Makeup and skincare were very important to the Georgians, especially the wealthy. The condition of their skin became a symbol of social status. The paler and clearer your skin, the more respectable you were considered. A tan or marks on your skin implied that you worked or were outside a lot, that’s not what you wanted in the Georgian era. You would want your skin to be pale, preferably white, with no imperfections like spots, freckles or sun marks. In order to achieve this ‘flawless’ look, Georgian men and women went to great lengths.
Women would use a facemask called ‘fard’ made from honey, sweet almond oil and something called spermaceti (this is a waxy substance that was found in the heads of sperm whales), melted over some heat then applied to the face when cooled. The mask would be left on overnight. Today we would use a toner to cleanse our skin, Georgians would use rose water (still used today), elderflower water, and strawberry water. These provided a pleasant scent to the skin. Strawberry water was also used to remove freckles and sunspots.
If you look at any paintings from the Georgian period you’ll see that men and women had incredibly pale skin, often white, with a bright blush upon their cheeks, and red lips. To achieve this look lead was used as a foundation to pale the skin. The lead was incredibly poisonous and could lead to eye problems, digestive issues, and even death. Thank God we have safe options nowadays! Blue was used to highlight veins to give skin a more transparent look.
To give the cheeks and lips that rosy tint, carmine was mixed with lead and spread sparingly across the face. The incredibly toxic mercury could also be mixed into the lead. Makeup and skincare could be very expensive and only the wealthier portion of society could afford it, so if you still wanted to have that smooth, pale appearance you could use wheat flour, this could also go in your hair.
Speaking of hair, when you think of Georgian beauty you can’t not think of that preposterous nest of hair on top of their heads. You’d think that it was a wig, but in fact, women often used their own hair. Men were the main users of wigs during this time. Horsehair could be used to enhance women’s hair, making it thicker. Women didn’t really dye their hair white, they would just use a powder to give it that grey appearance. Bellows would be used to puff starch or flour over the hair, lightening it. If you were wealthy enough you could employ a team of people to build elaborate sculptures made out of wood on top of your head. Marie Antoinette famously had a model sailing ship moulded into her hair. Other decorations included wax fruit, flowers, and feathers.
To go with this high hairstyle, hair would often be curled. Tongs that looked like blunt scissors were heated up over a fire then the hair was wrapped around, not so different from the curling irons we have today. You could also use clay rollers heated in an oven or in a fire. The hair would often be kept in place for days, even weeks, at a time. This created a hotbed for lice. Mercury could be used as a treatment for the lice, but it could lead to madness or death, so specifically designed rods to scratch the scalp were the more common option.
As I said earlier on in this post, the lead foundation was poisonous therefore would often leave scarring on the skin. Imperfections were a big no-no so you would cover them; cover them with what I hear you ask? That’s right, more lead foundation! Fighting fire with fire is no way to go, so Georgians came up with another way to hide scars and spots. Patches made of black velvet, satin or silk were used. Everyone could wear patches, rich or poor. The only difference being that poorer people could not afford the luxurious silk, satin or velvet, so a cheaper alternative was used; mouse skin. Not only did patches cover skin imperfections, but they could be used as codes to communicate with others. You could make a political statement depending on which side of your face you wore a patch; left for the Whig party and right for the Tory party. The placement and shape of a patch said a lot.
The lead makeup often caused eyebrows to fall out, unsurprisingly, so many Georgians just removed whatever was left, by plucking or shaving, and would draw on their eyebrows, just like some of us do today. They would sometimes use a burnt cork, creating dark black brows. Mouse skin has also been mentioned throughout the 18th Century as an eyebrow replacement, but there’s nothing definitive about this, I would suspect that it was trialled among some people.
Hygiene was something that Georgians certainly didn’t prioritise. This includes dental hygiene. Tooth powders called dentifrice were used to whiten teeth but it had cuttlefish and bicarbonate of soda (sulphuric acid) among its ingredients which would strip teeth of their natural enamel. Enamel protects your teeth against daily use, without it your teeth are more susceptible to disease and infection. Getting any type of infection or disease during this era wasn’t particularly pleasant, and most people would need surgery; the only issue was that anaesthetics weren’t around at this point so if you needed the surgery, you could feel everything.
If your tooth was removed you could have a replacement from a donor. A donor was either someone who needed money (think of that scene in Les Miserables when Fantine sold her teeth) or corpses. The only issue was that they wouldn’t have had great dental hygiene either, so you’d get whatever infections they had too. If you did have a replacement, the new tooth would be sewn into your gum, remember, you’d be able to feel it. Poorer people could have teeth made out of porcelain or ivory.
Do you think you could live up to the beauty standards of the Georgian era?