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Regency cosmetics

Posted: 18th May 2015
Category: Jane Austen News
Regency cosmetics

There are many ways in which the Regency period makes a curious and sometimes uncomfortable transition between the decadent Georgian period and the more puritanical early Victorian period, and one of these is related to women’s appearance.

Make-up was a troubled and troubling concept: the 1700s had taken artificiality for granted, but the early 1800s set much more store by freshness and natural beauty – particularly that of young ladies. The increasingly powerful middle class associated excessive use of cosmetics with the decadent aristocracy, and, consequently, with prostitutes and ‘fast’ women, and expected its own respectable daughters to look pleasingly natural and naturally pleasing.

 

The Georgian upper class made no secret of its reliance on bizarre cosmetics. Powdered wigs, tightly laced corsets, white lead face-paint, patches, rouge and even fake eyebrows were both common and expected. By contrast, where a fashionable Georgian look was carefully constructed and layered on, the Regency style, from the wispy Empire-line dresses to the careless ringlets, had to look completely natural – which brought considerable additional pressure on those debutantes who did not naturally look like classical statues or did not have the right complexion for pastel-hued sprig muslin.

 

Particular attention was paid to the quality of a young woman’s skin, and freckles or a suntan were terrible curses. Since face powder and rouge were now frowned upon, a roaring trade began in skin lotions supposed to cure these ills, facilitated by the increase in print culture which allowed for extensive advertising.

 

However, even if ladies were no longer painting their face with lead foundation, many of these skincare lotions contained poisonous substances including lead and mercury as well. Others might consist of simple household products such as sugar water mixed with essence of lavender or roses. Thus, even a supposed ‘natural’ look often relied on toxins and/or quackery, and as a result was not much of an improvement on the heavily made-up Georgian look.

 

 

 


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