Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Lead face powder - because you're worth it!

We kill ourselves for beauty, or so I have heard it said. And it is as true now as it has ever been, but the means were not always so subtle. In the 18th Century, as indeed in most of history, pale, milky skin was valued by the English as an indication of prestige. If you were tanned, it meant you spent a lot of time in the sun, probably working, and the upper classes wanted to get away from this image as much as possible. This ultimately resulted in ladies, and in fact some gentlemen, painting themselves white.
We may dust our faces with bronzing powder, but they painted their skin with led paint. You can only imagine the wonders this did for their complexions. Yes, it ate holes in their faces and made their eyebrows fall out. And that is not to mention the countless other illnesses and even death that were caused by the direct application of lead to their faces.
To remedy the loss of eyebrows and pocks on the skin, they adopted some other gruesome tactics. They made false eyebrows out of rat hair which they would actually glue to their faces and they covered their pocks with moleskin patches. These latter became a fashion of their own, and varied a great deal in size and shape. When you see an obviously false beauty mark being sported by an 18th century lady with a pale complexion in an old painting, that is a moleskin patch and is covering up a hole in her face.
Fortunately, by Jane Austen's time, this look was starting to go out of vogue. By the time she was writing her novels, it was certainly not fashionable among the young. I have heard several theories as to why that was, but I will save that for another post. 
Ladies did still continue to use rouge, but they would always deny it. I think there are some scenes in Moll Flanders (the book, not the film, which I love, but which takes only its title and none of its plot from the book) in which some ladies are accusing each other of using rouge, which accusations are hotly denied. And, according to Sir Walter Elliot, if Lady Russell would only wear a little rouge, she would not be afraid of being seen.

(Follies Past: A Prequel to Pride and Prejudice, is a novel by Melanie Kerr. Expected publication date is October 31, 2013. Until then, I will be posting things I learned in the course of my research and of my life so far as a geek. Sharing always welcome and encouraged. Follow me on twitter @FolliesPast and on facebook.) 

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