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 Era
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.
The term “Regency” came from the Prince “Regent” taking over his father. When his father died in 1820, the Prince became King George IV and the Regency ended.
However, the term Regency has come to represent a wider time period when it comes to culture. For this article, we consider the Regency era to be 1800-1837.
Influences on Regency Cosmetics
The French Revolution
The French Revolution (1789-1799) had a big impact on women’s Regency makeup. For a start, it swept away the widespread and extravagant use of makeup that 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 – 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). And there were plenty of books and magazine articles explaining 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. Of course, it included her appearance.
Obvious makeup was not the done thing during the Regency. Nevertheless, the wearing of rouge was tolerated by society – 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:
This snippet from the March 1806 volume of La Belle Assemblée also suggests that rouge should be considered ok:
Moreover, even if rouge was frowned upon by some, there were still acceptable exceptions. An excerpt from 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) to spruce up their cheeks was one.
Newspapers, ladies’ magazines and society journals were popular during the period. These publications contained numerous adverts for skincare products and remedies to cure all ills.
Many adverts made extravagant claims as to their effectiveness. Additionally, it seemed their miraculous powers and efficiency could cure any complaint of the face or skin. They outlined the virtues of using their brand over that of competitors.
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 for brands, that made compelling claims to seduce their audience.
Ladies magazines featured articles on a wide range of topics including fashion, beauty and etiquette. However, cover prices and subscription rates were high, so 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. Additionally, favourite pages and fashion prints were put in a scrapbook.
The biggest selling magazines in the UK during the Regency were The Lady’s Magazine, Lady’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. Queen Charlotte was apparently a fan.
In summary, keeping on top of the latest trends and products was important – for those who could afford it.
The Regency Beauty Ideal
Natural beauty was now the way to go. The beauty ideal of the Regency was a smooth, pale complexion with a hint of rosy glow and red-tinted lips.
The middle and upper classes wanted their daughters to look respectable. In short, they were to be pleasingly natural and naturally pleasing.
Society felt that this was achieved with personal qualities like temperance, exercise and cleanliness, rather than by using cosmetics. However, at no point was makeup abandoned by women in the western world – it simply appeared that way.
Homemade vs. Manufactured
Homemade cosmetics were popular during the Regency. Etiquette and housekeeping books and magazines had lots of recipes. Ingredients generally consisted of things found in the home or easily purchased from the chemist.
Finished cosmetic products could also be purchased from a chemist or perfumers, who made them in-house. Some manufacturers even offered mail order, as this advert for Trent’s Depilatory (1807, La Belle Assemblée) shows:
There was no legislation for the safety of cosmetics at this time. Therefore, anything could be an ingredient. Likewise, a product could make any claim about its effectiveness.
Lead and mercury were known to be very harmful. Now, the etiquette experts advised it was best to avoid these ingredients and to use vegetable ingredients instead.
The cosmetics available to women depended on their social standing. Middle- and upper-class women had the money for purchased luxury products and the time to make cosmetics at home – though, in reality, the lady’s maid would make her lady’s lotions and cosmetics. There were also cheap copies of luxury goods available in pharmacies. These were aimed at the masses, allowing working-class women to purchase beauty items.
Makeup for Young Ladies
A young lady’s skin was her calling card – much emphasis was placed on the complexion. Only smooth and milky skin was acceptable.
There were many homemade and manufactured remedies for keeping the skin soft and clear. Likewise, there were plenty of potions and recipes for unwanted things like freckles, suntan, blemishes or wrinkles.
Gowland’s Lotion was a famous preparation used to treat various skin concerns. However, it was not the safest option. It 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 stay out of the sun. A tan and freckles were also associated with health issues, like “bad bile”. In short, it was not good form for a lady to have a tan.
Foundation makeup was known as paint and came in various formulations in shades of white. The formulations include loose powder, cakes and papers.
The white powder formulation consisted of crushed white pigments, including pearl, cornstarch, rice powder, and talc. Additionally, harmful substances like lead could also be included in the mix, although their well-known toxicity made them less desirable to use. Loose powders could be made at home or bought from a pharmacy.
Paper discs were impregnated with white pigment and were available from the pharmacy. A solid cake foundation was made by mixing white pigments with water, then shaped and dried.
The paint (whatever the formulation) was applied evenly to the whole face and neck. Alternatively, it could be used as a concealer and dabbed onto blemishes.
Until about 1806, portraits of young women show a more obvious circle of red rouge applied to the apple of the cheek. After this date, the cheek makeup appeared more toned down, creating a more natural flushed look.
Red pigments used in rouge came from various powdered substances, including:
- Vermilion – derived from the mineral cinnabar and is toxic.
- Carmine – derived from cochineal scale insects.
- Alkanna root – from the plant.
- Red sandalwood – from the red tree.
- Saffron – the vivid crimson stigma and styles from the Crocus sativus plant.
The pigments could be used individually or mixed. The red powders were also mixed with white powder, like talc or hair powder, to produce a softer red colour.
Rouge pomade was made by mixing red powders with melted fats or waxes and left to set in a pot. The fats or waxes used included cocoa butter, spermaceti, or balm of Mecca.
Rouge products available to buy include Pears’ Liquid Blooms of Roses, Withers’s Sicilian Bloom (a powder) and Rigge’s Liquid Bloom.
Also available were small cakes or pads of rouge – made from a material such as wool (Spanish wool) or paper (Spanish or Chinese papers) and impregnated with red dye. These were activated by dabbing in water and patting on the cheeks.
A lip pomade or salve created soft, rosy lips and had moisturising properties. Products could be easily homemade from the same red powders used on the cheeks and mixed into a fat, oil or wax base. The base could be anything like bone marrow, rose oil, cocoa butter, or beeswax. Additionally, the pharmacy sold ready-made lip pomade products.
The tone of the lip and cheek colourings always match in portraits.
Brows & Eyelashes
Various things could make a black colouring for the brows and eyelashes, including:
- Burning cork or holding a candle flame under a plate resulted in a dark, sooty residue.
- Black gum – black powder mixed into gum-like materials such as frankincense, mastix or resin produced a more water-resistant colouring.
- Elderberries rubbed onto the brows or lashes – the dark juice added colour.
- Whole cloves could be heated-up in a candle flame and, once cooled, run along the brows. It created a natural-looking smoky grey colour.
The pharmacy also stocked products, such as little paper discs (often from China) impregnated with black colouring. They would be applied to the brow and lashes with a damp fingertip. As the discs contained gum, a slight sheen would be produced.
Eyebrows were left fairly natural with no obvious plucking going on, although undesirable hairs would be removed as desired. The brow could also be shaped, albeit with subtlety.
Bright eyes were a desired feature of the Regency woman – and this could be encouraged by eye drops and eyewashes.
However, any sort of eye makeup would be very frowned upon, except for a mere dusting of white powder on the lid. In other words, eyes were for seeing and conveying inner beauty and health. They were certainly not for making up!
Makeup & the Older Woman
The approach to makeup and skincare for older women was much the same as for the younger generation.
However, old habits can be hard to kick. An older woman may have found a “bare face” more unnatural, having grown up in the makeup-loving part of the Georgian era.
Consequently, older women may continue using white and red paints more obviously than was fashionable.
Wearing makeup was largely seen as unnecessary on younger faces. However, an older woman using paints was sometimes deemed acceptable, according to some points of view anyway:
OK then! Despite this tone, portraits of older women painted during the Regency generally show them with the same rosy cheeks, pale skin and red-tinted lips of the younger women.
Makeup & the Working Classes
Most work undertaken by working-class women was physically demanding. For example, servants and housemaids didn’t get to leave the house that often and worked incredibly long, exhausting hours. It was taxing on their appearance, as was not having the money to buy a wealth of beauty products.
Ultimately, working-class women would find it hard to meet the ideal standards of Regency beauty and were relegated to the bottom rung of society.
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: