This post looks at women’s Georgian makeup, including popular products and what influenced the beauty ideal for the era. During much of the Georgian era, women’s makeup was all about having a smooth complexion, pale skin and rosy cheeks. Additionally, beauty patches and dark eyebrows were used to complement and accentuate the white of the skin. Then, towards the end of the era, a more natural approach gained favour.
The Georgian Era
The Georgian era is a period in British history named after the Hanoverian Kings George I, George II, George III, and George IV. It started in 1714 and ended in 1830. In addition, the final part of the Georgian era is also known as The Regency.
For the most part, The Regency had quite a different approach to makeup. For this reason, we have looked at this period separately in another post. This article on women’s Georgian makeup covers the years 1714 to 1799.
Overall, the Georgian era was a time of great change. It saw the birth of industrialisation, growth in city populations and popular culture blossomed. It was also a time of extreme poverty alongside immense wealth.
Influences on Georgian Makeup
The French Court
Ladies of the French court plastered their faces with white paint and covered their cheeks with scarlet rouge. They also darkened their eyebrows and added black beauty patches. Cosmetics were seen, in many ways, as part of the nobility and the right of the elite. In short, it set them apart from the common masses.
France was the recognised leader of fashion across Europe, influencing how women dressed and looked. For this reason, wealthy Englishwomen followed the French makeup fashion, although it was with a more delicate hand. Many across Europe found the extravagant ways of the French court over the top. Conversely, the French upper classes found Englishwomen too modest in their use of makeup.
Famous French women include Marie-Antoinette (consort of Louis XVI) and Madame de Pompadour (mistress of Louis XV). And each one influenced fashion tremendously during their time.
Then, in the 1780s, Queen Marie-Antoinette started to abandon the heavy makeup required at court, moving towards the more natural look emerging across Europe. The older generation disapproved as they honoured the symbolism of rouge.
In general, painted faces were part of court life until the French Revolution brought the monarchy to an end and, with it, the looks of the French court. Excessive rouge and large wigs were symbols of the frivolous rich. And now, it was dangerous to be associated with the aristocracy and their ways.
A Lady's Toilette
Wealthy women showed others just how rich they were by using makeup, hair and clothing. As a result, beauty was power. And it wasn’t good enough to be rich; you had to show just how rich you were.
Parading around public spaces (such as pleasure gardens, shops, and assembly halls) was one way for women to show off their latest fashions. Poor and rich mingled alike in this age of consumerism and ostentatious display.
Another way for the rich to show off was via the morning toilette ritual. Previously, the toilette was a private affair. However, over the 18th century, it became a public part of high society and a symbol of wealth.
Wealthy women would carry out their lengthy morning toilette at the dressing table in front of a select audience, all coming and going as invited. Many cosmetic items would be present on the table, as well as a large mirror.
Personal servants such as a lady’s maid would be on hand. Spending so much time and money on her appearance was a display of just how rich she was.
For some women, it was part of life and its performance expected. For example, it was a daily ritual at the French court, as outlined by Marie-Antoinette in a letter to her mother (July 1770):
“At eleven o’clock I have my hair done. At noon, all the world can enter – I put on my rouge and wash my hands in front of the whole world. Then the gentlemen leave and the ladies remain and I am dressed in front of them.”
The importance of the toilette can be seen in 18th-century portraits, where women are depicted at their dressing tables applying makeup. Other paintings showed how it was used to entertain or make decisions, like the painting below by William Hogarth.
High Profile Women
A Georgian woman’s beauty was a powerful asset, used by clever ladies to cultivate a public image. It was one way to climb the social ladder.
Having a portrait painted was one way to gain attention. Audiences were mesmerised by the portraits of women via art exhibitions, such as the annual summer exhibition at the Royal Academy (est. 1768).
And from the portraits came print copies displayed in the windows of places like printshops, inns and coffeehouses. Fans were even able to buy copies.
A lady’s reputation was also continually encouraged with newspaper articles. Society gossip was rife in the Georgian era and featured in many publications. These were available to read for free in coffeehouses, where gossip was a major pastime.
