The Georgian-Era Beauty Tricks That Could Fool A Man Into Marrying You

Don't try these 18th-century beauty techniques unless you want to put horse poop on your face and be arrested for witchcraft.
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Publish date:
September 11, 2013
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hair, makeup, powders, wigs, history, pale skin, Georgian

The Georgian period spans 1714 to 1830, when all Kings of England went by the name of George. Kudos to Wills and Kate for bringing it back.

I’ve always been pretty fascinated by this period of history, and particularly by the powdery faces and towery hair of the folks who inhabited the beginning of the era. How did their necks not crumple beneath the weight of those wigs? Why did they think pale and dusty was a good look?

THE HAIR

Wigs were huge (in both senses) throughout most of this period, though less so later on. Chances are the initial popularity of the wig was born of necessity.

What was the key blight on the locks (and other parts) of Europeans at this time? Syphilis. Syphilis caused hair loss, and so hair loss was a mark of shame.

Samuel Pepys, the English diarist, wrote (a bit selfishly if you ask me) of his syphilis-stricken brother: “If he lives, he will not be able to show his head--which will be a very great shame to me.”

The people of England became more and more syphilitic, so they realised the usefulness of the wig.

Besides syphilis, another claimant to Chief Wig-Populariser was Louis XIV over in France. Louis had no fewer than 48 wigmakers committed to hiding his thinning hair (possibly caused by syphilis).

Much like anything to do with France and sex, the wig became a great status symbol. What’s more, they were super-expensive, so wearing one meant everyone knew you were a proper "bigwig."

The flipside of this was that, when the French Revolution came along later, wigs, as a symbol of aristocracy, lost their coolness. In 1715, the residents of Caen even rioted over the wasteful use of flour by poncey aristos who wanted to keep their wigs white.

And so wigs began to fade out. After all, who needs a wig when you don’t have a head?

So normal hair once again became visible, although the use of powder (applied after lard to make it stick) persisted as a greasy nod to the days of the bigwig.

Still women couldn’t resist a little height on their heads and liked to use horse hair, human hair, or artificial pads to beef it up.

THE FACES

A smashing side effect of towering wigs was to shield the face from the sun, thus keeping the wearer’s skin as pasty as possible. Paler was better, which basically meant "richer" at this point. Besides, many people at this time were left with deep scarring from smallpox, which meant thick white makeup was de rigeur.

Posh ladies at Court used powders of vanilla, cacao and almonds. But the standard recipe for face powder involved lead, vinegar (it’s the reaction between lead and vinegar which creates white pigment), horse manure (to soften the lead), and perfume (presumably to cancel out the smell of horse poo.)

To further hide pock marks, women would own a patch-box, containing little pieces of silk or leather, sometimes died a bright colour, to pop on top of their scars. The positioning of your patches could suggest your political leanings and much more. A mark by the mouth could mean you fancied a kiss.

Seeing as the ideal complexion was palest pale, rouge was used to add contrast. It was usually made from carmine (also lead-based) and dabbed on with wet wool. The same thing was used on the lips.

HERE'S WHERE IT GETS INTERESTING

You know how men always say they prefer women without makeup? Well, pity the poor men of Georgian England.

Georgian gents feared that all this cosmetic artifice meant that the vilest, grossest toad could put on a jaunty wig, paint her face up nice, splodge on a bit o’ carmine… and trick them into marriage.

Thomas Rowlandson’s "Six Stages of Mending a Face" (which is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) depicts a monstrous Georgian woman in the stages of disguising her hideousness with cosmetics. It’s like the transformation in An American Werewolf in London, but back to front, and with worse special effects.

Post-wig, dentures, and glass eye, Rowlandson’s gal becomes a dangerous masked seductress.

The fear of deception by makeup was so well-entrenched that a bill was introduced stating:

That all women, of whatever age, rank, profession or degree, whether virgins, maids or widows, that shall, from and after such Act, impose upon, seduce or betray into matrimony, any of His Majesty’s subjects, by the scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes, bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the law in force against witchcraft and like misdemeanours and that the marriage upon conviction shall stand null and void.

Women were instructed to steer clear of any makeup that could deceive innocent men into thinking they were lovelier than they were. And so, towards the end of the 18th century, came the vogue for fresh-skinned, centre-parted doll women--a bit like the ones who turn up in Jane Austen later on.

Can you imagine a beauty routine like this? Do you think today's beauty tricks are as deceiving as the Georgian ones were accused of being?