Sunday, 22 January 2012

17th Century Beauty

Lady at her Toilette 1660 - ter Borch

In the 21st Century, we are fortunate to have multi-billion pound companies who offer women – and men – every beauty aid imaginable to stave off the encroaching years. For the more annually challenged, there is plastic surgery and Botox to make us feel good. Not all these treatments,  are enjoyable, but  pure luxury compared to what our 17th century sisters went through to improve their appearance.
In the 1600's, they believed a thick layer of filth would keep them strong and healthy, and that water  spread diseases by penetrating the pores of the skin and infecting the bloodstream. Baths were infrequent, although those who could afford to changed their linen undergarments regularly. This poor health and hygiene, together with the use of poisonous materials like white lead, meant a woman was thought to be 'past her prime at 20, decayed at four and 20, and old and insufferable at 30.'

Hannah Woolley,  a  maid-turned-writer  born in 1625, was probably the first woman to earn a living publishing  books on household management. Her manual, The Ladies' Dictionary, published in 1694, set out the rules of etiquette for women during the reign of William and Mary.

A 17th century lady was advised to use goose fat to shape up, whether to eat or smear on her wobbly bits is not specified, coupled with some non-strenuous exercise. No jogging round Green Park, such practices were considered far too undignified an activity for a lady. Crash diets are not new, for Hannah’s advice for rapid weight loss was to, ‘bathe in claret wine infused with "wormwood, calamint, chamomile, sage and squinath*". [*a kind of rush, whose flowers were used in medicines.] Another remedy was to brew up a foul mixture of chicken and goose grease, pine, rosin, pitch and turpentine in an earthenware pot, which was mixed with wax, cooled, and then applied, "to the place that Languishes, or does not equally Thrive", and allowed to set into a plaster.

Diet recommendations were strange, in that the book suggests food should be, ‘sweet and nourishing,' and to avoid anything salt, sharp, bitter or too hot. Ms Wooley recommends new eggs, veal, mutton, capon, but there is no mention of fruit or vegetables, which were considered unnecessary to good health.

However starving was not recommended."Bodies that are very Lean and Scragged, we must own, cannot be very Comely: It is a contrary Extream to Corpulency and the Parties Face always seems to carry Lent in it."

In matters of love, complimenting a woman on her décolletage may not go down to well in modern society, but was the fastest route to a lady's heart in Restoration England. Author John Gough advises men to tell their prospective lover that "Her breasts are a pair of Maiden-unconquered Worlds", or that "Her breasts are twins where Lillies grow". Or "Her breasts are the soft Pillows of love" and "Her breasts are two Ivory balls of listing pleasure".

Gough says sleeping on your back; "causes deafness, disturbs the fore-part of the brain, and procures the night-mare" He also says that amorous women are more ticklish than others, "because their skins are more loose, soft and delicate", and that women are "more craftily revengeful than men, by reason of the weaknesse of their natures; what they cannot do by force, they maintain by subtility."

Hannah Woolley’s first-date etiquette says that in answer to the question: ‘Is it proper for a Woman to yield at the first address, though to a man she love?" she says, ‘There is no such want of Man yet that thanks to our French and Irish enemies, that you Ladies should be in such great haste to yield as the First Appearance of a Foe.’ Ms Woolley disapproved of women wearing make-up: "A painted face is enough to destroy the Reputation of her that uses it." 

However, since Elizabethan times, both men and women of the court wore make-up. By the 17th century, rouge became a class indicator, as prostitutes rouged their lips and cheeks to mimic the effects of sexual arousal as a signal to their male “suitors” of things to come. And not just on their lips and cheeks, but nipples and genitals too as an enhancement to arousal for their clients.
A pale complexion indicated a lady was wealthy enough to spend her time on indoor, gentle pursuits and sometimes this was preserved by wearing masks outdoors.  To add palour to the skin, ladies would mix powdered white chalk or white lead with white of egg and vinegar. This made a smooth shiny finish, but ladies had to be careful not to laugh or the new ‘skin’ would crack.

Other advice was to: ‘wash in your own urine, or with rosewater mixed with wine, else make a decoction of the rinds of lemon.’ Samuel Pepys wife, Elizabeth was reported to have tried this.

Rouged cheeks were obtained by the application of cerise powder (white lead with red colouring), or with sheets of Spanish paper, bought dyed red to rub on the skin. Lips were reddened with fruit juice or cochineal.

A lady’s dressing room was decorated with silk hangings, with lotions and creams kept in china and clay pots stored in elaborately carved wooden boxes. Vanity was no longer a sin, but a virtue and a lady’s toilette was often carried out with an audience of callers.
Lady At Her Toilette-Utrecht School

Lead and mercury were, of course, toxic, and if used too often, would eat away the flesh. In less serious cases lead resulted in scars and blemishes. Thus it became the fashion for both men and women to wear patches on the face to disguise them. 'Patches' were cut into a huge variety of shapes and patterns, including stars, diamonds, crescent moons and even a tiny coach and horses. Seventeenth-century street peddlers used to sing this rhyme:

Heer patches are of ev’ry cut for pimples and for scarrs
Heer’s all the wand’ring planett signs
And some of the fixed starrs.
Already gummed to make them stick
They need no other sky
Nor starrs, for Lilly for to view to tell your fortunes by.
Come lads and lasses, what do you lack
Here’s weare of all prices
Here’s long and short
Here’s wide and straight
Heer are things of all sizes.
Bourse of Reformation,1640

Ladies have always liked to admire themselves, but mirrors were a rare item in the 1600’s, much prized and very expensive.  First made by the Venetians by backing glass with silvery tin or mercury; a process kept secret until it was smuggled to Paris by craftsmen working for the king of France. The craft spread throughout Europe, and George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham became patron of a mirror factory in Vauxhall, south London.

Ms Wooley didn’t confine her advice to the physical. She says: ‘It is not necessary to read many books, but to read the best. The forbidding of idle books makes young people more curious to read them’.

It appears nothing much has changed in either human vanity or youthful rebelliousness.

Resource: The Raucous Royals.  A really informative and fun website about all aspects of Historical Royal Characters