Altogether, this effort was to gain fame – a sort of Georgian social networking. It led to financial support, favour, patronage, and even marriage. A woman didn’t have to be born into money to make the most of this. Many women who climbed the social ladder were born poor. Their beauty – and ability to work it – was the key to their success.
The Georgian “It Girls” include courtesan Kitty Fisher (1741-67), Lady Coventry (1733-60), and the Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806). Their beauty, style and fashions were admired and copied by women across Britain.
Attitudes towards makeup in the Georgian era were conflicting, from those who supported it to the harsh critics. Overall, it was men who defined and tried to control the use of makeup.
Articles chastising or limiting the use of makeup appeared in the newspapers and gentlemen’s periodicals of the day. Satirists and poets also often ridiculed a lady’s cosmetic habits.
Makeup was largely seen as distasteful and vulgar. This was particularly so in the later 1700s when attitudes around Europe were moving against elite luxury and towards “purer” living.
Additionally, the time wealthy women spent at the toilette was under scrutiny. It was, in effect, considered a breeding ground for greed, vanity and gossip.
The English Parliament was also not in favour of makeup, considering it akin to witchcraft. For example, in 1770 it passed a law hoping to sedate the trend for painting:
“All women of whatsoever rank or degree . . . that shall seduce or betray into matrimony of any of His Majesty’s subjects, by the scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoop, high-heeled shoes, bolstered hip, shall incur the penalty of the law in force against witchcraft and like demeanours, and that the marriage upon conviction shall stand mute and void.”
For all their threats and bluster, ladies continued to paint.
A Georgian woman’s worth was most often measured by her beauty. For example, a 1770 edition of The Man of Pleasure’s Pocket Book ranked ladies according to their beauty, elegance and grace.
The Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806) was very well ranked in this list – not surprising, as she was considered one of the leading beauty icons at this time.
The Rise of Consumerism
The Georgian era was a time of economic growth and change, leading to Britain being one of the richest countries in the world. Furthermore, improvements in manufacturing technology and transportation led to a rise in consumerism, as more goods became available to the masses.
A massive increase in international shipping to British ports, especially in London, brought in a wide range of goods. This included exotic ingredients and perfumes from faraway places, used in both homemade and manufactured cosmetics.
Lots of ready-made cosmetics were imported from Europe, according to British customs records. French cosmetics, in particular, were considered to be the best by the well-heeled who looked to France as the makeup mecca.
However, it wasn’t just the rich that benefitted from this increase in trade and commerce. Markets, shops and street pedlars were as much a part of poor districts as the wealthier areas. Trade cards and shop window displays were used to advertise the goods.
Mass-produced cosmetics were gradually getting cheaper – well within the reach of working-class women. Additionally, cheap copies of expensive luxury goods were popular.
In summary, owning cosmetics was once a luxury only the very wealthy could afford. Now, items were rapidly becoming more accessible to everyone.
The Georgian Beauty Ideal
The beauty ideal for women during this era was a smooth complexion, white skin, rosy red cheeks and lips, and dark eyebrows. Of course, how this was interpreted depended on social standing, personal tastes and adhering to the norm of those around them.
Eventually, heavy makeup application started to fade out of fashion during the 1780s. There was a shift towards a more “natural” beauty, reaching a pinnacle during the Regency period.
Georgian Makeup Elements
A woman’s complexion was the most important aspect of Georgian beauty. A pure and unblemished complexion was most desired. As a result, there was a wealth of homemade recipes available for waters, creams and pastes to keep the complexion healthy.
Between them, they dealt with everything skin-related, including cleansing, smoothing and fixing a myriad of issues. Good old cold cream was a staple of skincare, as it would be for generations to come.
The white colour was provided by a few different pigments, the most notorious and dangerous of which was ceruse made from lead. Other materials used to make white pigment powder include crushed pearl, corn starch and rice powder. Alum (aluminium sulphate) was often used as a substitute for the lead as it was cheaper.
It was well-known that lead was harmful. Despite this, it was still the ingredient of choice for some women, sometimes with fatal consequences. For example, Lady Coventry died at a young age from lead and mercury poisoning. The reason lead ceruse was so favoured was its brilliant white colour, unrivalled by other pigments.
