The Art of Beauty: To rouge or not to rouge

Image from page 248 of San Francisco blue book and Pacific Coast elite directory (1890)

Throughout our corpus of nineteenth-century novels, there are numerous references to the transformative power of cosmetics. As well as striving to survive the noxious levels of lead and arsenic in your potions and pastes, you are also tasked with achieving socially acceptable levels of rouging. According to Madam Lola Montez’s 1858 book The Art of Beauty or Secrets of a lady’ toilet, the tiniest grains of rouge can transform the elegant lady into a “a vulgar harridan”…

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This observation is shared by the uncharitable narrator of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, who observes that:

“A stout countess of sixty, decolletee, painted, wrinkled with rouge up to her drooping eyelids, and diamonds twinkling in her wig, is a wholesome and edifying, but not a pleasant sight. She has the faded look of a St. James’s Street illumination, as it may be seen of an early morning, when half the lamps are out, and the others are blinking wanly, as if they were about to vanish like ghosts before the dawn.”

Image taken from page 91 of 'Love Lyrics and Valentine Verses, for young and old. [E. M. Davies. With illustrations.]'

If you manage to avoid the perils of excessive rouging, there is still the risk of too little colour about the face – as the titular character of Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801) informs Lady Delacour…

“Belinda drew her back, and closed the window, saying, “The rouge is all off your face, my dear Lady Delacour; you are not fit to be seen. Sit down upon this sofa, and I will ring for Marriott, and get some fresh rouge. Look at your face in this glass–you see–“

“I see,” interrupted Lady Delacour, looking full at Belinda Portman, “that she who I thought had the noblest of souls has the meanest! I see that she is incapable of feeling.  Rouge! Not fit to be seen ! –At such a time as this, to talk to me in this manner! Oh, niece of Mrs. Stanhope!–dupe!–dupe that I am!”

Some sixty-one years later, in M. E Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1863), Lady Audley expresses similar concerns and tries to convince her beautiful but makeup-less lady’s maid, Phoebe Marks, on the amazing powers of rouge, claiming that she can improve her appearance with a just a tiny touch of red…

“Your complexion is sallow, and mine is pink and rosy. Why, with a bottle of hair-dye, such as we see advertised in the papers, and a pot of rouge, you’d be as good-looking as I, any day, Phoebe Marks.” 

In Chapter 54 of Emma (1815), Austen’s Miss Jane Fairfax seems to have found the right balance, a topic that Frank Churchill discusses with Emma

“Did you ever see such a skin?–such smoothness! such delicacy!–and yet without being actually fair.–One cannot call her fair. It is a most uncommon complexion, with her dark eye-lashes and hair–a most distinguishing complexion! So peculiarly the lady in it.–Just colour enough for beauty.”

For those interested Victorian make-up recipes see here and to design your very own 18th century hair-sculpture extravaganza (complete with feathers, powder and decorative ship) see here!

Fashion plate: English Evening Dress 1820 by John Bell 

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