How many makeup choices did our ancestors have? Practically zilch compared to nowadays. In this first part series I’m going to focus primarily on makeup and how the women of yesteryear achieved their beautiful elegant looks. I’m no fashion expert, let me start off by stating. Also, I don’t hold a degree in cosmetology or even as a hair stylist. In fact, my blog on the earliest inception of ‘makeup’ as a whole, and beauty regimens might bore you to tears. And then again, some of these beauty regimens might even come with considerable hidden dangers, that are thankfully, no longer used today. We have much worse hidden dangers.
The number one asset a Victorian or even Edwardian woman had at her disposal was—you might have guessed it; her natural beauty. Oh, sure there were beautifying products on the market to enhance the eyes (think in terms of Visine eye drops), only the ones I discovered could cause a woman to be blind.
What was such a big deal about putting these old-fashioned eye drops in the eyes? It was once seen a sign of physical attraction to have big pupils. And these eye drops could not only cause blindness as a result, but a large majority of the beauty industry in its infancy came without too much concern over health or safety. And sadly, the same still rings true in today’s beauty industry and products that over saturate the market with heavy metals, carcinogens, lead, and other toxicities the leaders in the beauty industry won’t tell their customers. Why? It’s bad for business.
Going back to that refined, over-decadent Victorian and Edwardian eras where women were corseted wasp-waist figures and expected to be mother, housekeeper, cook, maid, physician, seamstress and entertainer to guests. Oh, and she had to look her very best even if she was having one hell of day five days out of every month. Nope, playing the ‘hormone-enraged’ card wouldn’t get her a day to herself back in these times. Edwardian and Victorian women were supposed to grin and bear it.
Does that mean their mascara-smeared crying eyes on any given day was to be expected too?
They didn’t have mascara as we think of it. Again, going back to my great grandma (who had a wealth of makeup knowledge and some of her own makeup she hung onto from her Flapper days of the Roaring Twenties), she told me makeup was a lot simple and there wasn’t much of it. She also told me girls in her generation guarded their makeup like gold. It was at one time that scarce to purchase.
But how about in her mother’s day (my great, great grandmother’s)?
Looking over the family photos (Yes, I do have pictures of my ancestors and not too many great, great grandchildren in my generation can say they have pictures of theirs), my great, great grandmother relied on her natural beauty. The picture I’m thinking of was taken in 1907 when she and her husband arrived from Hungary. Even though the picture is black and white, its not difficult to tell she wasn’t wearing any makeup, if any at all.
So, what did they have/ use in the Victorian and Edwardian eras?
If anything (and this is if they were rich), they might have had a lilac-colored type of eye shadow and for their blush they would have pricked their finger and rubbed in some blood. No joke. That’s even how the lower classes of Victorian and Edwardian era women would apply blush before there were a billion trillion kinds that now boggle the mind. But makeup as we know it today, would have shocked and horrified our ancestors. Makeup was once regarded as a stage actor and prostitute thing—thus the very idea a Victorian and Edwardian woman would sink to their levels of depravity was frowned on at one time.
Okay little Miss “fashion” expert of bygone days, what else did the Victorian and/ or Edwardian era woman have at her disposal to make themselves more beautiful?
Other than their natural beauty, they were bombarded with all kinds of quackery products that sprung up. Often times, these did more harm than good and left behind a lot of empty promises to the consumer.
The Victorian and Edwardian look of the day was pale skin. No sun bathing or ‘golden-baked’ tans, either. And forget that trip to the tanning bed, that would have been a major ‘No-no!” The ‘fragile’ and dainty appearance was in vogue. Also, there was no lipstick, however, dyes could be bought and aimed more at the brunettes, but this was more centered around the makeup industry in the U.K. and not here in the U.S.
Cosmetics didn’t see their day until about the early Teens into the Roaring Twenties. My great grandmother explained to me they had eye liner/ mascara that was ‘brushed’ on. She told me the applicator brush resembled a miniature tooth brush and they would have to melt the mascara before they applied it.
Can you still get ready in fifteen-to-five minutes? Oh, wait, you still need to style your hair with a heating comb. No lie. They had heavy combs that they’d heat over a tiny gas-fed, open flame contraption that sat on a dresser. Now lets get even more complicated. Forget your twenty-five watt light bulb. Try styling your hair and applying makeup by the light of a kerosene lamp… yeah, it’s no brighter than a single candle and very hard on the eye sight over time.
Now say you’re in a rush—and I mean major get round and go—you’d still have to start the fire to cook your breakfast, and suppose your Victorian and/ or Edwardian husband was up at five and needed to be out the door by six? In these days, women very seldom, if ever, needed to work out of the home. Most tended to household routines and went to the market maybe once a week, at best. Sometimes they would have their food delivered to them and took out a line of credit.
Oh, and don’t forget about the ‘child’. If you weren’t rich enough to have maids or butlers, you’d be doing all this yourself. And your husband would likely be the demanding “Where’s my sausage and eggs and coffee?!” type of man. He would work to buy you the beautiful things you, as a woman back in these days, required. Being a woman had never been so tough and literally hard. It was even harder if you were a farmer’s wife and still had livestock that depended on you, hungry mouths to feed, and that of your husband as well. And with it all makeup evolved over the years.
By the Twenties, women began to have a choice (not many). They had one shade of lipstick which was ‘oxblood’, a very dark shade of burgundy, one shade of dark red nail polish, some face powder and blush. Poor women of the Twenties still relied on the old standby of pricking their fingers and apply a drop of their own blood to use in place of blush.
A Flapper was? Essentially a young woman who smoked, drank, danced, gambled, used profanity in speakeasies, (very unheard of for a woman back then), engaged in risky behaviors, congregated with the opposite sex. Flappers were like any young person and the original ‘Flaming Youths’ of their generation and really set the stage for future generations to follow and blaze a trail of their own unique individualism, expressionism, creativity, beauty all while daring to push the envelope.
Hairstyles of the Twenties were extremely different than the swept up Gibson girl. The Twenties had bobbed-looks (think of Louise Brooks, for example), and Finger wave hairstyles were all the rage. Eye shadow consisted of a dark green almost turquoise hue. Perfume manufactures were also a huge hit and wish I had some of my antique Atlantic Monthly magazines handy to reference back to exactly what brands of best-selling perfumes were back then. I don’t want to drive Channel No. 5 into the ground, although it was a unisex perfume and did get its start in the Twenties thanks to Coco Channel.
And long gone were the wasp-waist corsets. Flappers donned the first ‘bra’ that cinched in their bosom to reflect a more flat-chested ‘boyish’ figure. They wore their panty hose rolled down exposing their knees and donned Mary Jane heels. Their skirts were shortened (although not dramatic like today’s short skirts) and the dresses were made of crepe, almost sheer fabrics. Their mothers and grandmothers would have worn the stiff neck, leg-o-mutton sleeved bodices and long skirts with granny pointy toed boots. And cloche hats (bell-shaped) fit like a helmet, worn close above the eyebrows and covered the ears.
The styles and makeup were changing with the times, and as time marched on, so did makeup and the beauty industry, in general.