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Women’s Regency Makeup: An Overview

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Our guide to women’s Regency makeup looks at the popular cosmetics used by Western women during this period. We also look at the “beauty ideal” in the eyes of Regency society and how makeup was influenced by the world around them.

The Regency in the United Kingdom is a sub-period of the Georgian era (1714-1830) and runs from 1811 to 1820. It came about when King George III was deemed unfit to rule due to illness and his son, the Prince of Wales and Prince Regent, ruled as his proxy. It was because of the Prince “Regent” taking over that the term “Regency” came into being. The Prince then became George IV in 1820 on the death of his father. 

The term “Regency” has come to represent a wider period of time, especially when it comes to culture. For purpose of this article, we consider the Regency era to be from 1800-1837.

Influences on Regency Cosmetics

The French Revolution

The French Revolution (1789-1799) had the biggest impact on women’s Regency makeup. It swept away the widespread and extravagant use of makeup, as it was associated with the decadent aristocracy. Subsequently, the heavy white paint, beauty patches, veining and overly made-up faces of the “vulgar rich” fell out of fashion. It was replaced by a desire to look more natural. 

However, rouge did survive the Revolution and continued to be worn, albeit with a slightly more delicate approach.

Etiquette & Society

How to behave in society was a big thing for the Regency woman (and gentleman). Etiquette books and articles in magazines explained how a lady should conduct herself, certainly from the author’s perspective anyway. Ultimately, every aspect of a woman’s life was governed by a proper order of how things should be. This included her appearance.

Obvious makeup was not the done thing during the Regency. Nevertheless, rouge was tolerated, so long as it was not plastered on. This quote from The Mirror of the Graces: Or, The English Lady’s Costume (first published in 1811) illustrates the point:

“Good sense must so preside over its application, that its tint on the cheek may always be fainter than what nature’s pallet would have painted. A violently rouged woman is one of the most disgusting objects to the eye.”

This snippet from the March 1806 volume of La Belle Assemblée also suggests that, while “painting” in general is not desirable, rouge should be considered ok:

“If ever paint were to be proscribed, we should plead for an exception in favour of rouge, which may be rendered extremely innocent…”

Even if rouge was frowned upon by some, there were acceptable exceptions, as The Mirror of the Graces explains:

“A little vegetable rouge tinging the cheek of a delicate woman, who, from ill health or an anxious mind, loses her roses, may be excusable;”

In short, women would always find ways to use a little rouge with legitimacy and without disapproval from either their husband or society. Pretending to be ill (either physically or emotionally) in order to spruce up their cheeks was one.

Regency women's makeup
(L to R): Mrs John Allnutt; Maguerite, Countess of Blessington (1822); and Rosamond, Lady Barrow (1826). All portraits by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

Advertisements

Newspapers, ladies’ magazines and society journals were popular during the period. Numerous adverts for skincare products and remedies to cure all ills could be found in publications. Additionally, many adverts made extravagant claims as to their effectiveness. It seemed any complaint of the face or skin could be cured by their miraculous powers and efficiency.

Rouge, lip salves and face powders were also advertised. Again, they were written with a poetic licence. They outlined the virtues of using that particular brand over other products on the market.

Shopping was a favourite pastime for a middle-class woman, who had time to spare as well as spending power. Therefore, there was money to be made and brands made compelling claims to seduce their audience.

Advert for Pear's products from La Belle Assemblée (Vol II, Jan-June 1807).

Ladies Magazines

Regency women's makeup
A fashion plate from Lady's Magazine (March 1811).

Magazines aimed firmly at ladies featured a wealth of articles on a wide variety of topics, including fashion, beauty and etiquette. However, because of the high cover prices or subscription rates, they were mainly purchased by the middle and upper classes.

Issues were valued enough to be collected and bound in volumes, often being kept for years. Favourite pages, for instance the fashion prints, were put into a scrapbook.

The biggest selling magazines during the Regency period were The Lady’s MagazineLady’s Monthly Museum, La Belle Assemblée (1806-1832) and Ackermann’s Repository (1809-1829).

The Gallery of Fashion (1794-1803) was solely dedicated to fashion and was very expensive to buy. It was said to have been enjoyed by Queen Charlotte. In short, keeping on top of the latest trends and products was important for those who could afford it.

