I’ve watched my fair share of makeover shows; I can’t help but stick around to see what the overworked mom-of-two looks like after a wardrobe update and a trendy haircut. After brows are plucked, hair is straightened, and lip gloss is applied, a fresh woman emerges with a renewed lease on life.
Unlike the majority of the animal kingdom, where the male species are the more colorful, showy counterparts, human females typically go to extremes to appear attractive, often putting their own health in danger (tanning beds, I’m looking at you). The hazardous cosmetic habits of ladies is a long history, dating back to ancient Egypt when women painted their unmentionables with gold. However, a much more recent example from only 200 years ago shows how these trends truly are a product of social attitudes.
During the first three decades of the 19th century, Romanticism was in. Mozart and Beethoven were creating symphonies that practically swooned, while J.M.W Turner’s paint brush seemed to sigh across the canvas. It was a rebellion against the rise of scientific thinking, causing the world’s most creative minds to explore and revel in deep, personal emotions. The trend extended into female behavior in a ridiculous manner — ostentatious emotional eruptions including fainting spells, shrieks and sighs were all the rage. But the most curious trend of the Romantic era was the lengths to which women altered their appearance to maintain the look of perma-melancholy. The more waif-like, the better — pale complexions, white powdered faces and a breakable countenance were prized qualities for many women. By this point in fashion, dresses were designed to further encourage such behavior: bustling petticoats added to dramatic sweeping motions across a room, and shoulders were set so low, women couldn’t even lift their arms over their heads. The trend at its most extreme found women using chemically harmful makeup to create dark circles under their eyes and enhance the appearance of blue veins.
The Butterick Publishing Company released a manual entitled Beauty: Its Attainment and Preservation, a 19th century guide to maintaining a proper appearance. With such sentences as, “Freckles are great destroyers of one’s peace of mind as well as of one’s beauty,” the 21st century doesn’t seem like such a bad place after all. In a chapter entitled “Vein Mixtures,” the manual outlines the best methods of achieving the fashionable palid look of the time. To create a blue tint, it recommends a chalk made into a paste with gum-arabic, water, and Prussian blue powder. It also advises an easier method, a popular blue-colored grease at the time: “It comes in pencil form and is simply drawn over the skin wherever a vein shows through. The mark is then softened down by rubbing, and the veins thus accentuated make the skin seem all the fairer and more delicate.”
Until the 1920s, pale skin was a sign of gentility, proudly maintained by women whose wan features indicated a life above the working class. Fortunately, women no longer have to resort to lead-infused powders and greases to exude beauty. But maybe we shouldn’t be so hasty to scoff at trends of the past; today, women chemically straighten their hair, laser hair out of its follicles, and apply medicated ointment to grow freakishly long eyelashes. As someone with frighteningly pale skin — no need to paint blue veins on this gal — I hope that in twenty years, we’ll look back at fake tans and other extreme beauty trends and say, “What were we thinking?”
What are today’s most ridiculous trends in cosmetics?