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27 Oct 2021

The Age of Powder and Paint

Written by Brenda Morrison, postgraduate student at the University of Glasgow in MLitt History of Art: Dress & Textile Histories, Culzean Castle & Country Park
Cartoon of seated man and barber adjusting his tall powdered wig
Life for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century men and women conjures up an image of a time when manners and fashions were refined, and hairstyles and cosmetics were à la mode. The reality provided little comfort when their makeup poisoned them, their wigs were lice-ridden, and their fondness for sugary treats made their teeth rot and fall out.

The most well-known of fashions for both men and women was white skin with heavy makeup, considered respectable. The early deaths of many society beauties through blood poisoning were attributed to their pursuit of such fashionably white skin, which could only be achieved with the application of white lead dusted with powder.

Beauty patches or ‘mouches’ were also part of the formal aristocratic look of the eighteenth century. Made of black silk velvet, satin, or taffeta – and attached with glue made from boiling cow hooves – patches were meant to heighten the contrast with white skin, although more often than not they disguised smallpox scars. Made in numerous sizes, the most popular shapes were circles, crescents and stars (as seen in the engraving below). They also communicated a series of meanings depending on their position when worn, from marital status to an indicator of mood. In England they took on a political meaning, with female supporters of Whigs wearing patches to the right side of their forehead, and supporters of Tories to the left.

Engraving of a seated woman applying patches to her face
Gilles Edme-Petit (1694-1760), after François Boucher, The Morning of Lady at Her Toilette, 1734, engraving. Photo © Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes women carried patch boxes, also containing rouge with them. A gift of a patch box was seen as something of admiration and great sentiment. Often studded with gems, painted gold, or enamelled, they were often decorated with amorous scenes or floral displays.

Throughout the eighteenth century, both disease and sugar diets contributed directly to gum and tooth decay, ultimately leading to the loss of teeth. For most, extraction was the only treatment available. Alternatively, for those seeking pain relief and brave enough to try it, drinking human urine was a trusted home remedy. However, most people who found themselves with toothache ended up in the hands of their local barber or blacksmith, who doubled as a surgeon. People cleaned their teeth by rubbing them and their gums with rough linen cloths coated in pastes and powders, which often led to the complete abrasion of dentine and subsequent tooth loss.

Cartoon of audience laughing with gaps in their teeth
After William Hogarth, The Laughing Audience, c.1733-1736, engraving, Brodick Castle collection

The eighteenth century saw false teeth made from the bone of various animals – especially sheep, and ivory from walrus, elephant or hippopotamus – as well as real human teeth, repurposed into new sets for wealthy individuals who needed dentures. After the battle of Waterloo in 1815, teeth were scavenged from fallen soldiers, leading to the advertising of what became known as ‘Waterloo teeth’. So lucrative was the trade in teeth that some people wore them as fashion accessories.

Of concern to most women during this period was the reduction in waist size. To accommodate the fashion in the late eighteenth century of a tight waist, corsets were boned and laced to form the ideal figure. By the mid-nineteenth century the ‘wasp’ waist was seen as a symbol of beauty, with whalebone and steel introduced to achieve the look. While tight-lacing often led to women retiring to the ‘fainting room’ to catch their breath, primarily the corset was created to underpin garments to achieve the fashionable silhouette of the day and to give the allusion of a smaller waist.

Cartoon of woman holding onto the bedpost whilst her husband and staff tighten her corset laces
Carington Bowles and John Collett, Tight Lacing, or Fashion before Ease, 1777, Mezzotint, Brodick Castle collection

However, it wasn’t just women who fell victim to fashion. In the early eighteenth century the full-bottomed periwig held sway, primarily worn by men. Featuring a cascade of wonderful curls, which gradually decreased as the century progressed, this style was designed to fall across the shoulders and rest against a man’s chest. To help maintain the curls was the curling iron. Gaining in popularity and used well into the nineteenth century by both sexes, these irons were first heated over an open fire, with hair wound round the rods to set the curl.

The late eighteenth century was associated with wigs styled short on the sides and top, and longer at the back. This practice was initiated by King Louis XIII of France who wore a hairpiece due to premature balding. However, over time wigs became associated with gentlemen of various professions, and were thus considered de rigueur for the elite. Made from horse, goat, or human hair sewn onto a cloth foundation, wigs were uncomfortable, especially during the hot summer months.

Several publications and artists of the day, such as the below print by Robert Dighton of a country vicar sporting a bouffant wig and smoking a pipe, exaggerated fashions to humorous effect.

By the time the fashion for wigs had extended to women, the style had become taller and more sophisticated. Everyday business became problematic: some women had to make adjustments to the height of their carriages to allow them to travel whilst wearing their wig.

Women often wore their wigs for months at a time, and would even sleep in them, so they were regularly scented with rosewater or bergamot oil in an attempt to freshen them up. Inevitably though their wigs would become infested with lice and nits, attracted by the hair pomade and powder made from beef fat and wheat or rice flour.

Women rarely wore full head wigs. Instead false hair, padded ‘cushions’ and elaborate ornaments were used to fill out their natural hair. By the end of the eighteenth century however this fashion had fallen out of favour. It was replaced by a new style: women cut their hair shorter, forming a large curly halo around the head, which was wider than it was tall. A small section of much longer hair, hanging straight or in ringlets, was left either unbound or looped up. Such a hairstyle can be seen in the above portrait of Anne Watts, American heiress and second wife of Captain Archibald Kennedy, 11th Earl of Cassilis.

As we have seen, men and women who pursued fashion to such extremes placed their health at serious risk. Makeup in particular had the power to enhance, but also, as some saw it, to disguise and transform the ‘natural’. As such, by the end of the eighteenth century, makeup was condemned as a tool of moral corruption. So contentious was the transformation of women at their toilette, that in 1770 an Act was introduced in Parliament to ‘protect’ men against women who enticed them into marriage under false pretences by masking their true appearance: how often would the impatient gaze of a young lover, snatching a kiss, turn to horror as the face he so admired dissolved in front of his very eyes!