Painted faces: cosmetics in the 18th century

The vicissitudes of pre-modern life invariably took their toll on the health and appearance of 18th-century Europeans; their faces were often riddled with smallpox scars, their teeth decaying, their gums caved in from lost teeth, their gait uneven from childhood rickets. One way both men and women could hide these defects was to wear a thick face of makeup. A very specific beauty ideal was common to European countries at the time, which often involved using highly toxic cosmetics. Recounting a visit to the theatre in 1716, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu described what would remain the fashion for the rest of the century: ‘all the ladies have…snowy foreheads and bosoms, jet eye-brows and scarlet lips’. The only thing she missed out was brilliantly red cheeks. So, how did men and women achieve this desirable look?

A white complexion

For centuries, the fashionable skin colour in Europe was palest white as it suggested wealth and idleness, rather than having to labour in the fields and get sunburnt. This pale look became even more pronounced in the 17th and 18th centuries as fashionable men and women increasingly resorted to artifice to make their complexion yet whiter.

A pasty face could be achieved by using one of the many face creams and washes which promised to whiten and bleach the skin. One advertisement for a ‘Chemical Wash’ promised to get rid of ‘all deformities…[such] as Ringworms, Morphew, Sunburn, Scurf, Pimples, Pits or Redness of the Smallpox, keeping [the skin] of lasting and extreme Whiteness’.

English portrait, 1780s

Rather more dangerously, people used heavy white foundations to achieve the desirable pale complexion. These were slathered over the face and bosom, and in order to heighten the effect, some ladies painted blue veins on their bosoms. The more harmless ingredients in white makeup preparations included rice powder, vinegar, hartshorn, gum arabic, and bismuth subnitrate (the latter still being used in modern paints). However, many of the most popular facial cosmetics included lead, as it had desirable opaque qualities. One toxic recipe for white face paint went as follows:

Steep the lead in the pot of vinegar, and rest it in a bed of [horse] manure for at least three weeks. When the lead finally softens to the point where it can be pounded into a flaky white powder [chemical reaction between vinegar and lead causes lead to turn white], grind to a fine powder. Mix with water, and let dry in the sun. After the powder is dry, mix with the appropriate amount of perfume and tinting dye.

Of course, the major downside of using lead-based makeup was that it proved highly poisonous to the wearer over time. Incredibly, people used it even though the effects of lead poisoning were pretty well known. Several English socialites actually died from lead poisoning this way, such as Maria, Countess of Coventry, who died of blood-poisoning in 1760 at the tender age of 27.

Maria, Countess of Coventry
Maria, Countess of Coventry

Rouged cheeks

A white complexion was not, however, deemed complete without a very visible application of rouge. This could range from a large swathe of red from the eyes down to the mouth, to neat red circles in the middle of the cheeks. The most harmless rouge concoctions were made of vegetable matter. Rouges made in this way might contain sandalwood, brazilwood, safflowers, red wine, or carmine (derived from the cochineal insect).

Some of the most popular recipes for rouge were, however, like the lead-based white makeup, highly toxic. Many women used a vermilion-based rouge as it gave a particularly brilliant red colour; vermilion is made from the mineral cinnabar, also known as mercury sulphide! The author of the 1760 work The Art of Beauty warns against using cinnabar as a component of rouge, arguing that ‘it is very dangerous; for by using it frequently they may lose their teeth, acquire a stinking breath, and excite a copious salivation’. The author correctly identifies the effects of mercury poisoning, but goes on to recommend ‘a fine White Paint’ containing the equally poisonous lead!

Madame de Pompadour at Her Toilette Boucher 1758
Boucher, ‘Madame de Pompadour at her Toilette’ (1758)

Aside from the very real dangers posed by cosmetics containing large quantities of lead and mercury, white face paint and vivid rouges were disadvantageous in other ways. For one thing, they were susceptible to run off in stressful conditions, leaving the wearer looking rather ghastly. In Fanny Burney’s 1778 novel Evelina, the narrator says of a distressed Frenchwoman who had suffered an accident, that ‘her face was really horrible, for the pomatum and powder from her head, and the dust from the road, were quite pasted on her skin by her tears, which with her rouge made so frightful a mixture, that she looked hardly human’. Indeed, not everyone thought that rouge made a man or woman more attractive. The French critic Charles-Nicolas Cochin, writing in about 1750, opined that:

It is well known that rouge is nothing more than the mark of rank or wealth, because it cannot be supposed that anyone has thought to become more beautiful with this terrible crimson patch. It is surprising that such distinction has been attached to a colour so common and inexpensive that even the lowliest grisettes [working-class women] can make this expenditure as abundantly as a person of the highest birth.

