Women like to look their best and today it's easy: anyone can pick up a tube of lipstick
and the latest women's magazine at her corner store. But how was it in the Regency era?
Was there cosmetics to be had? Did women wear make-up and if they did, did it matter
what type of woman you were? This page attempts to answer those questions.
Fashion in make-up changes, often from one extreme to another, so after the Rococo era of white faces, red lips and heavily rouged cheeks the Regency, as a reaction, was one when natural beauty was highly praised. Skin care not cosmetics was the watchword of the day and manufacturers competed in fantastic lotion with equally fantastic names such as Olympian Dew, a Bloom of Ninon, b Milk of Roses c or, to inspire confidence, down to earth Gowland's Lotion, d The Bath Lotion e and many others. Fancy lotions were very popular among upper class women although it's doubtful whether they offered improved efficacity over home remedies such as crushed strawberries and cucumber. The complexion, that is the texture of the skin and the brilliance of the checks, where for once as important as mere prettiness. Women took exercise to brighten their complexion; after two centuries of hiding indoors with nary a draft of air 'taking the air' became a national pastime. Women walked, rode and went for spins in open carriages. Although freckles and tans were still frowned upon, a fresh and windblown face was no longer considered the province only of dairymaids.
In 1811 a woman's beauty book saw the first light of day. 'The Mirror of the Graces or The English Lady's Costume' f published anonymously by A Lady Of Distinction, assures us of its purpose to:
The much admired rosy natural look in 18171
Even though natural beauty was the yardstick it was often achieved by helping nature along by judicious use of cosmetics. Let's look at the make-up product available to the Regency woman.
The white face of the earlier era was giving way to a more natural look, which meant less reliability on the white face paint. It was still used to some extent, rather sparingly, by older women trying to hide the ravages of time and by women of ill repute. White paint was similar to modern foundations, mainly consisting of [aromatic] water, oil, talk and emulsifier (tragant or gum arabic) in which a pigment was suspended. g The problem was the pigment used - lead! The lead was responsible for the opaque quality of the white paint, or enamel as it sometimes was called, but extremely toxic. A coarsening of the skin was also observed, caused by both the poisonous lead and the drying effect of the maquillant itself. The lead based white paint was slowly replaced by zinc oxide and chalk, which were less opaque and glossy but much healthier. h
At this time white face paint was also slowly replaced with tinted foundations more similar to what we are familiar with. One of the first preparations was the Pear's Almond Bloom, touted by its maker to "adhering firmly to the face, giving a light and delicate tint that cannot be distinguished from nature". i Others were to follow and fashion, rather than health, delivered the final death-knell to lead cosmetics.
Powder was permissible in this age however. The most common varieties were made of rice flour although fine talcum powder was at times also used. For a glossy or shiny look pearl-powder, a brilliantly white powder made of finely ground bismuth, was used rather like the modern highlighters. j Pear's White Imperial Powder k was one such product. Again, this was more common for mature women and not so much for the debutante.
The rogue was one of very few accepted cosmetics that survived the French revolution. One such product appearing during the Regency era was Pear's Liquid Blooms of Roses. l The blush came in several shades and the pigment was usually bright red carmine (cochineal dissolved in alum water) m and the rose pink safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) in varying combination. Sometimes muriate of tin was used, not so healthy but producing a bright red color. n It is the safflower, commonly referred to as bastard saffron, which is the basis for the French rouge vègètale n1 not the saffron crocus. Talcum powder was sometimes used to mute the color and ease application. Powder blushes were most common although liquid or creme rouge could be found. Sometimes rouge was sold in sheets - crepons- made of thin crepe fabric dipped in the makeup. o The make-up was rich in pigment and, for a natural result, a light hand needed for the application. Or as the author of the article Improvement of Beauty wrote:
A slang term in the era for applying rouge was to 'set a nap on the cheek'. - Quarterly Review, Dec 1811, page 479.
The Egyptian craze produced some rather startling side effects. Suddenly the European world discovered such wonders as mascara and eyeliner. We can almost hear the dismay echoing through the ages! The English exploration of India and contacts with other Oriental areas such as Turkey, p also contributed to the spreading of these cosmetics. Mixing lamp-black (a fine black soot) with a little oil produced a usable paste to apply to both eyebrows and eyelashes. Burnt cork, we can imagine the stink!, was sometimes used as well. q Of all the cosmetics available those for the eye were most frowned upon, probably because of the difficulty in application, which made a natural result rather unlikely, particularly when viewed in daylight.
Although heartily condemned by moralists, it is probable that most women used some type of lip color in the Regency. One popular cosmetic was Rose Lip Salve, available from any drug store near you, and chiefly containing white wax, almond oil, alkanet (the root of Alkanna tinctoria) to color and scented by otto of roses. r Rigge's Liquid Bloom s seems to have been a popular brand. This type of lip rouge would give the lips a somewhat transparent rosy glow, rather like modern lipglosses. For bright red lips vermilion (an opaque cochineal derivate) was used, which created a more painted look, similar to that of our lipsticks, than the alkanet salve.
Perhaps we should here also make mention of the teeth, so much a part of a nice smile. Dentistry was still in its infancy and the general cure for cavaties and tooth ache was tooth extraction! However, together with general cleanliness people had become more dilligent at brushing their teeth. Commercial tooth powders became available, carrying suggestive names such as Essense of Pearl t and making round promises of fastening loose teeth, stopping decay and curing infections in the gums.
So although natural beauty was much praised, the majority of the women in Regency days would take cosmetics to fill in where nature proved deficient and in many cases what we see is the natural look, which differed from the previous century in pretending to be natural, but was still helped along by a judicious amount of cosmetics.
Notes on the text: