Thursday, November 19, 2009

Inside the Lady’s Dressing Room (part 2)

Here's the conclusion of Audrey's examination of cosmetics & fashions in the 18th & 19th centuries. Enjoy!]

At the end of the 18th century in England and the newly formed United States, artificiality fell out of favor. We might point to the perceived frivolity of Marie-Antoinette, which (among other things) so incensed the citizenry of France that they rose up against the upper classes and in so doing helped to inspire Americans to shake off the fetters of English rule. Excessive display was out. Simplicity was in. The change was most drastic in men’s clothing. No longer were ruffles, powdered wigs, and other such fripperies viewed as acceptable menswear. Women began to wear less powder and paint, and numerous writers advocated moderate exercise and a healthy diet as the pathway to beauty.

Did this mean that women stopped spending so much time at
their dressing tables? It would be nice to think so, if only because of the fault-finding that goes on there. Augusta Webster’s “By the Looking Glass” (1866) poignantly depicts one young woman’s insecurity over her appearance. After returning form a dance, she faces herself in the mirror, and frets that “her heart must starve” because she is too plain to attract a suitor.

A girl, and so plain a face!
Once more, as I learn by heart every line
In the pitiless mirror, night by night,
Let me try to think it is not my own.
Come, stranger with features something like mine,
Let me place close by you the tell-tale light;
Can I find in you now some charm unknown,
Only one softening grace?

Alas! it is I, I, I,
Ungainly, common….

Such a frank appraisal of deficiencies is heartbreakingly authentic. One wants to take the young girl’s hand and tell her that looks aren’t everything.

Less fortunate still might be the dressing table’s attendant, the lady’s maid. Isabella Beeton, in
her guide to everything, the Book of Household Management, says of this servant, “the lady’s-maid has to originate many parts of the mistress’s dress herself: she should, indeed, be a tolerably expert milliner and dressmaker, a good hairdresser, and possess some chemical knowledge of the cosmetics with which the toilet-table is supplied, in order to use them with safety and effect.” Although Isabella deems the duties of the lady’s maid to be “light and easy”—in comparison, no doubt, to the more onerous work of other household servants—because of the intimacy of the position, she would have little time for leisure. Dusting bonnets, cleaning shoes, laying out clothes, lighting fires to warm her mistress, cleaning and sweeping the dressing and bed rooms, packing for trips, being constantly on call—such tasks were all to be performed quietly and unobtrusively. Ever the recipe-collector, Isabella provides instructions to the lady’s maid for making solvents to clean brushes, shoe polishes, hair washes, and the following “Pomade for the Hair.”

INGREDIENTS - 1/4 lb. of lard, 2 pennyworth of castor-oil; scent.

Mode.—Let the lard be unsalted; beat it up well; then add the castor-oil, and mix thoroughly together with a knife, adding a few drops of any scent that may be preferred. Put the pomatum into pots, which keep well covered to prevent it turning rancid.

The ideal lady’s-maid, says Isabella, would take classes to learn to style hair according to the
latest trends, study fashion magazines to keep her mistress’s wardrobe up to date, and always be thinking of ways to make things better for her employer.

She will also, if she has her mistress’s interest at heart, employ her spare time in repairing and making up dresses which have served one purpose, to serve another also, or turning many things, unfitted for her mistress to use, for the younger branches of the family. The lady’s-maid may thus render herself invaluable to her mistress, and increase her own happiness in so doing.

So much for spare time! More than her mistress, the lady’s maid was a slave to fashion.

A Miss M. H. Butt, writing in Godey’s Lady’s Book in April of 1854 presents beauty as an equal-opportunity trait, one that came more from within than without.

Whether she be in the lofty or lowly walks of life, if she possess certain mental qualifications and traits of character, she is beautiful. Her beauty does not consist alone in the bright flashing eye, which seems to speak the sentiments of her heart; it depends not upon the graceful form or gorgeous equipage; it is her mind, well cultivated and endowed with all those intellectual qualifications, which will make her a brilliant star, and which will enable her to enlighten those with whom she may become conversant....Yes, woman is truly beautiful; she is earth's greatest ornament; of her too much cannot be said. In whatever light we view her, she is lovely.

Such sentiments, no doubt, encouraged many a young woman to develop her mind!

In closing: Frances Sargent Osgood's
“Flattery. Venus’s Looking-Glass” (1864)

Beautiful? yes! Those deep-blue eyes
On heaven have gazed, till they caught its dyes;
Thou hast been seeking the rose, to sip
Its dewy bloom for thy balmy lip;
Thou hast been out in the radiant air,
Wooing the sun with thy wavy hair;
For a rich gleam breaks through its braids of brown,
Like a smile from Day's bright Eye sent down;
Beautiful? yes! but the rose will fade;
The smile grow dim which the bright eyes wear;
The gloss will vanish from curl and braid,
And the sunbeam die in the drooping hair!
Turn from the mirror! and strive to win
Treasures of loveliness still to last;
Gather earth's glory and bloom within !
They will be thine when youth is past.
Audrey Bilger, © 2007-2009

Pix from Top
Madame Seriziat: Jacques Louis Davis, 1795
Title page from Beeton's
Book of Household Management
Fashion plate of English and French costumes for 1815
Godey's Lady's Book, 1867

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  1. Lard for the hair, mmm, lovely. It brings to mind Liv Tyler's wonderful "do" in the film "Onegin".

  2. I think I like that Miss M.H. Butt - and thank you for the introduction to Augusta Webster's poetry. I wanted to give that poor young woman at the 'pitiless mirror' a hug.

  3. Hi Willow & Sandra

    Willow: Haven't seen that one, but I do like Liv Tyler. I'm thinking the "scent" component is very important in the pomade!

    Sandra: I wasn't familiar at all with Augusta Webster--it does look like her poetry is available!

  4. I think I would have preferred to be the ladies' maid. At least you could take classes and get out of the house for a while. I like cleaning, so that would work out. I even like doing laundry, although from what I've seen on British history programs I don't imagine I'd be too keen on that sort of work in the 18th century or any time up to the 20th!
    A program that both my husband and I really enjoyed was "Manor House". It was a kind of reality show Upstairs/Downstairs at an Edwardian manor where regular folk took the parts of the householders and the servants. I always felt scullery-maid would have been my lot.
    I am rambling. Sorry, but I do think perhaps the maids were less concerned with their appearances—more down-to-earth as it were.

  5. Thanks, everyone! And big thanks to John for finding so many perfect illustrations for this and my other pieces here. John, you have such a great eye for discovering and placing these!

  6. A most impressive post. I now have to get myself up to speed: I missed the first part, which I now badly want to read.

  7. Hi Kat & Audrey & Dave

    Kat: We watched a bit of Manor House at one point!

    Audrey: Thanks for your kind words & for your great contributions!

    Dave: So glad you enjoyed this!


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