Roslin, ‘The Countess de Bavière-Grosberg’ (1780)


The ideal 18th-century eyebrow was thin, half-moon shaped with tapered ends, and conspicuously dark. Eyebrows could be darkened with lead, kohl, burnt cork, elderberry juice, or the soot from oil lamps. If someone had lost their eyebrows from excessive plucking, they could always stick on a pair of false eyebrows made of mouse-skin. Satirists made much of this particular phenomenon: Jonathan Swift describes a woman’s ‘eyebrows from a mouse’s hide / Stuck on with art on either side’, and the poet Matthew Prior described in 1718 how: ‘HELEN was just dipt into bed / Her eye-brows on the toilet lay / Away the kitten with them fled / As fees belonging to her prey.’

From 'The New London Toilet' (1778)
A recipe to darken eyebrows, from ‘The New London Toilet’ (1778)

Beauty patches

Beauty patches, made of silk velvet, taffeta or satin and attached with glue, were fairly common in the 18th century. They served several purposes. Due to their dark colour, beauty patches heightened the contrast with artificially whitened skin, and were also very useful in covering up particularly noticeable smallpox scars. In fact, beauty patches developed a whole language of their own. At the French court, for instance, a beauty patch at the corner of the eye signified passion; one on the forehead was supposed to look majestic; and a patch on a dimple was considered playful. According to Joseph Addison in an early issue of The Spectator, the position of beauty patches in England could even be a symbol of political allegiance. He described the following scene at the Haymarket Theatre:

I could not but take notice of two parties of very fine women, that had placed themselves in the opposite side boxes, and seemed drawn up in a kind of battle array one against another!  After a short survey of them, I found they were patched differently; the faces, on one had, being spotted on the right side of the forehead, and those upon the other on the left…Upon inquiry, I found that the body of Amazons on my right hand were Whigs and those on my left Tories…

Gainsborough, ‘Portrait of a Lady In Blue’ (1777-79)
Boucher, ‘A Lady Applying Beauty Patches’











The public attitude towards ‘painting’ one’s face was mixed. At the French court, no one would have been caught dead without a thick face of makeup, but England was more conservative, and the English generally thought it inappropriate for younger women to paint their faces. In Maria Edgeworth’s 1801 novel Belinda, we are supposed to feel pity and contempt for the aging socialite Lady Delacour when she tells the young eponymous heroine, ‘but you don’t paint – no matter – you will – you must – every body must, sooner or later’.

Many moralists condemned the practice of painting altogether. Society was more willing to forgive the foibles of the young, but was particularly vicious towards older ladies who resorted to paint and other beauty aids to hide their aging complexions. Lady Archer in particular came under much critical scrutiny for her continued application of heavy makeup as she grew older:

HER Ladyship’s figure has been for many years common to this metropolis, but the natural complexion of her face, is no more remembered, it having been so long disguised by cosmetic art, that flesh and blood seem not to form the least part of its composition. The art of painting, however, of brushing up an old decayed picture, is not the only art in which she excels…

'Six Stages of Mending a Face'
‘Six Stages of Mending a Face’. A 1792 Rowlandson caricature of Lady Archer

Never…did any person labour more indefatigably to fill up the wrinkled deformities of nature, with the impotent remedies of art; but all is labour in vain, the remedy worse than the disease, it chiefly consisting of mercurial and a variety of pernicious ingredients, often inflicting palsies and other most fatal maladies: nor…does it ever answer the purpose intended, exciting disgust, instead of stimulating desire: a revolting melancholy instance of which, we have now before us—a PAINTED SEPULCHRE…

If it be men whom [women] aspire to please, if it be for them that they daub and varnish their complexions, I have collected the opinions of mankind, and I promise on the part of the great majority…that the use of paint renders women hideous and disgusting, that it withers and disguises them, that men hate as much to behold the female countenance thus plaistered, as to see false teeth in the mouth, or balls of wax in the jaw; that they decidedly protest against every artifice employed to disfigure the sex.


