Regency Makeup and Cosmetics

When my wonderful and talented beta reader, Tygershark, first read my book The Coxcombs, even she assumed that the describing of the character Isabella wearing makeup was a historical error rather than a deliberate choice meant to depict something about the character; yet the great Jane Austen herself refers to cosmetics being commonplace, as in Persuasion where Sir Walter complains that Lady Russell ought to wear more of it and hints that younger women do put it to ample use. In the book Belinda by Maria Edgeworth, Lady Delacour tells her young friend, “every body must [wear makeup], sooner or later.” In the 18th century, heavy cosmetics had been in vogue as part of a fashion that deliberately sought to look unnatural and excessive; but by the 19th century the trend was for a more natural, simple beauty, which discouraged makeup but did not ban it.

Historical makeup is an oft-misunderstood subject. Popular misconceptions hold that all makeup was poisonous in the past, and that “painting the face” was something that nobody but prostitutes or loose women did due to social stigma.

To the first point, the reality is that there were many recipes for makeup throughout history, and while the deadly lead white and red vermilion (made from mercury) were popular pigments for the strength of color they offered, they were far from the only hues available. Already by the early 19th century, the poisonous powers of these ingredients were known and their use was consequently discouraged — vegetable pigments were recommended, instead, for cosmetic use. Historical recipes exist that make powder from starch, lipstick from dragon’s blood resin, blush from alkanet root, and many other safe substances.

To the second point, while heavy makeup was often the mark of a whore or an actress, the social acceptability of makeup waxed and waned throughout history — and even during times when it was not smiled upon, many women (and perhaps some men!) continued to wear it in subtle application so that it couldn’t be easily detected. During the Regency, makeup was falling out of favor but had not yet hit the point of being utterly unacceptable as it would be by the Victorian era (a time during which, once again, well-groomed women often did continue to wear makeup, although they took efforts to make it look natural as possible so that it wouldn’t be recognized.) If a Regency woman were caught wearing makeup, she might be ridiculed; there are anecdotes of women donning pearl powder (made from bismuth) who came into contact with sulfurous fumes that caused their makeup to blacken, to which the witnesses responded with laughter at her “practical lesson to rely more upon natural than artificial beauty.” It might be thought of as holding a status similar to cosmetic surgery today: something that is done and normally accepted, but still viewed with a certain amount of disdain for its being vain, frivolous, or for “cheating nature.”

The term “paint” was still used to refer to makeup during this time, and in many cases the construction of it was not very different from artists’ paints: simply pigment mixed with an oil or water base. (It is interesting that for this reason, many portraits are made from the same materials women would have used in person to adorn their faces!) However, the best cosmetics by this time were felt to come from more elaborate preparations which held better staying power and appeared more natural on the skin. The cosmetics used by stage actors might be very colorful and elaborate, but for common people white powder/foundation and red or pink for the lips and cheeks were all that were used.

Regency Era Rouge for the Face

Rouge referred to a red cosmetic that could be applied to both the lips and the cheeks, as well as any other spot one wished to redden such as hands or nails. It could be made dry, in cream, or in liquid. A little vermilion, cinnabar, red lead, or, more safely, carmine or iron oxide, could be blended with an oil or pomatum to produce a cream rouge to rub into the lips and cheeks. A style of rouge that appeared around the 17th century and stayed popular into the 20th was Spanish Wool, prepared on little pieces of cloth which one rubbed onto the face wet or dry. A cheaper version of this was to use red cloth (made with natural dye) wetted with water or alcohol so that the color would rub onto the face. Infusions of carmine, alkanet, red sandalwood, red safflower or brazilwood were used to make liquid rouges. These might be poured over talc and evaporated in order to create a powdered rouge, or the herbs boiled instead with a solid fat or pomatum in order to make cream rouges. “If ever paint were to be proscribed,” says the author of The Duties of a Lady’s Maid (1825), “I should plead for an exception in favor of rouge, which may be rendered extremely innocent, and be applied with such art as sometimes to give an expression to the countenance which it would not have without an auxiliary.”

Regency Paint and Powder Foundations

Paints (akin to what we now call “foundation”) might be made by simply soaking the desired pigment in a little rosewater or vinegar overnight and then painting the substance onto the skin, or by mixing the color into a cream base or salve. Powders could be made simply by applying the powdered pigment to the face; this was sometimes done over a coat of pomatum that had first been rubbed on to help it stick. However, more elaborate recipes are favored in the recipe-books of the day. Cosmetics were made from the same kinds of pigments that artists used for paint. There were very few artificial pigments at this time. Ceruse or lead white, as well as mercury sublimate, were popular white pigments for face powders and paints, but were far from the only pigments. Zinc white was just becoming known, and while it was not yet popular it was much safer, and by the end of the century this would be widely known. Chalk and talc (which currently is under some debate as to safety but generally considered safe in the US) were also common. Pearl Powder, such as Isabella Woolford from The Coxcombs wears, was made from real pearls if one could afford it, or else a recipe such as the following which comes to us from The Duties of a Lady’s Maid (1825): “Take four ounces of the whitest and driest magistery of bismuth, and two ounces of fine starch powder; mix them well together and put them into a subsiding glass, which is wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. Now pour over them a pint and a half of proof spirits, and shake and stir the whole well; after which let them remain together, to subside for a day or two. When all the powder has fallen to the bottom, pour off the spirit from it quite dry; and then place the glass in the heat of the sun, in order to evaporate any remaining moisture.” The resulting block of powders is then pulverized again to make the finished cosmetic. Bismuth is a sheer, sparkly pigment that gives the “glowing” or “age-defying” effect that is achieved with mica in modern-day cosmetics. Interestingly, bismuth was believed to be dangerous at the time, but now is known to be safe and is still used in eyeshadows and some foundations today.

To offer a sense of the historical colors, I have made the above patch test, with each powder dotted over a layer of old-fashioned cold cream. Going left to right the pigments are: starch, talc, lead, bismuth, zinc. Starch and talc both appear nearly transparent; lead and zinc meanwhile look very close in the fullness of their coverage, though the zinc is much cooler in tone than the lead. (Perhaps the addition of a little yellow ochre would warm it up to a health-conscious pigment match?)

Regency Era Eye Makeup

Eyeshadow was never used except by stage actors, and mascara was unknown. The British Perfumer (1822) remarks on a type of black cosmetic-paper from China that was used for darkening the eyebrows by rubbing it on. The Toilet of Flora (circa 1770) suggests blackened cork or burnt cloves to darken the brows, as well as the pigmenting power of “the black of frankincense, rosin or mastic.” There are additionally reports throughout the 18th century of stick-on eyebrows made from mouse fur that women attached to their faces with glue — however, the use of these falsies seems to have been declining in the 19th century.

Eyeliner in the form of kohl was known from the middle east, but was rarely if ever used in England. There is some evidence from later in the century indicating that women had devised a homemade eyeliner by holding metal hairpins in the flame of a lamp or candle till blackened, then after letting it cool, rubbed the pin around their eyes to create a smokey line. Crayons or oil pastels were used by artists, and stage actors such as Robert Tallivent from None But Fools sometimes used forms of these to line the eyes or paint the lips; but only women seeking a very artificial look, such as for a fancy-dress ball (a.k.a. costume ball) would have done this.

While painting lines or shapes around the eyes would have been thought very artificial, women sometimes tried to make their eyes look larger and brighter by applying the juice of the herb called eyebright directly into the eyes, or by drinking it. Cologne was also used in the same way for this same purpose.

Lotions and Other Cosmetics in the Regency

One who studies a bit about period cosmetics might see several references to “lotion” being used on the face. Note that at this point in time, lotion simply meant a liquid preparation — it was rarely, if ever, a moisturizer like we would nowadays think. Some lotions might be what we now call liquid foundations, but often it was a medicinal preparation of some type, such as the notorious Gowland’s Lotion which removed freckles, pimples and tans through the magical mixture of bichloride of mercury and bitter almond oil (cyanide.) With no regulations on manufacture, various beauty lotions with unknown ingredients were sold, sometimes with disastrous results to the women who used them. Books of the time recommended that women not to use these mixtures unless they had prepared them at home with safe ingredients.