V249: Georgian Beauty Myths BUSTED!, by Elisa of Isis’ Wardrobe

Glenn Close in “Dangerous Liaisons”

Hi all! Today I’d like to turn the floor over to the wonderful Elisa of Madame Isis’ Toilette, and Isis’ Wardrobe, who has been studying historical makeup and beauty rituals for quite a long time, and has much wonderful information to share.  Enjoy!

18th Century Beauty Myths – Busted!
by Isis’ Wardrobe

If I tell a stranger that I’m interested in 18th century beauty I will, nine times out of ten, hear a statement, like “People died from their makeup back then”. Having been repeated in years they are considered truths though they are at best overly simplified facts or just plain untrue. So here is a debunking of some popular 18th century beauty myths.

 1. Makeup in the 18th century was poisonous
A very simplified truth. Some ingredients used in makeup were poisonous, like lead and mercury, but the majority of them were not only safe, but are also products that are used in the cosmetic industry today. It was perfectly possible to steer clear from any harmful substances and still wear a fashionable makeup with very pale skin, rouged cheeks and a rosy mouth.

Elisabeth-Marguerite, the Artist’s Daughter by Nicolas de Largillière, painted before 1746. 

Unfortunately lead and mercury are very dangerous for your health and it is true that these substances were used for white and red makeup. Lead was well known to be dangerous and lead poisoning can give you a number of nasty symptoms and can even cause death. It’s widely cited that ladies in the 18th century painted themselves into oblivion, but it is uncertain if that really happened. Often cited victims like Maria Gunning died from consumption, which people died from even without the help of lead. I’m sure her well-known fondness for lead-based makeup didn’t help her health in any way, though. Lead was used in many other ways in the 18th century, like in cooking pans, lead lined caskets for alcohol, as a cheap sweetener and even subscribed by doctors for various illnesses, so possibly lead in makeup didn’t do much difference.

Maria Gunning, Countess of Coventry, after Francis Cotes painted 1751-1760. 

Although the danger with lead was well known, the popularity was due to the excellent coverage- you just didn’t get whiter than with lead. Luckily, there were plenty of less opaque white pigments around as well. A more health conscious lady, or gentleman, could opt for makeup made white with the help of talc, zinc, bismuth, calcified bones or rice powder. Especially bismuth, Spanish white, was praised for giving the skin a nice gleaming surface. Totally contrary to modern standards, a shiny face was considered attractive and there were also cosmetics that contained pearls for glow. Then as now you wore more makeup for the grand occasions and it is also possible that not everyone liked the opaque white look lead gave you.

 To enliven the pale skin, rouge was used throughout the century. Vermillion, made from mercury, is not good for you at all, indeed when beauty recipes from the time happily recommends lead, they do warn for the use of mercury. There were, however, plenty of other pigments to choose from. Alkanet root, red sanders, Brazil wood, saffron and carmine from the Cochineal louse, for example. Each providing their own shade of red, giving the 18th century beauty the opportunity to choose a shade that complimented her own colouring.

Madame Victoire, Princess of France by Alexander Roslin, 1765.

2. People wore white, shiny wigs
No, they did not. This is an idea that was started at 19th century masquerades and was adopted by the movie industry as it looked great in black-and-white.

Rudolf Valentino in Monsieur Beaucaire, 1924

Wigs were worn, yes, mostly by men- most women used their own hair with the help of extra hair pieces. Pomade was used to maintain hairstyles and on this greasy foundation, powder was applied. The effect is far from shiny, but that was perfectly fine as the matte hair became a nice effect contrasting with the shiny face.

Mary Robinson as Perdita by John Hoppner, probably 1780’s.

It is true that the most common colour of the powder was white, but depending on the original hair colour, the finished result varied a lot in shade. White on fair hair gets rather white, but on darker hair it gets grey. If you look at old portraits you will quickly see that hair colours differ. There were also tinted powders both in natural shades like blond, brown and black, but also more colourful shades like pink and blue. Marie Antoinette made it briefly popular to powder hair orangey red. By the end of the century powder became heavily taxed or even banned and the fashion faded away.