The Regency Beauty Ideal

Following on from the decadent and artificial makeup of the 1700s, natural beauty was now the way to go.

The middle-classes of the Regency wanted their daughters to look respectable. In short, they were to be pleasingly natural, and naturally pleasing. However, at no point was makeup abandoned by women in the western world – it simply appeared that way.

The beauty ideal of this era was a smooth, white complexion with a hint of a rosy glow and soft red lips. Even so, society felt that this was not achieved by using makeup, but with personal qualities like temperance, exercise and cleanliness. Of course, cosmetics did achieve some of the “natural” glow.

Selina Meade (1819 portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence); Ann Calvert Stuart Robinson (1804 portrait by Gilbert Stuart); and Lady Maria Conyngham showing her teeth - a rare thing to see in portraits (by Sir Thomas Lawrence c. 1824-25).

Homemade vs. Manufactured

The market for mass-produced cosmetics was yet to find itself, so homemade cosmetics were very popular during the Regency. Recipes were found in magazines, and etiquette and housekeeping books. Ingredients generally consisted of things found in the home or easily purchased from the chemist.

It was now known that lead and mercury were harmful substances. Subsequently, it was now advised by many that these ingredients should be avoided in favour of vegetable ingredients.

Finished cosmetic products could be purchased direct from the chemist that made them inhouse, or from select vendors like other chemists or perfumers. Some even offered mail order, as this advert for Trent’s Depilatory (1807, La Belle Assemblée) states:

“To Ladies in the Country, enclosing the amount, free of postage, it will be immediately forwarded.”

There was no legislation for the safety of cosmetics at this time. Therefore, any ingredients could be used and any claims made about a product’s effectiveness.

The cosmetics available to women depended on their social standing. Middle- and upper-class women would have had the money and time for both homemade and purchased cosmetics. However, servants and the poor much less so. A lady’s maid would be responsible for making her lady’s lotions and cosmetics.

Lead-based white paints were now recognised as dangerous, and their use no longer advocated [1].

Makeup for Young Ladies

Complexion

A young lady’s skin was her calling card, so much emphasis was placed on the complexion. Anything outside of milky smooth skin was a curse. For instance, freckles, suntan, blemishes or wrinkles were dealt with by a variety of lotions, both homemade and manufactured.

“A fine, clear skin, gives an assurance of the inherent residence of three admirable graces to beauty: Wholesomeness, Neatness, and Cheerfulness.” [2]

Gowland’s Lotion was a famous preparation used for the treatment of various skin concerns. However, it was not the safest option, as the lotion contained mercuric chloride – a corrosive and toxic acid powerful enough to remove the top layer of skin.

Tanned skin was associated with the working classes, so a middle- or upper-class woman would try to not go brown or burn in the sun. Likewise, a tan and freckles were also associated with health issues, like bad bile, so it was not good form all round to have a tan.

White Paint

Makeup for the face came in one basic colour, namely white. It came in loose powder form (simply a white powder), or as a paper disc impregnated with white pigment, or could be purchased from the chemist as solid cakes (white pigments mixed with water, shaped and dried).

It could be applied to any part of or the whole of the face and neck. In the same way, it could be dabbed onto blemishes to try and conceal them.

White powder could be made from a variety of white pigments, from the harmless (for example, crushed pearl, cornstarch, rice powder, talc) to the harmful (like lead).

Rouge

Until about 1806, young women in portraits can be seen with a more obvious circle of red rouge applied to the apple of the cheek. After this date, cheek makeup was toned down to create a more natural flushed look.

Red pigments used in rouge came from various powdered substances, including:

  • vermilion from the mineral cinnabar and is toxic;
  • carmine derived from cochineal scale insects;
  • alkanna root (from the plant);
  • red sandalwood;
  • saffron.
 

These could be used individually or mixed. If a softer rouge colour was required, the red powders were mixed with white powders like talc or hair powder.

To create a rouge pomade, the red powders were mixed with melted fats or waxes (for example, cocoa butter, spermaceti, balm of Mecca) and left to set in a pot.

Extract from The Art of Beauty (1825) on the use of rouge [3].

