In the middle of the 1800's, Queen Victoria of England declared makeup to be vulgar, and so it started to fall to the wayside in most Western Countries toward the end of the century, although prostitutes and actresses continued to wear makeup. Women in the 19th century liked to be thought of as fragile ladies. They compared themselves to delicate flowers and emphasized their delicacy and femininity. They aimed always to look pale and interesting. Paleness could be induced by drinking vinegar and avoiding fresh air. Sometimes ladies discreetly used a little rouge on the cheeks, but make-up was frowned upon in general especially during the 1870s when social etiquette became more rigid.
A pale skin was a mark of gentility. It meant that a lady could afford to not work outdoors getting suntanned which was then considered vulgar and coarse. Continuous work in sun and harsh weather coarsened the skin then, as it does now. Parasols were de rigueur and used to protect the complexion. Rooms were shuttered with dark heavy velvet curtains to keep out the sun's rays. Some effort was made to keep the décolleté neckline in good condition as it was often exposed in evening dress. As part of their "toilet" in the morning ladies of leisure would ensure well plucked eyebrows, perhaps trim their eyelashes, and daub castor oil onto their eyelids and lashes.
Skin: Pale skin was a sign of wealth. Wealthy women did not have to work outside, and so being pale was a sign of being part of the upper class. Pale skin would be achieved through chemical means - sometimes women used face powders made of lead (which is poisonous, but it achieved the desired affect). There was a lot of what they called 'snake oil salesmen' who would sell ointments that could contain anything (like cocaine) for health and beauty purposes. It was also popular to put egg whites on your faces and allow it to dry, creating a porcelain-like appearance. To hide freckles, blotches, or redness, they could dust on rice powder, zinc oxide or, the most expensive option, ground pearl powder. Trivia: By the late 1800's, women were using fine blue pencils to trace their veins lines to increase the appearance of delicate translucent skin. Powders were available with blue and lavender tints. This allowed women to appear very pale even in the yellow gas and candle light.
Eyes: For bright eyes, a drop of lemon or orange juice in each eye would be used, and was considered a cleansing method. Eye shadow was not really used. Beeswax was sometimes used to make eye lashes look thicker, and Kohl was often used on eye lashes. Kohl is a mixture of soot and other ingredients, and it was used by the Egyptians. Sometimes women went with eyeliner instead, using the ends of burnt twigs to outline the eye. Poisonous belladonna was also dropped into the eyes causing the pupils to dilate, creating a luminous glow, but clouding vision. People with cataracts were prescribed belladonna; Queen Victoria used it in her declining years rather than have surgery. Belladonna is also known as Deadly Nightshade. It has a long history of use as a medicine, cosmetic, and poison. Before the Middle Ages, it was used as an anesthetic for surgery; the ancient Romans used it as a poison (the wife of Emperor Augustus and the wife of Claudius - both were rumored to have used it for murder); and, predating this, it was used to make poison-tipped arrows. The name "bella donna" is derived from Italian and means "beautiful woman" because the herb was used in eye-drops by women to dilate the pupils of the eyes to make them appear seductive. The crude drug is used in sedatives, stimulants, and antispasmodics.
Cheeks and Lips: Rouge was commercially available, but you could not be seen applying it. Some women, instead of applying rouge to their cheeks, would pinch or slap them to make them appear rosy and glow. Lips were sometimes pinched or even bitten to make them look read and swollen. Lipstick was beeswax dyed with crushed flowers or sometimes carmine beetles. (Beetles that have carmine, a red pigment, is used in food coloring and derived from the eggs of the cochineal beetle and crushed bodies of the female)
A Woman's Place is in The Home
The Victorian era seems like another world to us. Yet the late Victorians were very familiar with many of the things we use every day. The one thing that was different was the place of women in society. There were, of course, perceptive women of independent original thought, but for the huge majority, life was easier if they accepted that a woman's place was in the home. To lump all women of the Victorian era as one body would be wrong. The era spanned 64 years and changes in attitudes were gradually shifting as the century closed.
A Woman's Qualities
The accepted reasoning was that the career for women was marriage. To get ready for courtship and marriage a girl was groomed like a racehorse. In addition to being able to sing, play an instrument and speak a little French or Italian, the qualities a young Victorian gentlewoman needed, were to be innocent, virtuous, biddable, dutiful and be ignorant of intellectual opinion.
Right - Taking tea wearing lavish Victorian gowns in 1854. Fashion history images we see today are usually of beautifully gowned women, yet many working women as opposed to ladies such as these wore rags.
Whether married or single, all Victorian women were expected to be weak and helpless, a fragile delicate flower incapable of making decisions beyond selecting the menu and ensuring her many children were taught moral values. A gentlewoman ensured that the home was a place of comfort for her husband and family from the stresses of Industrial Britain.
A woman's prime use was to bear a large family and maintain a smooth family atmosphere where a man need not bother himself about domestic matters. He assumed his house would run smoothly so he could get on with making money.
Mistresses for Men
Even in high places Victorian men kept mistresses, but they still expected their wives or mistresses to be faithful whatever their own misdemeanors. If a women took a lover it was not made public. If it did become public knowledge she would be cut by society. But men could amble along to one of their gentleman's clubs and always find a warm welcome.
Married Woman's Property Act 1887
It was a hypocritical period when relationships were quite artificial. Until late in the century in 1887 a married woman could own no property. Then in 1887 the Married Woman's Property Act gave women rights to own her own property. Previously her property, frequently inherited from her family, belonged to her husband on marriage. She became the chattel of the man. During this era if a wife separated from her husband she had no rights of access to see her children. A divorced woman had no chance of acceptance in society again.
Social Differences between Classes of Women
A wealthy wife was supposed to spend her time reading, sewing, receiving guests, going visiting, letter writing, seeing to the servants and dressing for the part as her husband's social representative.
For the very poor of Britain things were quite different. Fifth hand clothes were usual. Servants ate the pickings left over in a rich household. The average poor mill worker could only afford the very inferior stuff, for example rancid bacon, tired vegetables, green potatoes, tough old stringy meat, tainted bread, porridge, cheese, herrings or kippers.
By the end of the Queen Victoria's reign there were great differences between members of society, but the most instantly apparent difference was through the garments worn.
The Victorian head of household dressed his women to show off family wealth. As the 19th century progressed dress became more and more lavish until clothing dripped with lace and beading as the new century dawned.
A wealthy woman's day was governed by etiquette rules that encumbered her with up to six wardrobe changes a day and the needs varied over three seasons a year. A lady changed through a wide range of clothing as occasion dictated.
Fashion history and photographic records clearly illustrate there was morning and mourning dress, walking dress, town dress, visiting dress, receiving visitors dress, travelling dress, shooting dress, golf dress, seaside dress, races dress, concert dress, opera dress, dinner and ball dress.
Left - Fashion plate of wealthy women in an open carriage which enabled them to display their clothes and elevated position in society.
Fashion plates were hugely successful in this era giving ladies, supposed to be women, visual clues on how to dress for their new found status.