Elizabeth Linley by Thomas Gainsborough, ca 1775. 

3. People had really big hair in the 18th century

The extravaganza or The mountain head dress of 1776

True, there were some really huge hairstyles. However, even if this visually stunning style says 18th century more than anything, it was a style that has its heyday in the 1770’s. Let’s take a very quick and extremely brief tour through the century. The very first years the hairstyle in vogue was still the high fontage-style, a survivor from the 17th century.

Madmoiselle de Roquelaure by Pierre Mignard, ca 1700.

It disappeared rather quickly though and for about 50 years hairstyles were kept close to the head.

Madame de Pompadour by François Boucher, 1756. 

In the 1760’s hairstyles started to get some height and soon climbed steadily higher.

Eva Helena Ribbing by Gustaf Lundberg, late 1760’s.

To reach its peak a decade later.

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France by Antoine Lécuyer, 1775

 By the 1780’s hair was still big, but wider and not so high.

Mrs. Henry Hoare by George Romney, 1780 – 1784. 

By the 1790’s hair started to get smaller again.

Marquise d’Orvilliers by Jacques-Louis David, 1790. 

So even if it is such an iconic style, in truth the big hair was only fashionable some 40 years.

4. They never bathed, and instead used perfume to mask the smell
Well, they didn’t bathed as we do today, that is certain. A bath demanded the economical resources for clean water, someone to carry it home and to heat it, making cleanliness a matter of class. At the beginning of the century there was also a wide-spread view that it was dangerous to immerse your whole body in hot water. Still, people wanted to be considered cleanly in the 18th century too, and kept clean as well as they could, their standard was just not the same as our own. The modern view is that you can only get clean if in large amounts of hot water, perhaps because most people have never tried to clean themselves any other way. In fact you can wash yourself very well with a limited amount of water with the help of soap and a wash cloth. The bidet was invented in the late 17th century and was, at least, very popular with the French upper classes. Marie Antoinette owned several, for example. A bidet makes more intimate hygiene quite simple with a limited amount of water

French 18th century bidet. 

You could also take baths for health reasons and even though getting clean wasn’t the motive, you kind of get that too if you immerse yourself in water. Another important aspect of 18th century hygiene was clean linen. The richer you were, the more shirts and shifts you owned and a change to clean linens could happen several times every day.

Copper bathtub from the 18th century.

As for perfume, yes, scent was very popular in the 18th century. Apart from regular perfume, hair powder and pomades were scented and little perfumed linen bags could be carried in a pocket, or inside clothes for added scent. There are also mentions of scented clothes, like stays. Various ways to scent rooms were available as well. Consider for a moment all the products we use today. An ordinary morning may see the use of shower gel or soap, body lotion, deodorant, all scented and perhaps a dab of perfume too. The clothes are washed in laundry detergents and fabric softener that are scented as well. So are hair products and makeup. All in all, we probably use more scented products now than people did in the 18th century. A difference is that the taste in scents then leaned heavily toward the animalistic with lots of musk, ambergris and civet, when today “fresh” or flowery scents are popular.

 I hope you have enjoyed this little post. I had fun writing it and I would like o end it with a big thank you to American Duchess for allowing me to ramble in her blog!


  • Ashenburg, Katherine Clean: an unsanitised history of washing, London: Profile, 2009.
  • Buc’hoz, Pierre-Joseph The Toilet of Flora, London: printed for J. Murray, and W. Nicoll, 1775.
  • Corson, Richard Fashions in makeup: from ancient to modern times, London: Owen, 1972 
  • Le Camus, Antoine Abdeker: or, the art of preserving beauty. Translated from an Arabic manuscript, London: printed for A. Millar, 1754. 
  • Maeder, Edward (ed.) Hollywood and history: costume design in film, Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art; 1987 
  • Ribeiro, Aileen Facing beauty: painted women & cosmetic art, New Haven, Conn.; Yale University Press, 2011. 


