18th Century Beauty Rituals: Chicken Skin Gloves

A model white complexion, 18th century
Portrait of a Lady, English School, late 18th century From: Dreweatts, Pictures from the Collection of Tony Hayes, Donnington UK

Although the term “blueblood” did not enter the lexicon until 1838, ladies and gentlemen alike had been inspecting their skin for whiteness since Egyptians slathered themselves with powdered lead. Skin bleaching creams gained widespread usage in medieval Europe, and the frenzy for milky complexions lasted through the 1920s when the siren Josephine Baker showed Paris just how beautiful caramel could be. Even Coco Chanel, ever the forerunner of trends, contributed to what would later become the tanning craze when she got sunburned in 1923 aboard a yacht in Cannes. Once she returned home, bronze was officially all the rage.

One would be hard-pressed, however, to convince a 18th century aristocrat of the merits of tanning. Laborers and peasants were browned by the sun, not lords or ladies. Those born pale and rich suffered little to keep what nature had provided, so long as they remained vigilant. Any lady shrieking at the sight of a liver spot or—demme me!—a freckle had restorative options such as elderflower water or cover-up in the form of powdered white lead.

18th Century lady
LVIII by Sergei Solomko

Since ancient Greece, white lead had killed many a vain female, and by the 18th century, husbands were advising against its use. By then the powder used to achieve the sophisticated Elizabethan look had fallen to the purview of courtesans and the French at Louis’s court.

While considering my heroine’s situation in Shadow Fire Lady, I dealt with this twin prejudice of her wanting smooth, pale skin while at the same time not wanting to use cosmetics that screamed “trollop”.  As an émigré, Thea had the misfortune to appear in London, penniless, French, and decidedly not a courtesan. Desperate for employment, she worked a short-stint as a laundress—labor being a true enemy of poreless, seamless skin. This was a time when the city was clogged with aristocrats who’d lost their right to pale and had to venture beyond gilded doors to earn their next meal.

I imagine Thea would’ve laughed at the idea of chicken skin gloves, but their popularity was quite remarkable. From the 1600s all the way through the reign of George III, they were considered essential in preserving beauty for both women and men.

Despite their name, they weren’t entirely composed of chicken skin—the inherently nubbled flesh being an understandable drawback—but instead were a combination of unborn calf-skin for smoothness and chicken skin for whiteness. (How did chicken skin contribute to whiteness?  No idea).  Due to their place of manufacture, the gloves gained the nickname “limericks” and a major selling point was the fact their delicacy afforded them a novel ability. They folded easily inside a walnut shell.

In his book Gloves:Their Annals and Associations: recounting an imagined history from the New Bath Guide, S. William Beck shared a poem about chicken skin gloves:

18th Century Study of a Fowl
Study of a Fowl, Lateral View, with skin and underlying facial layers removed, from ‘A Comparative Anatomical Exposition of the Structure of the Human Body with that of a Tiger and a Common Fowl’ | George Stubbs

“Come, but don’t forget the gloves
Which, with all the smiling loves,
Venus caught young Cupid picking
From the tender breast of chicken;
Little chicken, worthier far,
Than the birds of Juno’s car,
Soft as Cytherea’s dove,
Let thy skin my skin improve;
Thou by night shalt grace my arm,
And by day shalt teach to charm.”

He also recounts the extremes fashionistas would resort to in order to flaunt their best face. Makes me wonder what methods he left out: “. . . it was but a mild measure to lard the face over at night, nothing extraordinary to wear gloves lined with unguents, or to cover the face with a mask plastered inside with a perfumed pomade to preserve the complexion. Some steeped slices of raw veal for some hours in milk and laid them on the face. Young and tender beauties bathed in milk; beauties who were no longer young, and far from tender, bathed in wine or some other astringent.”

Raw veal?  Ugh.

Dearest readers, what do you think of this chicken skin business?  Not only were gloves manufactured, but chicken skin fans too.  Were you an 18th century lord or lady, would you don them at night and maybe, just maybe, transport them in a hand-painted walnut?   Let me know.  I’d love to hear what you think.

8 thoughts on “18th Century Beauty Rituals: Chicken Skin Gloves

  1. A fascinating post! I keep wondering what black-market procedures the extremely wealthy engage in today which would be an equivalent to the one’s you describe here.

    1. I shudder to think. Probably something to do with fetuses, like Kutti pi but for cosmetic instead of gustatory purposes. Rejuvenation via raw meat has already been done, ditto bathing in virgin’s blood. Yep, straight to the fetuses it is!

    1. They were probably soft and kind of delightful for the first couple uses. I’m unconvinced that they work magic though!

  2. I had heard of chicken-skin fans, but never gloves! As a lady of the 1700’s, I would of course follow fashion happily, but could never wear such things. There is nothing like contrast, so I would endeavor instead to wear dark gloves to make my powdered arms look paler still!

    Ladies in the ’20’s sometimes put a dot of rouge on their fingertips – could that be connected with the sudden interest in tanning?

    1. The idea of black gloves with pale arms is fabulous! A lady could bypass all chicken related beauty supplies by tricking the eye.

      I’ve never heard of rouged fingertips. I’ll have to check that out to discover the reason–one would think the rouge would transfers to clothes and whatnot.

  3. Truly fascinating! I confess I’ve always been wondering why so sudden a change from ‘perfect white complexion’ to ‘let’s get as tanned as possible’. It seemed to me people give to much attention to it anyway, it depends on everyone’s own way.
    I’ve never heard about bathing in wine either, I wonder what properties could it have? (Milk is indeed fat enough to make the skin soft, but why wine?)

    1. The only thing I can think about wine is that it’s vinegary which would make wine astringent. Maybe it’s a tightener? There’s also the side benefit of being able to get drunk while you bathe, though given the hygiene of the 18th century, this seems vastly unappealing!

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