Rouge products available to buy include Pears’ Liquid Blooms of Roses, Withers’s Sicilian Bloom (a powder) and Rigge’s Liquid Bloom. There were also small cakes of rouge available, including woollen pads (Spanish wool) or thin paper discs (Spanish or Chinese papers) that were impregnated with red dye.

Lip Pomade

Rosy red lips were created with the use of lip pomade or salve. These were mainly made at home from the same red powders used on the cheeks. The red pigments would be mixed into a fat or wax base (for example, marrow, cocoa butter, bees wax) to create a moisturising lip salve. Lip pomades could also be purchased from chemists.

Lip and cheek colouring always match in portraits.

Red powders used in makeup
Powders of vermilion, carmine, alkanna root, red sandalwood and saffron were used to colour rouges and lip pomades.

Brows & Eyelashes

Burnt cork or the sooty residue from a candle flame was used to produce a black colour for use on brows and eyelashes. To prevent the colour coming off easily, it was mixed with something that helped set it, like frankincense, mastix or resin. These solid materials were heated to melt them to a usable consistency. Elderberries could also be rubbed onto the lashes/brows to darken them.

Little paper discs were available (often from China) that were impregnated with a black colour and applied with a wet finger tip. As these papers contained gum as part of their preparation, using them could leave a slight sheen on the skin.

Eye brows were either left fairly natural with no obvious plucking going on, although undesirable hairs could be removed as desired or the brow subtly shaped.

Eyes

Bright eyes were a desired feature of the Regency woman, and this could be encouraged by using eye drops and eye washes.

Any sort of eye makeup would be very frowned upon, except a mere dusting of white powder on the lid. In other words, eyes were for seeing with and conveying one’s inner beauty and health, not for making up.

“Let every woman be content to leave her eyes as she found them, and to make that use of them which was their design.”[4]

Makeup & the Older Woman

Former first lady Abigail Smith Adams (portrait by Gilbert Stuart between 1810-15).

While the approach and attitude to makeup and skincare for younger women was much the same for older women, there could be differences.

For some older women, old habits were hard to kick. Consequently, they would continue using white and red paints more obviously than the younger generation. For them, a “bare face” seemed more unnatural, having grown up in the makeup-loving part of the Georgian era.

Further more, while the wearing of makeup was seen by many as unnecessary on younger faces, an older woman using paints was sometimes more acceptable, according to some points of view anyway:

“When a person is young, and fresh, and handsome, to paint would be perfectly ridiculous; it would be wantonly spoiling the fairest gifts of nature. But, on the contrary, when an antiqued and venerable dowager covers her brown and shrivelled skin with a thick layer of white paint, heightened with a tint of vermilion, we are sincerely thankful to her; for then we can look at her at least without disgust.”[5]

OK then! Despite this tone, portraits of older women painted during the Regency generally show them with the same rosy cheeks and red tinted lips of the younger women, or even as more plain faced.

Makeup & the Working Classes

Servants and housemaids didn’t often get to leave the house and worked incredibly long, exhausting hours. Other work undertook by working-class women was often physically demanding. This, combined with not having the money to buy a wealth of beauty products, was taxing on their appearance.

Ultimately, working-class women would find it hard to meet the ideal standards of beauty as defined during this period. Subsequently, they were relegated to the bottom rung of society.

Hair Removal

The removal of superfluous hair on the face and arms was popular. The first patent for a depilatory was taken out in 1804 and there were various recipes for homemade solutions. The Art of Beauty declares:

“Superfluous hairs, also, which frequently grow on the arms, and are so injurious to their appearance, must be removed.”

Find Out More

Sources:

[2] [4] The Mirror of the Graces: Or, The English Lady's Costume by A Lady of Distinction. First published in 1811.

[1] [3] [5] From The Art of Beauty: or, the Best Methods of Improving and Preserving the Shape, Carriage and Complexion. Published in London in 1825.

Various issues of La Belle Assemblée and The Lady's Magazine.
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5 thoughts on “Women’s Regency Makeup: An Overview”

  1. Love reading all this history. Regency is one of my favourite eras and seeing how ladies made themselves look so rosy cheeked. Thanks!

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