Caricature of Lady Archer driving to a shop on Pall Mall selling rouge and mouse-skin eyebrows
Caricature of Lady Archer driving to a shop on Pall Mall which sells rouge and mouse-skin eyebrows

Further reading

Anon., The New London Toilet (1778)
Pierre-Joseph Buc’hoz, The Toilet of Flora (1772)
Charles Pigott, The Female Jockey Club, or, a Sketch of the Manners of the Age (1794)
J. Williams, The Art of Beauty: or, a Companion for the Toilet (1760)

Foot binding in imperial China

There are many legends about the possible origin of foot binding. One story relates that during the Shang Dynasty (c.1600-c.1046 BC), the concubine Daji, who was said to have clubfoot, asked the Emperor to make foot binding mandatory for all girls so that her own feet would be the standard of beauty and elegance. Another story tells of a favourite courtesan of Emperor Xiao Baojuan (483-501), Pan Yu’er, who had delicate feet, dancing over a platform inlaid with gold and pearls and decorated with a lotus flower design. The emperor expressed admiration and exclaimed, “lotus springs from her every step!”, a possible reference to the Buddhist goddess Padmavati who is often portrayed sitting on a pink lotus.

This may have given rise to the terms “golden lotus” or “lotus feet” used to describe bound feet, though there is no evidence that Pan Yu’er ever bound her feet. A more generally accepted explanation is that the practice is likely to have originated from the time of Emperor Li Yu (Southern Tang Dynasty, 937-976). The story goes that Emperor Li Yu asked his concubine Yao Niang to bind her feet in white silk into the shape of the crescent moon and perform a ballet-like dance on the points of her feet. Yao Niang was described as so graceful that she “skimmed on top of golden lotus”. This was then emulated by other upper-class women who wished to follow court fashions, and the practice spread throughout China.

Woman with bound feet in Tsingtao
Woman with bound feet in Tsingtao
Woman with bound feet, 1900
Woman with bound feet, 1900











Whatever the truth of its origins, by the time of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), foot binding was common practice among all but the lowest classes. Bound feet had become a mark of beauty and status and were a prerequisite for finding a good husband. Women, their families and their husbands took great pride in tiny feet, with the ideal length, called the “Golden Lotus”, being about 3 inches long. Bound feet were a sign of high status because they indicated that the woman did not need to engage in manual labour – this would have been near impossible with very tightly bound feet. Moreover, bound feet limited a woman’s mobility to such an extent that she was largely restricted to her home and could not venture far without the help of watchful servants.  She was rendered almost totally dependent on her menfolk, which appealed to male fantasies of ownership. A woman with bound feet was also seen as a desirable wife because she was assumed to be obedient and uncomplaining.

In Chinese culture, bound feet were considered highly erotic. When walking, women with bound feet were forced to bend their knees and balance on their heels; the resultant unsteady, swaying movement was attractive to many men. It was also believed that the gait of a woman with bound feet would strengthen her vaginal muscles. Although Qing Dynasty sex manuals list 48 different ways of playing with womens’ bound feet, many men preferred not to see uncovered feet, so they were concealed within tiny, elaborately embroidered “lotus shoes” and wrappings. Feng Xun is supposed to have said that “if you remove the shoes and bindings, the aesthetic feeling will be destroyed forever”. This concealment from the man’s eye was considered sexually appealing in itself, though it had the practical grounding that an uncovered foot would give off a foul odour due to chronic fungus infections and potential gangrene.

