[B]ut ladies, the hour appropriated to the adornment of our persons draws near, and I shall request the favour of this young lady to accompany me to the temple of the graces, or, in other words, the toilet. (Elizabeth Griffin, The Double Mistake, 1766)If we could step back in time and take a seat at a lady’s dressing table in 1700s England, we would recognize many of the items laid out before us. Here, a brightly colored scent bottle; there, a jewel-encrusted powder box; an assortment of make-up containers, compacts, brushes, and combs arranged for easy access. But there would also be much to marvel at, and portraits of women from this period make clear that beauty could take a great deal of work.
Artifice was the order of the day for upper-class women through much of the 18th century. Not only did stylish ladies frequently whiten and varnish their faces, they might also stuff their cheeks with round balls, called “plumpers” to add fullness. In “An Inventory of a Lady’s Dressing Room,” Elizabeth Thomas disparages women who “nightly traps insidious lay, / To catch new eye-brows for the day,” referring to the practice of attaching false eyebrows made of mouse fur (The Metamorphoses of the Town: or, a View of the Present Fashions, 1754 [posthumously published volume, 4th edition]). A truly fashionable face would be covered with patches, also referred to as mouches (French for “flies”), pieces of cloth, typically velvet, satin, or tafetta, or thin leather, cut into a variety of shapes and sizes. The woman so ornamented could carry a patch box along with her to replace any that came off or to put on new ones as the spirit moved her.
In many ways, the mouches or patches were like early versions of temporary tattoos. Although some might be as dainty as a faux mole, larger, more dramatic shapes were quite popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. Geometric shapes, such as circles, stars and diamonds were favorites, as were crescent moons and hearts. A stylish lady might wear five or six of these at once! In the seventeenth century, a fashionable patch to be worn on the forehead was a silhouette of a coach and horses. In the early 18th century, English women sported patches to identify their political affiliations as Whigs or Tories. Less fancifully—or politically—patches might cover blemishes or small pox scars.
Red lips, flushed cheeks, and dramatic hairstyles polished off the look. Small wonder that a character in Hannah Cowley’s Belle’s Stratagem (1780) would quip, “A lady at her toilet is as difficult to be moved as a Quaker.” In the 1770s, hairstyles might include wire frames to lift the coiffure to outrageous heights. Frances Burney’s Evelina, freshly arrived from the country to London, can’t get over her elaborately styled hair.
I have just had my hair dressed. You can't think how oddly my head feels; full of powder and black pins, and a great cushion on the top of it. I believe you would hardly know me, for my face looks quite different to what it did before my hair was dressed. When I shall be able to make use of a comb for myself I cannot tell, for my hair is so much entangled, frizled they call it, that I fear it will be very difficult. (Evelina, 1778)Feathers, beads, and other fanciful elements might decorate this type of hairdo. Some styles were reportedly so high that women had trouble going through doorways; there were also reports of women whose hair caught on fire from the candles of chandeliers.
Although moralists frequently attacked the use of cosmetics, the very existence of rants against female vanity, such as Jonathan Swift’s “Ladies Dressing Room” (1732) indicates that many women took pleasure in enhancing the features nature gave them. The “mysteries of the toilette,” as they were so often termed, included a variety of surprising elements. Pigeon’s wings, pig’s jawbones, human urine, and boiled puppies—unsavory as they sound, these were all ingredients found in early beauty treatments. Lead, mercury, and arsenic were also enlisted to whiten the skin and redden the cheeks.
A cosmetics recipe book from the period, The Toilet of Flora (1775), paints a vivid picture of beauty aspirations on its title page: "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." This book advertises itself as a sort of public service for women, whose appearance, according to the author should be taken quite seriously:
The chief Intention of this Performance is to point out, and explain to the Fair-Sex, the Methods by which they may preserve and add to their Charms; and by which many natural Blemishes and Imperfections may be remedied or concealed. The same Share of Grace and Attractions is not possessed by all of them; but while the Improvement of their Persons is the indispensable Duty of those who have been little favoured by Nature, it should not be neglected even by the few who have receive the largest Proportion of Gifts. The same Art which will communicate to the former the Power of Pleasing, will enable the latter to extend the Empire of their Beauty. It is possible to remove, or, at least, to cover the Defects of the one Class, and to give Force and Lustre to the Perfections of the other.
The Toilet of Flora offers instructions for making "A Fluid to die the Hair of a flaxen Colour," as well as numerous beauty waters with formidable names such as "The Celestial Water," "Imperial Water," "Angelic Water," and "The Divine Cordial." Such waters claimed to remove wrinkles, clear skin, "preserve the Complexion," and, for what one might hope were extreme cases, "remove Worms in the Face." There are recipes for salves, pomatums, cold creams, balms, soaps, perfumes, and rouges.
"A Liquid Rouge that exactly imitates Nature" is a mixture of brandy, gum benzoin, red sandalwood, brazil wood (commonly used as a scarlet dye), alum. The infusion must be shaken daily for twelve days, after which it will yield miraculous results: "Lightly touch the cheeks with this Tincture, and it will scarcely be possible to perceive that rouge has been laid on, it will so nearly resemble the natural bloom.”
POSTSCRIPT: Dying for Beauty
The story of Maria Gunning and her sister Elizabeth starts off like a fairy tale and ends with a bleak cautionary message. These mid-18th-century sisters were famous for being great beauties—the “Fair Gunnings,” they were called--but they came from an Irish country family whose funds were limited, and so their parents sent them off to Dublin to seek their fortunes. Here they were befriended by theatre folk, who dressed them up to attend a social function at Dublin Castle, where they were so celebrated, that they were encouraged to go to London. Crowds gathered to look at them, so fair they were. Author Horace Walpole, writing in June of 1751, said that they were “declared the handsomest women alive.”
Elizabeth made the first conquest eight months after their arrival. James, the Sixth Duke of Hamilton, was so enchanted by her looks when he saw her at a party in 1752, that he married her on the spot. Three weeks later, Maria was wed to George William, Earl of Coventry. Lady Coventry continued to be mobbed by crowds wherever she went, so much so that the King himself assigned soldiers to guard her, something that no doubt only served to draw more attention to her. She triumphed in this manner for almost a decade, but her life was cut short at the age of twenty-seven because of her over-reliance on powder and paint. She contracted blood poisoning and her face was ravaged. She allegedly spent her last days in a darkened room, holding a pocket mirror, and despairing over the loss of her famed beauty. When she died in 1760, over ten thousand people came to view her in her coffin.
Pix from Top
English Satinwood Dressing Table: Illustrated History of Furniture, From the Earliest to the Present Time from 1893 (Litchfield)
boîte à mouches ou tabatière (box for face patches): from Musée de la faïence à Marseille; photo is by Robert Valette, who has published it at Wiki Commons under a GNU Free Documentation License
Les mouches sous Louis XIV (face patches from the time of Louis XIV): from L'Art et les artifices de la beauté, Octave Uzanne
Robe a la polonaise: 1770s engraving
An illustration from The Toilet of Flora
Title page from The Toilet of Flora
Maria Gunning: from Some Old Time Beauties After Portraits by the English Masters, with Embellishment and Comment, Thomson Willing (1895)