty.” Thus, the ability to move and hold one’s body properly became an integral component in the definition of beauty. (The Book of Health and Beauty)

Movement and Posture

The Toilette of Health, Beauty, and Fashion explains, “All grace consists in motion. The great secret of it is to marry two apparent contradictions,-—to unite, in the same movement, quickness and softness, vivacity and mildness, gentleness and spirit…The union of those two requisites is necessary in dancing, walking, bowing, talking, carving, presenting or receiving any thing, and, if we may venture to add, in smiling. Ease is the essence of grace: but all motions, quick and smooth, will necessarily be easy and free.”

Grace in all areas had to be entirely natural for any affectation would destroy the effect, as was often the case in stage performers. To be considered graceful every motion needed to be free from confusion or hurry while being lively and animated. Not only did all the motions of the legs, hands and arms need to be graceful, but the head, neck and even speech had to display grace as well. The epitome of grace in speech required the unity of vivacity with softness in the voice and simplicity of speech. Needless to say, the development of grace required practice, so lessons in deportment began early.

Ladies began such practice in childhood as they learned to move properly in the long skirts fashion and decorum required. Small steps that pushed skirts out of the way allowed a young lady to appear to glide as she moved. Steps would be made from the knee, rather the hips, as swaying the hips as one walked was indecorous. Turns were made with the whole body allowing garments to turn elegantly and gracefully. When sitting, ladies kept their knees spread, rather than crossing their legs, in order to keep their skirts neat. Arms were kept gracefully at ones sides, emphasizing the long elegant column of their classically inspired, empire-waist gowns. If they had to cross their arms, it was done at the high waist line, so as not to spoil the line of their gowns.

Grace was expected, even required of men as well as women. Unlike women, they were not taught deportment, however, training in fencing sufficed for the purpose. Not only did fencing give men well shaped legs—which were shown off constantly in skin tight pantaloons and breeches—it trained them in balance and graceful movement. The same effortless, elegant motions that carried them through a fencing bout were equally welcome on the dance floor.

Above all, perfectly erect and graceful posture was essential. Sitting, standing, walking or dancing, the spine was held straight and the head perfectly balanced atop a supple neck. To slouch was to risk deformity of the spine and to demonstrate disrespect and weakness of character.

For men, imperfect posture also risked chaffing and irritation from their fashionable garments. The cut of their coats, with armholes cut mostly in the back of the garment, rather than evenly distributed front to back as they are in modern garments, pulled shoulders back and opened the chest. High, stiff coat collars that often came up to their ears would irritate the back of the neck and even ears, if the spine was not straight and head held high, while a drooping chin could crush and soil a carefully tied cravat.

For all that ‘natural’ beauty was emphasized, ladies and gentlemen worked very hard to attain the standard of beauty. For those whose natural state was farther from the ideal, recommendations abounded on how to improve on what nature graced one with. The next part of this series will look a how one might improve upon nature’s gifts.


Andry, Nicolas. Orthopaedia: Or, the Art of Correcting and Preventing Deformities in Children . Vol. 1. London, 1743.
Buc'hoz, Pierre-Joseph. The Toilet of Flora Or, a Collection of the Most Simple and Approved Methods of Preparing Baths, Essences, Pomatums, Powders, Perfumes, Sweet-Scented Waters, and Opiates for Preserving and Whitening the Teeth, &c. &c. With Receipts for Cosmetics of Every Kind, That Can Smooth and Brighten the Skin, Give Force to Beauty, and Take off the Appearance of Old Age and Decay. For the Use of the Ladies. Improved from the French of M. Buchoz, M.D. London: Printed for J. Murray, Mo 12 Fleet-street and W. Nicoll, No. 51, in St. Paul's Church Yard, 1784.
Corbould, H. The Art of Beauty, Or, The Best Methods of Improving and Preserving the Shape, Carriage, and Complexion ; Together with the Theory of Beauty. London: Printed for Knight and Lacey ... and Westley and Tyrrell, Dublin, 1825.
Duties of a Lady's Maid with Direction for Conduct and Numerous Receipts for the Toilette. London: James Bulock, 1825.
Green, Ruth M., The Wearing of Costume:   The Changing Techniques of Wearing Clothes and How to Move in Them, from Roman Britain to the Second World War. New York:   Drama Publishers, 1995.
Jeamson, Thomas. 1665. Artificiall embellishments. Or Arts best directions how to preserve beauty or procure it. Oxford: Printed by William Hall, amm. D.
Sanford, Victoria. "Public Reaction to Rising Waists During the Late 18th Century: Regency Fashion." Jane Austens World. June 2, 2010. Accessed January 9, 2015. https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2010/06/03/public-reaction-to-rising-waists-during-the-late-18th-century-regency-fashion/.

