Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Beauty and Georgian Society

by Grace Elliot

What is beauty?

In the 18th century, according to the Morning Post, a true beauty not only had good looks and a pleasing figure, but wit, grace, sensibility, elegance, good sense, expression, and principle. (Note: Modesty is absent from the list, but perhaps this falls under good sense or principles.) Indeed, in October 1776, the paper published a ‘Scale of Bon Ton’ that listed 12 of society’s most fashionable women as ranked by a point-scoring scheme.

Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire

In case you are wondering, the Duchess of Devonshire topped the list, hotly followed by the Duchess or Gordon, then the Countess of Derby.  Ranking beauties against one another was very popular, and only the month before the London Chronicle had published its own ‘Scale of Beauties’ – again with the Duchess of Devonshire ahead of the rest.

There’s no denying that the majority of these women were indeed attractive, but more than that, it was difficult for a woman not of noble blood to be a beauty in the fullest Georgian sense of the word, because they simply didn’t have the breeding. The concept of beauty was closely tied to ideas of behaviour and manners such that someone with good looks but lacking the correct social niceties  was left sadly short of that vital ‘something’ that made her acceptable as a society beauty.

All of which is as good as any yard stick to base the concept of ‘beauty’ on, since it is such a subjective thing. Even at the time, people debated (as they have done since time immemorial) the essence of beauty. A poem, written in 1733, titled ‘Beauty and Proportion’ extolled the virtue of symmetry with ‘a roman nose, high turn’d forehead and well-set eye.’

But someone with a good appreciation of beauty, the artist William Hogarth, writing in the mid-18th century, argued that disorderly style in the form of curved lines and uneven structures was a greater delight to the eye.

From the Harlot's Progress, by William Hogarth
Hogarth was well known for his cutting observations on social manners

A little later in 1795, the Dictionary of Love catalogued beauty in 28 points or of which the foremost was ‘Youth’. Understandable then, that some women turned to cosmetics to cheat the clock and make them appear younger. But this too was frowned upon, not least because makeup could be purchased by anyone to create the illusion of beauty and thus cheat the viewer.

Part of the problem with makeup was that it was so thick that it obscured many blemishes and imperfections. Whilst a noble lady was cossetted and often protected from some of the diseases that could devastate a complexion, a lady of lower birth was not. Therefore a perfect skin was a badge, a mark of superior rank. However, the use of makeup blurred this boundary and made it less clear for all to see.

It was argued that titled women should avoid ‘paint’ because it lowered them to the level of ‘inferiors’. This is all very well, for many young women in society who needed to make a good marriage but with average looks, the clever use of makeup seemed a Godsend to make them more attractive.

Maria, Countess of Coventry

At the time, much makeup contained lead, so perhaps there was wisdom (but for a different reason) behind avoiding artificial props. Perhaps one the most famous cautionary tales is that of Maria, Countess of Coventry, who rose to fame because of her stunning looks, but died because of lead poisoning from her makeup. Such was the pressure to maintain her status as a beauty that the means of maintaining an outward appearance of loveliness was ultimately her end. A salient lesson indeed.


Grace Elliot is a veterinarian and writer.  
To find out more, visit her blog:

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