Chinese girls from Amoy, all with tiny bound feet
Chinese girls from Amoy, all with tiny bound feet

How did foot binding work? The process was started before the arch of the foot had a chance to develop fully, usually between the ages of 4 and 7. First, the toes were curled under the foot, then pressed with great force downwards until they broke. The broken toes were held tightly against the sole of the foot whilst the foot was drawn down straight with the leg and the arch forcibly broken (one aim of the process was to make the foot look more like a vertical extension of the leg than an appendage which propped up the body). Following this, cotton bindings would be tightly wrapped around the foot, ensuring that the heel and the ball of the foot were drawn together. A girl’s broken feet required a great deal of care and attention, and they would be unbound regularly. Each time the feet were unbound they were washed and soaked in a concoction that caused any dead flesh to fall off, and the bindings were pulled tighter each time they were reapplied. This ritual was performed as often as possible, daily or at least several times a week.

The most common problem arising from bound feet was infection. Despite the amount of care taken in regularly trimming the toenails, they would often in-grow, becoming infected and causing injuries to the toes. Sometimes for this reason the girl’s toenails would be peeled back and removed altogether. The tightness of the binding meant that circulation to the feet was almost cut off, so any injuries to the toes were likely to worsen, leading to infection and rotting flesh. If the infection entered the bones it could cause them to soften, resulting in toes dropping off. This was actually often seen as a benefit because the feet could then be bound even more tightly. Girls whose toes were too fleshy would sometimes have shards of glass or pieces of broken tiles inserted within the binding next to their feet and between their toes to cause injury and deliberately introduce infection. Disease inevitably followed infection, making life-threatening septic shock a real possibility.

19th century slippers for bound feet, 4½ inches long © Metropolitan Museum of Art
19th century slippers for bound feet, 4½ inches long
© Metropolitan Museum of Art

In her semi-autobiographical work Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, Jung Chang describes her grandmother’s experience of having her feet bound at the turn of the 20th century:

“When my grandmother was growing up the prevailing attitude in a small town was that bound feet were essential for a good marriage. [My grandmother’s] greatest assets were her bound feet, called in Chinese ‘three-inch-golden-lilies’. This meant she walked ‘like a tender willow shoot in a spring breeze’. My grandmother’s feet had been bound when she was two years old. Her mother first wound a piece of white cloth about twenty feet long round her feet, bending all the toes except the big toe inwards and under the sole. Then she placed a large stone on top to crush the arch. My grandmother screamed in agony.

“The process lasted several years. Even after the bones had been broken, the feet had to be bound day and night in thick cloth because the moment they were released they would try to recover. For years my grandmother lived in relentless, excruciating pain. When she pleaded with her mother to untie the bindings, her mother would weep and tell her that unbound feet would ruin her entire life. And that she was doing it for her own future happiness. In those days, when a woman was married, the first thing the bridegroom’s family did was to examine her feet. Large feet, meaning normal feet, were considered to bring shame on the husband’s household”. (pp.23-25)

In practice, foot binding was carried out in various forms. Some non-Han ethnic groups practiced loose binding, which did not break the bones of the arch and toes but simply narrowed the foot; the Hakka people did not engage in foot binding at all. When the Manchu Qing Dynasty came to power in 1644, the emperor ordered that Manchu women were not to bind their feet. Those who dared not oppose the ban developed other ways to emulate the unsteady gait that bound feet necessitated, inventing their own type of shoe that caused them to walk in a swaying manner. These “flower bowel” shoes sat on a high platform generally made of wood, or they had a small central pedestal. Bound feet therefore became an important differentiating  marker between Manchu and Han women.

Manchu shoes from the 19th century, 9½ inches long © Metropolitan Museum of Art
Manchu shoes from the 19th century, 9½ inches long
© Metropolitan Museum of Art

Serious opposition to foot binding started gaining momentum in the late 19th century. One force working against the practice was religion. In southern China, in Guangzhou, the Scottish sinologist James Legge encountered a mosque which had a placard denouncing foot binding, saying Islam did not allow it since it violated God’s creation. Many Christians also opposed foot binding. In 1874, sixty Christian women in Xiamen spoke out and called for an end to foot binding. Their cause was championed by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Movement in 1883, and advocated by missionaries including the Welshman Timothy Richard, who hoped that Christianity could promote equality between the sexes.

Educated Chinese began to realise that this aspect of their culture did not reflect well upon the progress of the modern rising world, and social Darwinists argued that it weakened the nation since enfeebled women supposedly produced weak sons. Some families who opposed the practice made contractual agreements with each other, promising an infant son in marriage to an infant daughter who did not have bound feet. This was supposed to ensure that the girl would get a husband even without bound feet.