Sheldrake, Timothy. An Essay on the Various Causes and Effects of the Distorted Spine ; on the Improper Methods Usually Practised to Remove That Distortion ; In Which That Recommended by Mr. Pott Is Considered, and the Bad Effects of Vacher's (commonly Called Jones's) Spinal Machine Are Pointed Out: With the Description of an Instrument That Is Better Calculated to Remove Those Distortions than Any Hitherto Made Use Of, and That Will Not Be Productive of the Pernicious Consequences That Have Been Caused by Most of the Other Machines. To Which Are Added, Some Observations on the Treatment of Ruptures ; Intended to Shew the Impracticability of Curing That Disorder by Any Other Means than the Use of Proper Truffes, and the Superior Utility of the Improved Elastic Truffes with Flexible Pads, Made by T. Sheldrake, Jun. London: Printed for C. Dilly, in the Poultry ;, 1783.

Snively, John H. A Treatise on the Manufacture of Perfumes and Kindred Toilet Articles. Nashville: C.W. Smith, 1877.
The Art of Preserving the Hair on Philosophical Principles. By the Author of The Art of Improving the Voice. London: Printed for Septimus Prowett, Old Bond Street, 1825.
The book of health & beauty, or the toilette of rank and fashion: embracing the economy of the economy of the beard eye-brovs gums nails breath eye-lashes hands skin complexion feet ips teeth eyes hair mouth tongue, 8::- 81c. With recipes, and directions for use, of safe and salutary cosmetics— perfumes—essences-simple ‘vaters—depilatories, etc. And a variety “ select recipes for the dressing room of both sexes. 2nd ed. London: Joseph Thomas, 1, Finch Lane, Cornhill, 1837.
The Hand-book of Bathing. London: W.S. Orr, 1841.
The Hand-book of the Toilette. 2nd ed. London: W.s. Orr and, 1841.
The New London Toilet: Or, a Compleat Collection of the Most Simple and Useful Receipts for Preserving and Improving Beauty, Either by Outward Application or Internal Use. With Many Other Valuable Secrets in Elegant and Ornamental Arts. Containing near Four Hundred Receipts under the following General Heads. Perfumes Fine Waters Baths Cosmetics Conserves Confectionary Snuffs Pastes Wash Balls Scented Powders Pomatums Fine Syrups Jellys Preserved Fruits, &c. With Every Species of Cosmetic That May Be Useful in Improving Beauty, or Concealing the Ravages of Time and Sickness. To Which Is Added a Treatise on the Art of Managing, Improving, and Dressing the Hair on the Most Improved Principles of That Art. London: Printed for Richardson and Urquhart, under the Royal-Exchange, 1778.
The Toilette of Health, Beauty, and Fashion: Embracing the Economy of the Beard, Breath, Complexion, Ears, Eyes, Eye-brows, Eye Lashes, Feet, Forehead, Gums, Hair, Head, Hands, Lips, Mouth, Mustachios, Nails of the Toes, Nails of the Fingers, Nose, Skin, Teeth, Tongue, Etc., Etc., : Including the Comforts of Dress and the Decorations of the Neck ... with Directions for the Use of Most Safe and Salutary Cosmetics ... and a Variety of Selected Recipes for the Dressing Room of Both Sexes. Boston: Allen and Ticknor, 1833.
Turner, David M. Disability in Eighteenth-century England: Imagining Physical Impairment. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Turner, D. M. and Withey, A. (2014), Technologies of the Body: Polite Consumption and the Correction of Deformity in Eighteenth‐Century England. History, 99: 775–796. doi:10.1111/1468-229X.12087
 Withey, Alun. "(Dis)ability? Living with Impairment in Early Modern Britain." Dr Alun Withey. September 28, 2012. Accessed January 9, 2015. https://dralun.wordpress.com/2012/09/28/disability-living-with-impairment-in-early-modern-britain/.
 Withey, Alun. "Sit up Straight! Bad Posture and the 'Neck Swing' in the 18th Century." Dr Alun Withey. January 15, 2014. Accessed January 9, 2015. https://dralun.wordpress.com/2014/01/15/sit-up-straight-bad-posture-and-the-neck-swing-in-the-18th-century/.
 Withey, Alun. "Steel and the Body in the Enlightenment:." Dr Alun Withey. June 7, 2012. Accessed January 9, 2015. https://dralun.wordpress.com/2012/06/07/steel-and-the-body-in-the-enlightenment/.


 Maria Grace is the author of Darcy's Decision,  The Future Mrs. Darcy, All the Appearance of Goodness, and Twelfth Night at Longbourn and Remember the PastClick here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, follow on Twitter or email her.


  1. Fascinating post, Maria! It sounds like so much work! LOL. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Thanks, Lana. It does put a different perspective on ladies' accomplishments, doesn't it?

  3. Great post! Shared on FB, Pinterest, and Twitter.

    Looking forward to seeing you next month - in all your Regency beauty!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.