Fainting and poisons: the Regency beauty ideal

Beauty is pain, they say. Regency women, unfortunately, were expected to take that saying very literally…  Even though a “natural” look was theoretically all the rage, most women decided to help nature a hand. And in order to satisfy the Regency beauty ideal, pain or even slow poisoning were considered rather acceptable costs.

Regency beauty standards are quite contradictory. On the one hand, there was an obsession with the idea of “naturalness”. On the other hand, that “natural” ideal became so extreme that make-up was necessary to achieve it.

One of our best sources on Regency beauty ideals is The Mirror of Graces, which was written in 1811 and had the catchy subtitle Or, The English Lady’s Costume: Combining and Harmonizing Taste and Judgment, Elegance and Grace, Modesty, Simplicity and Economy, with Fashion in Dress. In other words, this book was supposed to tell you exactly how to look and how not to look. 

Beware of the sun

What recommendations do we find here? First of all, many words are spent explaining how a lady of distinction should look after her facial complexion. Or, as the Mirror of Graces puts it:

The preservation of an agreeable complexion (which always presupposes health,) is not the most insignificant of exterior charms….

Yes, ladies, not the most insignificant. The careful reader now knows that a fine complexion is as a matter of fact essential in order to look fashionable. One of the most imporant rules was not to get a tan – after all, only working people tanned, and a lady of distinction couldn’t look like she had spent her day out in the fields! Therefore, the Mirror of Graces recommends:

… it would be well for her to remember that is is wiser to throw a shadow over her yet unimpaired charms, than to hold them in the light till they are seen to decay. 

Women therefore had to walk around with parasols whenever they went outside, all to protect their delicate features from the sunlight. Similarly, carriages usually sported a light canopy to provide a lady with a proper amount of shade.

Even without any sunlight on her face, however, a lady might not achieve the milk-white teint society preferred. In order to remedy this issue, Regency women used “white powders” to colour the face even paler.

The white powders could be made of innocent ingredients such as cornstarch, crushed pearls or rice flour. But others contained lead, and were therefore toxic! Women sometimes slowly poisoned themselves to death by applying a dangerous heavy metal to their skin every day again…

Don’t use rouge – but do it anyway

Until roughly 1800, a heavy circle of rouge on the cheeks was considered quite fashionable. In the Regency era, however, a blushing or reddened face was considered unladylike. As the Mirror of Graces laments:
The frequent and sudden changes from heat to cold, by abruptly exciting or repressing the regular secretions of the skin, roughen its texture, injure its hue, and often deform it with unseemly, though transitory, eruptions. All this is increased by the habit ladies have of exposing themselves unveiled, and frequently without bonnets, in the open air. The head and face have no defense against the attacks of the surrounding atmosphere, and the effects are obvious.
Nonetheless, a little rouge was generally considered fine:

A little vegetable rouge tinging the cheek of a delicate woman, who, from ill health or an anxious mind, loses her roses, may be excusable.

It couldn’t be too much, however – at least not enough to really notice it was there.
Good sense must so preside over its application, that its tint on the cheek may always be fainter than what nature’s pallet would have painted. A violently rouged woman is one of the most disgusting objects to the eye.
Rouge could be made at home, but a lady could also choose store-bought products. Pears’ Liquid Bloom of Roses was a popular brand in the Regency era. Again, however, it came with a risk: Pears’ used metals such as tin in the production of its make-up. And tin, again, could be dangerous.

Regency beauty ideals Pears

Eye drops – of the painful kind

“I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty women can bestow.” Remember Darcy musing about Elizabeth’s eyes? He was not the only one. Eyes – preferably bright and sparkling – were an essential part of the Regency beauty ideal.

Women used a kind of eyeliner to make their eyes stand out, which they made from burnt cork or lamp soot. (And surprise, it wasn’t even deadly! It only had a strong and unpleasant smell…)

Then there were more dubious ways to make the eyes look brighter. Drinking a mixture of sugar and whiskey, for example. Or – more unpleasant – dropping perfume or soapsuds into the eyes. Beauty is pain, remember?

The Regency beauty ideal

Of course, there was a lot more to the Regency beauty ideal. You weren’t done after rubbing poison on your face and pouring soap into your eyes! Other standards women had to keep in mind included:

  • Walking and standing straight at all times, sometimes with a wooden stick bound against the back or chest to prevent – gasp – slumping.
  • A high bosom, achieved by using corsets so tight that they led to oxygen shortage and fainting.
  • No arm hair, or for that matter, hair anywhere except on the head.
  • A slender waist, if need be with a little help from weight loss cures containing arsenic, strychnine or even tapeworm larvae.

It’s quite a miracle that Regency women weren’t dropping dead by masses, considering the beauty tricks there were using! I have personally never been so happy with my poison-free foundation and mascara…


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Fainting and poisons: the Regency beauty ideal
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