Our guide to women’s Regency makeup looks and 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 from his father. Subsequently, the Prince became King George IV in 1820 on the death of his father.
The term Regency has come to represent a wider period of time 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. 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. 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:
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. It seemed any complaint of the face or skin could be cured by their miraculous powers and efficiency. 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 and brands made compelling claims to seduce their audience.
Ladies magazines featured articles on a wide range of topics including fashion, beauty and etiquette. However, they were mainly purchased by the middle and upper classes as cover prices and subscription rates were high.
Issues were valued enough to be collected and bound in volumes, often being kept for years. Favourite pages and fashion prints were put in a scrapbook.
The biggest selling magazines 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
Following on from the decadent and artificial makeup of the 1700s, natural beauty was now the way to go.
The middle and upper classes 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 the Regency was a smooth, white complexion with a hint of rosy glow and red-tinted lips. Society felt that this was achieved with personal qualities like temperance, exercise and cleanliness, rather than by using cosmetics. Of course, cosmetics did achieve some of the natural glow.
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.
Finished cosmetic products could be purchased directly 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 used as an ingredient. Likewise, a product could make any claim about its effectiveness.
Even so, it was now known that lead and mercury were harmful substances. Etiquette experts often advised it was best to avoid these ingredients and favour vegetable ingredients instead.
The cosmetics available to women depended on their social standing. For example, middle- and upper-class women would have had the money and time for both homemade and purchased cosmetics. A lady’s maid would be responsible for making her lady’s lotions and cosmetics.
However, servants and the poor would not have such a luxury.
Makeup for Young Ladies
A young lady’s skin was her calling card and much emphasis was placed on the complexion. Only smooth and milky skin was acceptable.
There were lots of homemade and manufactured remedies for keeping the skin clear and smooth. 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. 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 stay pale and not tan in the sun. A tan and freckles were also associated with health issues, like bad bile. In a word, it was not good form to have a tan.
Foundation or face makeup came in the one basic colour of white and was known as paint. It came as a loose powder or as a paper disc impregnated with white pigment. Likewise, it could also be purchased from the chemist as a solid cake – white pigments were mixed with water, then shaped and dried.
Paint was applied to the face and neck. Alternatively, it could be used as a concealer and dabbed onto blemishes.
White powder could be made from a variety of white pigments. For example, crushed pearl, cornstarch, rice powder, and talc were popular ingredients. In addition, harmful substances like lead could also be used.
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
These could be used individually or mixed. To achieve a softer rouge colour, the red powders were mixed with a white powder, like talc or hair powder.
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.
There were also small cakes of rouge available – made from a material impregnated with red dye. For example, woollen pads (Spanish wool) or thin paper discs (Spanish or Chinese papers) had dye in them.
Rosy red lips were created with the use of lip pomade or salve. These could be homemade from the same red powders used on the cheeks.
A moisturising lip salve was made from red pigments mixed into a fat or wax base. For example, the fats used could be bone marrow, cocoa butter, or beeswax. Additionally, lip pomades could also be purchased from chemists.
Lip and cheek colouring always match in portraits.
Brows & Eyelashes
Burnt cork or the sooty residue from a candle flame could be used to produce a black colour for brows and eyelashes. It was mixed with something that helped it set, 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 or brows to darken them.
Little paper discs were available (often from China) that were impregnated with a black colour. These would be applied with a wet fingertip. They could also leave a slight sheen on the skin, as the discs contained gum.
Eyebrows were left fairly natural with no obvious plucking going on, although undesirable hairs could be removed as desired. The brow could also be shaped, albeit with subtlety.
Bright eyes were a desired feature of the Regency woman. This feature could be encouraged by using eye drops and eyewashes.
However, 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. They were certainly not for making up!
Makeup & the Older Woman
The approach and attitude to makeup and skincare for younger women was much the same for older women. However, it could be more palatable for older women to wear obvious makeup.
To start with, old habits can be hard to kick. Consequently, older women may 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.
The wearing of makeup was largely seen as unnecessary on younger faces. However, an older woman using paints was sometimes deemed acceptable. That is 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. This 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. Subsequently, they 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: