Saturday, June 8, 2013

Victorian Makeup

These days wearing makeup is an everyday thing for many women, and not something we tend to hide. In fact may of us celebrate wearing makeup. I know I do! Not so for women during the Victorian era. From the Regency era and into the Victorian and even Edwardian era, wearing makeup (or at least admitting to it) was looked down on. While wearing cosmetics during the 18th century was the norm for the upper classes, after the American and French revolutions, the wearing of makeup was seen as decadent and a sign of immorality in women. Prostitutes and actresses were known to wear it, and were called "painted ladies"for this. To wear makeup in a noticeable way was to be associated with these "lower" levels of society and risk being associated with impurity. During the strict Victorian era, middle and upper class women did not want to be seen as immoral lest they risk social isolation.Don't be fooled though, as many women did wear makeup during this time period.

The ideal Victorian look, was to have pale unblemished skin, as only lower classes would be coarse enough to go outside and actually get a "gasp" tan. Many women achieved this look with various powders and face creams.  The powders were sometimes made from talc or rice powder, and the creams could be gotten from local apothecaries. Lemon juice was used to cleanse and lighten the skin and was an ingredient in many homemade remedies. One recipe called for taking half a lemon, scooping the innards out and turning the empty peel inside out, then beating an egg white inside this little lemony bowl. The mixture could then be applied to the face as a treatment.

Rouges were popular as well, as the pale skin contrasted with red cheeks was seen to give a healthy and youthful appearance. Beet juice rubbed into the cheek was a common way to achieve this desired color. Lips were often faintly colored as well. Beeswax was used to give the lips a shiny look and to protect against chapping. A tint could be added to the beeswax with various dyes, including the aforementioned juice du beet.

 Victorian ladies' dressing table

 Eye shadow was popular too, with black and red being the most common colors. Only disreputable ladies though would wear it on the whole lid. More respectable women would wear it as a sort of eyeliner. Some would put wax on their eyelashes, then add soot, as a sort of early mascara.
 Bright eyes were also considered a sign of health, though the suggested ways to achieve this sound painful or downright dangerous. A squirt of lemon or orange juice in the eye was recommended, and some women even used belladonna! It was said to widen the pupils, but could cause damage to the woman's vision.

Due to the stigma against wearing cosmetics, many women hid their makeup form prying eyes. The various creams and powders were often put in prescription containers or other bottles. The containers themselves could be hidden in secret compartments in dressing tables, or even medicine chests, where they would look more medicinal. It was important that others think you looked that way naturally. It was considered an insult to a women's reputation to accuse her of "painting".

A Victorian woman's toiletry case.

I'm very glad these days we can paint (or not) as we choose. I would of been a scandalous lady in those days with my red lipstick and black eye liner.


  1. I wish I could see some good close ups of the ways they used to use eyeshadow, it sounds very interesting!

    In regards to making eyes bright by putting lemon or orange juice in them, I once accidentally squirted myself in the eye with an orange and ended up with a horrible eye twitch for a week. Yes, it was exactly like that episode of Seinfeld.

  2. Some of those make-up techniques sound really dangerous! I do find it fascinating how applying make-up was actually a taboo kind of thing for such a long time.

  3. Interesting article, thanks! On another note, would you be interested in hearing about a major new retrospective exhibition on Victoriana, going ahead in September in London? Drop me an email at and I can send you some further details.

  4. These days wearing makeup is an everyday thing for many women, and not something we tend to hide...........
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  5. I need to get one of those toiletry cases. I, too, would have looked like a "lady of the night" :)