A smooth paste or creamy paint was created by mixing white pigments with oil. This would be smoothed over the face and taken down the neck and decolletage.
White paint was not just about fashion – it also had a practical function by hiding the blemishes caused by disease and illness. Such things were commonplace in the Georgian era, even in wealthy households. It also hid the effects of ageing, the sun, and the consumption of sugar and alcohol.
Rouge was a staple of Georgian makeup. However, not every woman wore it in the same way. This all depended on her social class and location, for example:
- French aristocracy used rouge as a badge of honour and rank. It was simply part of life at court and was certainly not meant to look natural.
- French middle classes would wear rouge with a more delicate hand.
- Englishwomen would use rouge more sparingly than their aristocratic French cousins, although it was still applied all over the cheeks to create a flushed look.
- Prostitutes would use makeup to try and conceal pock marks and signs of illness.
There were various recipes for homemade tinctures to stain the cheeks. The red pigment was provided by minerals such as cinnabar (or vermillion) or red lead. Vegetable pigments included brazilwood, sandalwood and saffron. Carmine came from the female cochineal beetles of Latin America and was an expensive ingredient.
The red pigment would be mixed with grease to create a pomade or water to create a rouge tint.
A red or scarlet ribbon was another way to colour cheeks. The ribbon would simply be dipped in water or brandy and dabbed on the cheeks. Poorer women would even use red wine to stain their cheeks.
Recipes for lip salves could be found in books such as The Toilet of Flora by Pierre-Joseph Buc’hoz. Plain lip slaves were used as they are today – for protecting, soothing and moisturising chapped lips.
Red lip products were made by various methods, including heating fats or oils with something to create a red colour. For example, alkanet root, brazilwood shavings, roch alum, red sanders (sandalwood), and carmine (cochineal) were all used to create a red colouring.
The fats used included pork fat and spermaceti. Beeswax was also used, possibly to give a firmer texture to the salve, and almond oil was commonly seen in recipes. The melted mix would be poured into storage pots and jars to set.
Shaped and darkened eyebrows were fashionable. They also provided a contrast to the white-painted faces.
Portraits of well-heeled ladies often show them with soft grey or smoky black eyebrows shaped with an elegant arch or rounded. There was also no monobrow going on – any hair in the middle was removed.
Eyebrows were darkened using various methods, as these excerpts from The Toilet of Flora show:
There is a common myth that mouse skin was cut into a brow shape and stuck on. However, concrete evidence is thin on the ground. Certainly, no portrait we’ve ever seen shows a mouse skin brow, nor do the beauty articles of the day mention mouse brows. Additionally, there were methods and products available that easily coloured eyebrows, making a mouse brow seem arduous.
On the other hand, poems and prints did feature ladies cosmetic habits – and mouse brows do get mentioned. Of course, many of these writings were satirical and misogynistic.
One example can be seen in the poem “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going To Bed” by Jonathan Swift (written in 1734). He muses: “Her eye-brows from a mouse’s hide, Stuck on with art on either side, Pulls off with care, and first displays ’em, Then in a play-book smoothly lays ’em.”
Is this satire based on observed behaviour? We are not sure and, for this reason, are keeping an open mind on this one!
The influence of the French court on makeup fashion was seen across Europe, making patching popular for most of the 18th century.
Patching finally fell out of fashion in the late 1700s, particularly as more subtle makeup becomes the favoured look. It did not completely disappear during the Georgian era. However, their presence was no longer commonplace.
- Read more about beauty patches.
Black people had been a part of British society for centuries and the Georgian era was no different. Their lives were diverse, spanning all social classes from the enslaved and the very poor to wealthy property owners.
Portraits from the 18th century that feature black women are extremely rare. Additionally, the background information about the subject can also be difficult to pin down. For now, here are a couple of portraits featuring black ladies in the 1700s.
Find Out More
- Beauty patches – all about the little marks used to adorn one’s face.
- British library – satirical prints on fashion from late Georgian Britain.
- More about the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle.