Home » Women’s Victorian Makeup: An Overview

Women’s Victorian Makeup: An Overview

Women’s Victorian makeup was a paradox. It was considered inappropriate for a lady to wear makeup – yet women found discrete and covert ways to wear it. Makeup appeared to be non-existent, but plenty of homemade recipes and shop-bought cosmetics tell another story! Here’s our look at women’s Victorian makeup in Britain.

In British history, the Victorian era is when Victoria was the Queen of the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland. She ruled from 1837 to 1901. Her reign of 63 years and seven months made her the longest-serving monarch of Britain at the time.

The Victorian era was a time of change, discovery and advancement. Political movements, technological inventions, and scientific breakthroughs were the mark of the Victorian age. There was also a great desire to reform and improve social problems. This drive to make life better for the masses lead to better working conditions, sanitation and education.

The Victorian era is also well-known for its moralistic approach to life. Queen Victoria was the very model of strict morals and conduct – and British society, on the whole, lived by this ideal.

Influences on Women's Victorian Makeup

Queen Victoria

The Queen had dignity, decorum and a strict code of conduct. She declared that makeup was impolite – and this set the tone for the Victorian era. Only actresses and ladies of low morals would wear obvious makeup. 

Despite her disdain for makeup, Victoria’s daily routine involved washing, skincare and dental hygiene. Cleanliness was perfectly acceptable, if not desirable, in Victorian society. Poor hygiene and disease were now linked, so using soap and being clean was encouraged. After all, a good Victorian was clean of body and mind.

Portrait by Winterhalter, 1859 (cropped). Victoria's face and colouring appears very natural and without makeup.
Victoria admired Heinrich von Angeli's 1875 portrait of her for its "honesty, total want of flattery, and appreciation of character" (cropped).

Society's Attitude

Victorian Britain was about conformity, etiquette and following the rules of society. To be part of polite society was not to stand out but to blend in and be the same as everyone else.

The privileges and rights of Victorian women were limited. Attitudes towards makeup (especially from men) were notably negative during the Victorian era. Wearing it was not the done thing – it was not part of a woman’s pure and angelic image. It was quite the paradox. A woman had to be naturally beautiful but not allowed to use anything to enhance that beauty.

Makeup was also considered deceptive and fraudulent. Additionally, it was linked to disease and criminal activity, like prostitution. Only someone of low morals would openly use makeup.

To be seen wearing or even buying makeup would tarnish one’s reputation. Additionally, the gossip fallout would be hard to come back from. However, for all the risks, women did use makeup. They just had to use it carefully and covertly.

Attitudes started to change towards the end of the Victorian era. For example, fashion was changing from restrictive clothing to items allowing more freedom of movement. Additionally, feminists were standing up and making their mark. 

The attitude towards makeup was slowly changing alongside this. It was becoming more acceptable for a lady to own and use lip salve, powder and rouge.

"Portrait of Madame X" (1884) by John Singer Sargent. It caused outrage by depicting Virginie Gautreau's daring dresses and obvious makeup, not typical of the era.
"Alice" (Wells's daughter) by Henry Tanworth Wells, 1877.

Magazines & Advertising

Advancements in paper production and printing technology led to a dramatic increase in printed publications. In addition, the development of the railways meant that distribution was easier. It enabled Victorians of all social classes to enjoy a wealth of monthly magazines and papers.

Literacy was also increasing. Therefore, more women could embrace the articles on fashion, health and leisure pursuits. Articles often suggested that a lady should never let herself go. Beauty was the mark of good character and a woman’s duty was to find – and keep – a husband.

Advertising started with the advent of mass consumerism in the Georgian era. Now, publications had more advertisements, including those for cosmetic products. Makeup advertisements were often cunningly disguised as health aids or supplements. It was brazen, considering the overall negative attitude towards makeup.

A wealth of publications meant that cosmetic companies could now market themselves to a bigger audience. It led to brands becoming household names, like Pears and Rimmel.

Women's Victorian makeup and adverts
An advert for Rowland's Kalydor (The Illustrated London News, May 1890).
Arsenic wafers
An advert for arsenic wafers - nibbled to improve the complexion (The Helena Independent newspaper, USA, 1889).

Developments in Science & Technology

Mass production became possible due to further developments in technology. Factories could churn out products like soap by the dozens. It also spurred the production of cosmetic products. And Victorian ladies could purchase items through mail order or at the local chemists.

This rise in easy production leads to a fall in costs, meaning that many cosmetic items were affordable and accessible. 

Actresses

Society considered actresses to be women of loose morals and akin to prostitutes. They used the deception of makeup and their sexual power, rather than talent, to get ahead. Of course, actresses wore makeup as part of their stage work and for publicity photographs. It was simply part of the job. 

They had also chosen a career, income and self-sufficiency over devoting their time to being a homemaker. An actress also worked at night in public places – further “evidence” that linked them to prostitutes.

Despite this, going to the theatre was a popular pastime and actresses had a fan base. They were often the subject of media and public interest, especially if it involved a scandal. However, they had little influence on makeup for much of the Victorian period. 

It slowly started to change towards the end of the era. For example, French actress Sarah Bernhardt was a global sensation who routinely wore makeup in public. She caused a massive scandal when applying red lip rouge in public. While many were appalled, events like this turned the tide towards makeup being more accepted. In the end, even respectable women wanted to mimic their favourite actresses.

victorian makeup and etiquette
It was not proper etiquette for a lady to be out alone at night, according to "The Ladies' Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness" (1872).
Victorian makeup Sarah Bernhardt
Actress Sarah Bernhardt in 1880.

The Victorian Beauty Ideal

The beauty ideal for Victorian women was the same as in previous generations – namely, a bright and smooth complexion, untanned skin without blemish, and a natural rosy glow. 

A good form – an upright posture and feminine shape – was also considered beautiful. It, in some ways, made up for someone thought to be lacking in looks. 

Victorians had a passion for physiognomy – the practice of assessing a person’s character by their outward appearance, particularly the face. Therefore, the beauty ideal often fell into line with this way of thinking. Brows, lips, cheeks and eyes all had desired colours and shapes, representing the best personality traits. 

Victorian Makeup Elements

Complexion

The clarity of the complexion was one of the most important aspects of a Victorian woman’s beauty. It was considered to be a representation of her temperament, lifestyle and state of mind. 

To have skin that was free from blemishes, a tan, freckles or any other such things was the most beautiful. Such was Victorian thinking, any mark or blemish on the skin was likely down to the woman’s ill-temperament, living to excess or some sinful misdeed.

Luckily, there were lots of products on the market to keep the skin cleansed and moisturised, as well as tackle a whole variety of skin issues. Some products were harmless; however, others contained harmful ingredients such as arsenic or mercury.

From "The Arts of Beauty, Or, Secrets of a Lady's Toilet" (1858).

Cold cream was the biggest skin product of the Victoria period, as it had been for generations before. It was easily made at home from oil, water and wax. The mixture created a rich emollient that helped to cleanse, nourish and protect the skin.

Flower essences were used to cleanse and wash the skin. In particular, rose-water and elderflower-water were popular washes.

Powder

Using powder very discretely was acceptable to Victorian women. Even Queen Victoria used a little powder after her skincare regime. However, it had to be subtle and not detectable to anyone’s eye – especially a man’s. Too much powder was subject to as much criticism as too much rouge or lip colour. 

Powders were made from various pulverized ingredients, including starch, oatmeal flour, zinc oxide, rice, French chalk and white clay. They could be left white or subtly tinted with pink or violet pigments, used to counteract the yellow lighting of the era.

One interesting side effect of using metallic substances (such as bismuth) in powder was they turned an ashen grey colour on exposure to sulphurous gases. These gases were produced in the home by burning fossil fuels – for example, in a coal fire.

Powder was applied to the face, neck and arms with a puff (made from things like swan’s-down), chamois or rabbit’s foot.

women's Victorian makeup recipes
A recipe for pink tinted face powder from "The Ladies' Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness" (1872).

Rouge

Rouge was considered particularly vulgar by many. And it didn’t matter whether a woman was young or old – rouge was not to be applied.

Rouge came in three forms – liquid, cream and dry. Specialist products were available for actresses (and actors) who wore it for theatre productions.

Interestingly, beauty and housekeeping books always had a recipe or two for making cream and liquid rouges at home. The authors often emphasised that their recipes were “not easily detected on the skin” – perfect for the Victorian ethos.

Carmine was a popular red colourant in recipes. Additionally, there were countless non-cosmetic ways to stain the cheeks. For example, strawberry juice, beetroot juice or crushed geranium leaves. Red crepe paper from the stationers could be dampened (as the colour would bleed) and patted on the cheeks.

Laura Bell, Irish courtesan (1871 portrait by Richard Buckner). Around 1849 Bell moved to London where she became known as The Queen of London Whoredom.
Bourjois rouge 1863
Bourjois originally made makeup for the theatre, eventually branching into products for general use (Bourjois rouge, 1863).

Eyebrows

Using any colour on the brows was not the done thing. However, there were exceptions to this rule. For example, it was OK to add a little colour should a woman have pale or patchy eyebrows. 

