Elizabethan Hair and Makeup

We’ll break it down layer by layer, but let’s first look at what it meant to be beautiful in the Elizabethan era.

Queen Elizabeth was a fashion icon.

It’s no coincidence that all that was seen as fashionable – fair or strawberry hair, pale skin, bright eyes – were features that came naturally to Queen Elizabeth, reigning monarch of the era. She was pale of skin, fair of hair and reportedly had bright, intelligent eyes. Her’s was the style women strove to imitate, though the lengths to which those women went to achieve their desired results ranged from unusual to downright dangerous. 

Fair Skin

The base of any courtly beauty was alabaster skin – as pale as possible. You see, women of leisure and luxury did not need to work and, therefore, no need to labor outdoors. Skin bronzed by the sun indicated that the woman had spent her life outdoors, toiling out in the fields or at a market stall. A woman of wealth spent her days sewing, playing cards and making music and was able to keep a fine complexion.


by Unknown artist, oil on panel, late 16th century (circa 1533-1536)

The base makeup popular at the time was ceruse, a mixture of white lead and vinegar which, we now know, was poisonous. It turned the skin grey and caused unsightly sores. 

Unfortunately, the most popular solution to blemished skin caused by the lead paint was to apply more lead paint to cover it. A self-perpertuating propblem that made many women ill. In fact, though no cause of death has ever been proven, it is thought that Queen Elizabeth died of lead poisoning. 

To enhance the pale foundation, some women would paint on thin veins over their cheeks and neck.

Egg whites were also used to ‘glaze’ the foundation, creating smooth, tight skin.

On top of the foundation, ladies would then paint a circle of blush on the apple of the cheek in bright red made of either madder, cochineal, or ochre-based compounds, though vermilion (mercuric sulfide) was the most popular choice of the fashionable court lady. 

Bright Eyes

Women would use drops of belladona in their eyes to dilate the pupils and brighten the eyes. This was hugely problematic. Belladonna, otherwise known as ‘deadly nightshade’ is fatally toxic to humans and would often cause blindness.

For those who couldn’t’ or wouldn’t use belladonna, another popular eye-brightener was lemon juice. Ouch!

An eyeliner made of kohl was used much as we do now – to enhance the eyes and make them appear wider set.

Primitive Chemical Peel

The idea of a chemical to peel the top layer of facial skin is, surprisingly, not a modern one. To remedy blemishes, acne and freckles, not to mention the damage caused by the lead paint, mercury was used as a facial feel, leaving the skin fresh and smooth. Poisonous, of course. Other popular ingredients included lemon juice, rosewater, honey, asses milk and eggshells.

The High Brow

A high hairline was all the rage. To achieve the look, women would pluck their hairline back an inch, or even more, to create a fashionably high forehead.

Fairest of them all

Blonde or red-gold hair was sought after. Bleaching became the fashion, and the most popular recipe used urine as the main ingredient. Those ladies who could not achieve the desired fair hair with bleaching remedies would wear wigs, sometimes shaving the hair underneath.

Of course, all this is for the court lady. The lower classes didn’t have the time or need to indulge in makeup. It was reserved almost entirely for the court, though young merchants’ wives were often made up as finely as the gentry. 

One might have been better off as a servant in the Elizabethan era. Sure, times were hard for the lower classes with poor housing, disease and job insecurity, but at least they weren’t expected to slowly poison themselves to death for the sake of fashion!


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