The government eventually followed suit and passed various laws which attempted to ban foot binding. The Empress Dowager Cixi issued such an edict following the Boxer Rebellion in an attempt to appease foreigners, but it was rescinded a short time later. In 1912, after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the new Nationalist government of the Republic of China banned foot binding, but they could not hope to enforce the ban in the most isolated rural areas. In Taiwan, foot binding was forbidden by the Japanese administration in 1915. It was not until 1949, however, when the Communists came to power, that a strict prohibition on foot binding could be properly enforced even in the most far-flung areas. The ban remains in effect today.

Woman with uncovered bound feet, 1911
Woman with uncovered bound feet, 1911
Unbound and bound feet in 1902, 10 years before the ban
Unbound and bound feet in 1902, 10 years before the ban










Further Reading

Jung Change, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (2003)

Bizarre fashions: wigs and false hair

Wigs and false hair have a long and noble history, but they really came into their own in the later 17th and 18th centuries. During this period, they were not just aids for balding men, but were de rigeur for anyone who wanted to look fashionable. The first half of the 17th century saw long hair for men come into fashion, and by the English Civil War (1642-49) it was all the rage, as we know from portraits of the Cavaliers. I once got into trouble with a history teacher for erroneously claiming that Charles I wore a wig – she immediately retorted that in fact, Charles I had lovely, long locks of his own!

King Charles I in 1631, with long natural hair
King Charles I in 1631, with long natural hair

It’s said that the wig came into fashion when Louis XIV, the Sun King, started wearing one to cover up his baldness; by 1680 he had 40 wigmakers working for him at Versailles. His court was arguably the European centre of fashion, so the periwig spread across Europe and was introduced to England by Charles II in 1660. In 1663, Samuel Pepys, ever a man alert to new fashions, bought his first wig. He described the fitting in his diary: ‘by and by comes Chapman the periwig-maker, and [upon] my liking it, without more ado I went up and there he cut off my haire; which went a little to my heart at present to part with it, but it being over and my periwig on, I paid him £3 for it; and away went he with my own hair to make up another [wig]’. Going to church the following Sunday he was worried about what people would think, but he found ‘that my coming in a perriwig did not prove so strange to the world as I afeared it would, for I thought that all the church would presently have cast their eye all upon me – but I found no such thing’.

Louis XIV, c.1673
Louis XIV, c.1673

Anyone with pretensions to fashion wore a wig, and it could be an expensive habit especially as wigs grew larger, more complex and thus costlier towards the end of the century. One critic of the fashionable elite remarked bitterly in 1694, ‘to speak plainly, Forty or Threescore pound a year for Periwigs, and Ten to a poor Chaplin to say Grace to him that adores Hair, is sufficient demonstration of the Weakness of the Brains they Keep Warm’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, wig theft became a problem in urban areas. A child, who was hidden inside a basket balanced on the thief’s shoulders, would quickly pluck off a wig from a passer-by and put it in the basket. John Gay mentions this in his 1716 poem Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London:

Nor is the wig with safety worn;
High on the shoulder, in a basket born
Lurks the small boy, whose hand to rapine bred,
Plucks off the curling humours of thy head.

stealing a wig
Wig c. 1700, very long with a high crown
Wig c. 1700, very long with a high crown











These full-bottomed periwigs continued in fashion until around the 1720s, at which point smaller, powdered wigs started to be introduced. Men had a choice of wig styles, made out of a variety of materials (human hair was the most expensive; goat’s hair, horsehair and vegetable fibres were cheaper alternatives). The ‘Ramillies’ wig (named for Marlborough’s victory over the French in 1706) featured the hair drawn back into a long pigtail with bows of black ribbon at the top and bottom. Informally, men could wear bob wigs which ended in a roll around the back of the neck; clergymen and scholars marked themselves out with bob wigs which were frizzed instead of curled. There was also the ‘tye’ wig, with the hair drawn back into a queue tied back with black ribbon; the bag wig was a variation of this in which the queue was enclosed in a silk black bag.

