Ah, the Victorian Age. Stiff manners, stiffer corsets, and extreme moral conservatism. Queen Victoria’s rule (1837-1901) was a time of serious social and economic change, both in Britain and abroad. The industrial revolution had changed the way people lived, offering a tantalizing glimpse of social mobility through the development of a middle class. The American Civil War split a nation in two. And throughout the Western sphere, “The Woman Question” was one that everyone had an opinion about. What was a woman’s place in society? How should she be? How should she live her life? We're still having this debate today.
One thing that most agreed on was that women should be beautiful and married, and landing a husband was still seen as the primary goal for young women.
Nineteenth-century women of a certain class relied on books and publications to teach them the secrets of being beautiful, and therefore of getting (and keeping) a man.
Many of these proto-ladymags were co-penned by doctors, while others were written by high-society ladies with helpful hints on everything from personal hygiene to dressing for various occasions.
These Victorian beauty books are a fascinating glimpse into female life in the nineteenth century. Let’s take a look at what women were taught to value in terms of their appearance back in our great-great grandmother’s days.
There is a myth plaguing history that people only bathed once every few years, if at all, until the twentieth century. Doctors of the nineteenth century recommended frequent bathing, and your social class and occupation dictated how often you bathed.
Those who could afford a bath tub would have bathed a few times each month, while the poor were likely to bathe once a year.
Extreme temperatures for bathing were warned against by doctors due to a negative impact on the health and appearance of one’s skin. Tepid water infused with bran was best, followed by a heavy dose of exfoliation with a wash cloth to create bright and smooth skin. Turkish Baths were very popular among the upper classes, and body steams were also encouraged to purge the skin of organic poisons and impurities.
In the Victorian era, the only good complexion was a pale complexion. The “superiority” of upper-class white women was an accepted fact of society, directly promoted in beauty books with advice for achieving the lightest, most ladylike skin possible. The higher class you were perceived to be, the better your prospects for a good marriage.
To achieve the fairest skin possible, women tried everything. Lead-based paints were used, but not ALL women covered their faces with poisonous creams. The rich ones ate their poisons--due to the high price (and resulting languor) ingesting arsenic, chalk, slate, or tea grounds was for only the fanciest of women.
Eating poison was heavily warned against by Victorian beauty writers due to the resulting “sickly” appearance: youthful good health was the beauty standard of the day. Instead of using chemicals or poisons to promote healthy skin, women were advised to sit in well ventilated rooms, get seven to eight hours of sleep each night, take some sun (but not enough to burn), and eat a healthy diet--all advice still touted by contemporary health experts.
The Victorians were also fascinated with zits. Blackheads were sometimes known as “fleshworms” because people THOUGHT WORMS WERE CRAWLING OUT OF THEIR FACES when they were extracted. A nightly steam, alternating with pure steam and sulphur, for two to three months was recommended as a cure to rid the face of blackheads and acne.
But above all else, women were advised--nay, commanded--to avoid makeup.
Face paints and other cosmetics were frequently used by performers and prostitutes, so therefore high society viewed these products as deplorable.
No refined lady would be caught dead with the devil’s trickery on her face.
This was the line that the beauty guides promoted in theory. In practice, most upper class women wore a little makeup. Cold cream was recommended as a priming agent, applied prior to dusting the faintest veil of rouge across the cheeks and finished with a transparent layer of powder to avoid a greasy complexion.
So really, Victorian women weren’t worried about makeup in general--they were worried about wearing the wrong kind of makeup, the kind that would mark them as lower-class. This is something we still see in the media today: celebrities’ “tacky” makeup choices are mocked, and we’re frequently told that “no-makeup makeup” is the only type we should be wearing.
However, only the young were encouraged to enhance their beauty with cosmetics. According to Lola Montez, author of one beauty guide, “a rouged old woman is a horrible sight--a distortion of nature’s harmony!” Youth was coveted, but makeup was not the way to achieve it. Instead, face masks and other concoctions were advised for Women of a Certain Age to decrease wrinkles and promote a healthy glow.
The Root Of Feminine Beauty
But the most beautiful feature a lady could have? Her mind. Individuality, wit, and the ability to think critically could make up for a poorly constructed face, sallow complexion, or any other physical shortcoming a woman may possess. The previously mentioned Lola Montez was adamant that “a beautiful mind is a necessity for a beautiful face,” while other authors, like Annie Jennes Miller echoed her sentiments, even going so far as to criticize the American school system for failing to promote critical thought and analysis. Thus, these beauty guides weren’t just about maintaining pretty skin, but also about promoting women’s education.
Victorian beauty guides encouraged women to postulate their own ideas on society and politics. Unfortunately, those ideas were not always listened to or respected. A well-educated woman was still considered inferior to men; many men viewed clever women as akin to precocious children.
And few men wanted a wife who was outwardly smarter than he was. Women were meant to ornament men, not outshine them. Many of the Victorian beauty books included chapters on behaving properly in social gatherings, reinforcing the idea that intellect was valued, but so was social grace and etiquette. A lady’s wit was meant to add to conversation, rather than direct it. After all, no matter how clever she was, women were still seen as chiefly ornamental. It would take a few more decades, and the emergence of The New Woman, for this to change.
It’s tempting to look back on the Victorian Era as a remote, alien period of time governed by incomprehensibly sexist, racist, and classist codes of behavior. But many of the conversations started in this era about a woman’s place in the world, and about the place of beauty IN that world, are still happening today. Beauty guides let us look back at the lives of our foremothers and compare the advice they were given with what we see in the media today. It’s fascinating to see how much--and at the same time, how little--has changed.
- How do you answer “The Woman Question”?
- Could you survive the hygiene practices of the nineteenth century?
- Are you as grossed out by the term “fleshworm” as I am?