History of Skincare Part 17: Queen Victoria and the Romantic Era, 1850-1899

The Romance and Frailty of the Victorian Lady

When Queen Victoria ascended the British throne, she ushered in a new age of restraint and modesty. Only a few decades before, evening dresses had featured bare shoulders and low necklines. Under Victorian rule, however, women were expected to keep covered from head to toe. Skirts hung down to the feet and many necklines rose all the way to the chin. Baring the shoulders was considered improper and even the feet were expected to be covered at all times. Shopping for shoes was akin to shopping for underwear and revealing a stockinged foot to a shopkeeper was an act of great embarrassment for a good Victorian lady. This modesty had a huge effect on skincare and beauty products. Buying manufactured cosmetics was seen as more immodest than ever. Pale continued to be popular and women were cautioned to stay out of the sun. Although zinc oxide and lampblack eye shadow were still used, they were used modestly and often in secret. Makeup was not considered to be ladylike.

While Victorian modesty was the prevailing fashion trend, the Western world was also in the grip of the Romantic movement. Dashing poets such as Lord Byron and Percy Shelley were popularizing a completely different image of propriety. Their poems described heroes and travelers, men of action who loved and lost, distressed damsels who loved as well and then perished in a bout of illness or a natural disaster. Even the most proper of Victoria ladies were drawn to the excitement and sexuality that lay just below the surface of Romantic poetry. They began to strive for the delicate, sickly appearance of the Romantic heroine. Complexions became more pale than ever. Women carried parasols to shade themselves from the sun and they rubbed their faces with lemon juice to bleach their skin. Some even drank vinegar in the hopes that it would pale their complexion. When makeup was worn, it was used to emphasize the sickly look. Women would draw circles under their eyes and pinch their cheeks to give them a feverish glow.

The Bohemian Life

While the majority of women may have conformed to the modest image promoted by Queen Victoria and the Romantic image promoted by Byron and Shelley, artists and writers in cities such as Paris were seeking out a different type of image and a different type of skincare. Their Bohemian lifestyle was one of freedom and this was reflected in their makeup and skincare products. Face painting was much more acceptable amongst the Bohemian “fauves” of Montemarte and the brighter the colors, the better. Some women even painted their lips coal black or bright green to reflect the absinthe they drank.

New Technology, New Skincare

The second half of the nineteenth century saw a number of technological advances that changed the way anti aging and skincare treatments were produced. The industrial revolution had created a new, strong, middle class that was willing to pay for the fine things in life. Indoor plumbing had also seen a number of great improvements and by the end of the century, all but the poorest people had bathrooms in their homes. Additionally, each of these new bathrooms was well stocked with manufactured soap. By this time, soap was easily mass-produced and was no longer considered a luxury item. In fact, it was one of the few manufactured skincare products that was acceptable for even the most modest woman to purchase.

While the industrial revolution may have brought skincare to the masses, the Victoria era still saw a number of cosmetic products made specifically for the very wealthy. The World Exhibition of 1883 introduced a new beauty product to the market: lipstick. First sold by Parisian perfume makers, the small stick of lip color was wrapped in silk and sold to the hip young wealthy people who attended the exhibition. It was marketed as the “stylo d’amour,” the love pen, although its detractors referred to it as the “saucisse,” or sausage. It did indeed have many detractors. It was seen as being both immodest and exorbitantly expensive. Each sausage cost the equivalent of more than fifty dollars. Nevertheless, this lipstick marked the beginning of the end for the suppression of makeup. As the century turned, cosmetics would grow into a booming industry with skin care at the forefront of the popular imagination.

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