These more modest wigs continued for the rest of the century as the staple of a gentleman’s outfit. When James Boswell lost his wig in 1789, he was devastated and rushed 25 miles to buy a replacement, explaining ‘I could not long remain an object of laughter’. With the revolutionary spirit of the 1790s and 1800s, almost everyone except older men and conservatives abandoned the wig for natural hair. Footmen, however, had to continue wearing wigs for another hundred years despite the discomfort and inconvenience (perhaps their employers liked the throwback to a supposed golden past), and judges and barristers in England still wear modifications of the 18th century wig.

wig types


Curiously, womens’ hairstyles went in the opposite direction. Throughout the late 17th century women wore natural hair, and in the first half of the 18th century hair was powdered and crimped but still mostly natural and dressed close to the head, in a style known as tête de mouton.

1739 - powdered and crimped natural hair
1739 – powdered and crimped natural hair

By the 1770s, however, the female ton were wearing towering headdresses. Already in 1767, the Hon. Mrs Osborne wrote that ‘Lady Strathmore’s dress is the wonder of the town, her head a yard high and filled, or rather covered with feathers of enormous size’. The gigantic hairstyles of the 1770s were achieved by a mixture of natural hair stretched over wire frames and hair-pads, and large quantities of false hair. The whole thing was plastered with pomatum and powdered white, violet, pink or blue with starch. Such a structure could remain untouched for months. However, those with the money and time could change hairstyles more frequently; in an extreme example, the Comtesse de Matignon made a bargain with the famous hairdresser Baulard, who agreed to provide her with a new headdress every day in return for 24,000 livres a year.












Headdresses in this period were often topped with the most fantastic objects; gardens, a ship in full sail, a windmill with farm animals around it. Anything could be taken as inspiration; current affairs (as in the 1779 illustration below), notorious lawsuits, and successful plays were all excuses for changing shapes and trimmings. The coiffre à l’Insurgent (1780) included a snake which was so lifelike that the style was banned in order to spare ladies’ nerves.

1779 headdress celebrating the French victory at Grenada
1779 headdress celebrating the French victory at Grenada

Not everyone approved; Mrs Delany, attending a court event in 1780, wrote critically of ‘rows above rows of fine ladies with towering tops…I must own I could not help considering them with some astonishment, and lamenting that so absurd, inconvenient, and unbecoming a fashion should last so long, for though every year has produced some alteration, the enormity continues, and one of the most beautiful ornaments of nature, fine hair, is entirely disguised’.  Mrs Delany certainly had a point about the inconvenience of the 1770s hairstyles. They were havens for lice and fleas; so-called ‘back scratchers’, which had small ivory claws on the end of long sticks, were inserted into the headdress in a desperate effort to stop the itching. Carriages weren’t built to accommodate such high hairstyles, and there’s evidence to show that ladies had to sit or kneel on the floor of their carriages in order to fit in. The sacrifices made for fashion…

Gainsborough, 'A Woman in Blue'
Gainsborough, ‘A Woman in Blue’
Maria Therese of Savoy c.1776
Maria Therese of Savoy c.1776










Wigs and false hair for women came to an abrupt end altogether in the 1790s and 1800s, to be replaced with natural hair arranged in classical-style coiffures – some of the most daring women cropped their hair short. Some historians have suggested that the temporary abandonment of complicated dresses and elaborate hairstyles was a reaction to the French Revolution; having seen  the massacre of many of their peers, aristocrats had no desire to stand out too conspicuously in public. The long flowing lines of the Empire silhouette and the simple new hairstyles were also undoubtedly a response to the neoclassical aesthetics of the time, which valued simplicity and harmony. Interestingly, the decades around 1800 saw female fashions at their least restrictive since the middle ages. Come the Victorian period, however, women were once more slowly boxed up into tight-laced corsets and masses of petticoats, leading to some very strange and uncomfortable fashions which I’ll make into the subject of a future post.

c.1780-1790. This decade saw an emphasis on width, emphasised by wide-brimmed hats
c.1780-1790. This decade saw an emphasis on width, emphasised by wide-brimmed hats
The hair is unpowdered, and pulled up into a classical-style knot above the head
Early 1800s: hair is unpowdered, and pulled up into a classical-style knot