The fashion for courtiers in France during the years leading up to the Revolution was excess – the more the better. Higher hair, redder lips and whiter skin could all be achieved through hair and makeup artistry. Let’s have a closer look at how beauty was defined in the 18th century.
Every courtier wore makeup in the 18th century in France. In fact, you were considered rude or common if you didn’t wear any. Today we consider makeup to be more of a woman’s product, but in France during the 18th century both men and women enhanced their features with makeup.
White Lead Powder
Pale skin was considered beautiful – it meant you spent little time outdoors in the sun – unlike those common farmers and peasants.
To make themselves as pale as possible both men and women would paint their faces with lead-based makeup. Of course, we now know that lead is poisonous. There was a very high incidence of lead-poisoning in the court of Versailles.
Lead poisoning caused horific side effects. Some include:
- swollen, infected eyes
- breakdown of tooth enamel causing the teeth to rot
- skin blackened in spots
- hair loss
Lead poisoning can be fatal, something which was actually well known during this time. Many people quite willingly continued to use lead makeup until the 1770’s when the fashion started to die out.
By the time Marie Antoinette moved to France in 1770, only the older courtiers were still using the white face paint, and this was probably only to cover the scars and spots the makeup had caused in the first place. Interestingly, the effects of lead poisoning on the skin lead to other fashion trends to hide pocks and marks.
Patches were very fashionable in the time of Louis XV. They were small shapes such as hearts, half-moons, stars, circles or even animals cut out of black fabric or leather and stuck to the face with gum. They were originally worn to cover the scars or scabs caused by lead poisoning, but the fashion caught on and soon everyone was wearing them.
They started to take on a symbolic meaning depending on where you wore it:
- at the corner of the eye meant passion
- at the centre of the cheek meant happy
- on the nose the nose meant flirty
- on the upper lip was majestic
- in the middle of a dimple meant playful
Some people wore up to 15 patches at once! They mustn’t have been able to decide how they were feeling that morning…
The fashion for eyebrows was to have them plucked thin and in a high, arching shape.
If one had lost their eyebrows due to lead poisoning, a false eyebrow could be painted on or a false set could be made of mouse skin.
Mouse skin eyebrows became so enviable that some people would shave their eyebrows!
A flushed complexion was considered beautiful so men and women would rouge their cheeks. But not as we do now – blending to make the blush look natural. The fashion of the 18th century was to dot big circles of rouge on the cheeks, like the face of a china doll.
This would be applied with a pad of wool which had been impregnated with the rouge powder.
Lips were painted, usually in red, with a paint made of animal fat and red colouring, usually from beetroots or other red roots.
Lipstick was so popular in the 1780s that Frenchwomen went through approximately two million pots of lip rouge per year!
Hair was another example of how excess was the fashion. Fashionable French women had been poufing (raising) their hair for at least a decade before Marie Antoinette came along, so she can’t take the credit for inventing the pouf. She can, however, take credit for its popularity. When the French queen adopted the pouf she took it, quite literally, to new heights.
These extreme hairstyles were created with horse hair pads, false and crepe hair which was styled over a frame made of wood or iron. A pomade made of bear or beef lard was used to hold everything in place and the final product was powdered white. For very special occasions, blue, lilac or even gold powder was used to colour the hair!
Want to recreate the look for yourself?
Feathers, ribbons, jewels and even vegetables were used to decorate these hairstyles, which sometimes sat so tall that ladies would have to bend to go through doorways. Their hairstyles could reach up to two feet in height! Some even had to kneel on carriage floors when they needed to travel or hang their heads out the window.
Dressing the hair was time consuming and expensive so it had to last a while. Hairstyles were kept in for weeks at a time – sometimes even months – so ladies would sleep with their necks cradled on a block to preserve the look.
Because they were rarely washed, and were filled with a pomade made of animal fat, the hair would start to smell when the pomade went rancid. I’m afraid to say that many wigs became infested with rats, and there were plenty of people walking around with long scratching sticks to relieve the itch of a lice infestation.
Most 18th century men in France wore wigs. There were lots of styles to choose from – here are a few examples:
Like the ladies, gentlemen would usually powder their wigs white, especially for formal occasions.
Facial hair was not popular at the time, except in the military, as a clean-shaven face was more suited to white face paint.
The Price of Fashion
Ladies and gentlemen would spend a fortune on their fashion products. So much flour was used in powder that the common people became angry; they were running out of flour for bread and the nobles were putting it in their hair!
A tax on hair powdering and wigs was introduced in 1795, during the French Revolution, but as many of the nobles had escaped France or been killed by then, there was not many people left keeping up with such frivolous fashions. The French Revolution brought about a new era of dress and makeup, giving way to a simpler, more natural look.