  • Elisabeth-Marguerite, the Artist’s Daughter by Nicolas de Largillière, painted before 1746. 
  • Maria Gunning, Countess of Coventry, after Francis Cotes painted 1751-1760. 
  • Madame Victoire, Princess of France by Alexander Roslin, 1765. 
  • Rudolf Valentino in Monsieur Beaucaire, 1924. 
  • Mary Robinson as Perdita by John Hoppner, probably 1780’s. 
  • Elizabeth Linley by Thomas Gainsborough, ca 1775. 
  • The extravaganza or The mountain head dress of 1776 
  • Madmoiselle de Roquelaure by Pierre Mignard, ca 1700. 
  • Madame de Pompadour by François Boucher, 1756. 
  • Eva Helena Ribbing by Gustaf Lundberg, late 1760’s. 
  • Marie Antoinette, Queen of France by Antoine Lécuyer, 1775. 
  • Mrs. Henry Hoare by George Romney, 1780 – 1784. 
  • Marquise d’Orvilliers by Jacques-Louis David, 1790. 
  • French 18th century bidet. 
  • Copper bathtub from the 18th century.


  • Lucinda Brant

    September 6, 2012 at 12:02 AM

    Great post! Re wigs, contrary to popular belief, wigs were not the preserve of the aristocracy but the universal consumer product for men throughout the 1700s, worn by most every male from King to shopkeeper. And as you so rightly pointed out, not powdered in white either, but made of natural hair in natural colors.
    Love the photo of Valentino! ; – )
    Thanks for sharing.

  • Hana - Marmota

    September 6, 2012 at 11:57 AM

    Good points about hygiene! Indeed, most people today probably simply cannot imagine any other way… but a bidet-style cleaning is something handicapped people use a lot even today, as I realised when helping out a handicapped lady this year. So it's rather interesting for me to know the history to that…

    • Isis

      September 7, 2012 at 9:11 AM

      History of hygiene is rather interesting. I remember always hearing that Louis XVI only took three hot baths in his whole life- and how dirty he must have been. I don't know if that is true or not (though I rather lean on not), but what I do know is that he was an athlete and a keen swimmer and regulary swam during the summers until he was rather old. Kind of gives it another persepctive. 🙂

    • Isis

      September 7, 2012 at 9:27 AM

      Thank you! I felt it was important to include the sources as there are so many blogs and webpages that just states "facts" with no backing up. If I want to bust myths, then I better show where I got my information from! Some things I thought were facts when I started to really research this post, like dying from lead in makeup. But the more I read, the less likely it seems- lead don't really get absorbed much by the skin. SO right now I'm reading up on lead poisoning. 🙂

      And I just checked out your blog- I can't believe that I have managed to miss it before!

  • Aurora

    September 6, 2012 at 8:45 PM

    Thanks for yet another well written and interesting article Elisa! Yes please do write a post on men in the future. 🙂

    About bathing: well, living in an old 1930's house without proper central heating as I had to do during my studies in England was most probably a very 18th centuryish experience. This had a lot to do with the freezing indoor temperature, which most probably was very close to that of any castle, mansion or cottage back in the days. Getting into the shower was always a horror since one (almost) risked freezing to death while undressing, not to mention after showering… Because even though I had running water at least, there was hardly any hot water in the taps at all. So, the good old soap and washcloth type of cleaning was definitely preferable to immersing the whole body in (cold) water in that situation…

    • Isis

      September 8, 2012 at 9:35 AM

      Glad you liked it!

      Brrr! I lived in a houce built in 1850 once. The water got hot but the bathroom was about 10 C in winter….. Much more comfortable to wash oneself in the kitchen…

  • Isabella

    September 6, 2012 at 10:18 PM

    I'm so glad you posted this! I need to pick your brain a bit when I get back home. I'd like to write a letter on this very subject to a couple of tour guides in Ireland. 😉

  • VeraVenus

    September 11, 2012 at 9:08 AM

    Great post! Tinted hair powders conjures up a lovely vision.
    You don't mention my favourite myth of mice actually living in ladies piled up hair because they re-did their more elaborate hairstyles only every so often… I always liked that one.
    Well, I assume it is a myth ??!


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