Any application was, of course, to be done in keeping with the natural brow shape. Also, the colour must complement the hair and complexion. In short, it had to be discrete and not noticeable.

Suggestions for darkening the eyebrows from "Sylvia's Book of the Toilet" (1881).

All shapes and thicknesses of eyebrow seem to be acceptable. However, hair growing between the brows was not particularly admired, so it was OK to remove it.

According to etiquette books of the day, smoothly arched brows were considered to convey a cheerful and amiable disposition. Likewise, straight (or level) brows were thought to convey nothing sinister.

Eyelashes

It was thought that trimming the lashes would help them grow back thicker and longer. A tiny pair of scissors would do the job.

There was no mascara – so if you are recreating a Victorian look, mascara is a big no! However, there were ways to darken lashes. For example, mixing burnt cloves or lamp-black (soot) with cream, oil, or ointment was a simple way to darken lashes. Chloride of gold could also dye eyelashes (and brows) brown. 

To condition, a little castor oil or similar could be rubbed into the hair.

Portrait of actress and theatre manager Effie Bancroft painted by Thomas Barker, c. 1870s.
Princess Beatrice in 1886
Princess Beatrice, Queen Victoria's fifth daughter (1886).
Mrs John Jarvie (painted in the 1850s by artist John Graham-Gilbert).

Lip Salve

Lip salve was perfectly acceptable for dealing with chapped lips, which were considered unsightly. It was also easy for a lady (or her maid) to make at home. 

Wearing coloured lipstick was in the same camp as rouge – it was not acceptable in Victorian Britain. Being unacceptable meant women had to find ingenious ways to tint their lips. For example, the innocent lip salve became a lip tint with the addition of carmine or another red pigment.

There were also non-cosmetic ways to add tint to lips. For example, damp red crepe paper dabbed on the lips added a rosy hue.

Enamelling - The Painted Look

Quite controversially, there was a cosmetic procedure that a small minority of women chose to adopt. It was known as enamelling and became more prevalent in the late 1800s.

Enamelling involved applying a layer of white paste or cream to the face, neck and bust – similar to what the Georgians would have done. It was a stark contrast to the discrete makeup chosen by the many.

Victorian makeup
Excerpt from "The Arts of Beauty, Or, Secrets of a Lady's Toilet" (1858) declaring enamelling to be the devil's work.
White pigments such as bismuth or zinc oxide were used to make the paint. It could also contain harmful ingredients like arsenic or lead – a perennial favourite to create a bright white colour.  However, no cosmetic regulations were in place to stop such ingredients from being used.

Professional Enamellers

professional enameller would remove all hair, dirt and imperfections from the client’s face before smoothing on a layer of white paint. It filled creases and wrinkles to leave a smooth and youthful appearance – or so claimed! After this, rouge would be applied – even veins were painted on using blue-tinted products.

It was claimed to last for days, even weeks – provided you were OK with not washing your face! Those against enamelling pointed out how it blocked the pores and looked very unnatural.

One infamous enameller was Madame Rachel, who had female customers flocking to her salon in Bond Street (often by carriage under a veil) for various beauty treatments and procedures. Charging overly high prices, she made even bigger claims promising to make a woman “beautiful for ever”.

However, it was all a con. Eventually, Rachel was arrested and imprisoned for blackmailing and swindling her clients.

Cartoon showing Madame Rachel transforming an old woman into a more youthful beauty. It was a money-making swindle.

Other Cultures

While Victorians found makeup improper, they did recognise that other countries and cultures used makeup according to their beauty ideals. For example, Victorians acknowledged that Turkish and Eastern women used dark pencils to line their eyes. And it was perfectly acceptable for them. However, a British woman must not copy this fashion by any means!

Lip colouring may have hit an all-time low in Britain, but it was not necessarily the case elsewhere. For example, red lips were popular with Chinese women, who happily rouged their lips and tongues with carmine. American women also wore lip products more openly. It didn’t have the same stigma there as in Britain.

Find Out More

Sources:

Begy. J. A. (1889). Practical Hand-book of Toilet Preparations and Their Uses. Allison. New York.

Hartley. F. (1882). The Ladies' Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness. Lee & Sheperd. New York.

Montez. L (1858). The Arts of Beauty, Or, Secrets of a Lady's Toilet With Hints to Gentlemen on the Art of Fascinating. Dick & Fitzgerald. New York.

Sozinskey. T. S. (1877). Personal Appearance and the Culture of Beauty. Allen, Lane & Scott.

Sylvia (pseudonym). (1881). Sylvia's book of the toilet: a ladies' guide to dress and beauty. Ward, Lock & Co. London.

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