Category Archives: Beauty

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.

Historical Geekery Gift Guide 2012

A selection for bookish, historically-minded folks (and yes, gentlemen, there’s something for you, too!)

Anne Boleyn blank journal from Immortal Longings, perfect for those especially moody days.  You may also choose from the Katherine of Aragon and the Henry VIII versions.  I’d personally like to have Anne’s and Henry’s side by side for a bit of dark romance.  (They also have beautiful Shakespeare journals.)

Sweet Marie before she became headless . . . These earrings have everything she would approve of: bows, French blue swarovski crystal, and her youthful portrait set in a cabachon.  Secret Jewellz also has a pair of sparkling pink bow earrings that are very pretty.

Inspiration from the grave.  Unisex perfume/cologne from Sweet Tea Apothecary which (unlike what the macabre name evokes) will come up smelling of heliotrope, vetiver, black tea, clove, tobacco, musk, and vanilla.  “This blend evokes the feeling of sitting in an old library chair paging through yellowed copies of Hemingway, Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, Poe, and more.  The Dead Writers blend makes you want to put on a kettle of black tea and curl up with your favorite book.”


Damn French Desserts has the loveliest skeleton cards.  They’d look great as a framed collection, especially for those unwilling to part with all of them via post.  Choose from the ‘Victorian Goth Queen To the Bones’ and ‘Skeleton Horse Lady Godiva’ (and more)

What you can’t wash off, wash on.  Straight from the Bearded Proprietor’s shop, ‘Ill Repute’ shaving soap for the ladies and the gents.  The whole store is packed with delights to improve your morning ablutions: Madame Scodioli’s Hand-Made Soaps, Perfumes, Whisker Wax & Lovely Curiosities for One And All

Made of etched semi-gloss stainless steel, these hardcover optical illusion earrings are fantastic for any bookish lady on your list.

For those who like to play with the digital side of art, a collage sheet of hairstyles from the 15th to 20th centuries with Marie Antoinette’s belle poule at center.  FrenchFrouFrou Antiques also offers a collage sheet of French costumes and others for your enjoyment.

Because one hand-painted teacup and saucer is never enough . . .  Burke Hare Co, Victorian teacups, candles, and curiosities for peculiar people.

The Mindful Mushroom Artisan body oils are 100% vegan, cruelty free, and use a house base of hemp seed, grapeseed, sunflower, and rice bran oil.  She goes wild with her perfuming and the options are nearly endless from sweetly inspired like Faery Queen to darkling scents like Unseelie Court.  From one perfume lover to another, I am in love. Choose from a sample vials/packs, 5 ml or 10 ml roll-on.

An 8×10 inch print that’s a cute take on the song.  I would buy this for myself in a hot minute, but my darling, devilish husband would surely amend the -OOKS part. Either way, smiles all around!

Hope you guys enjoyed the gift guide.  All products are on Etsy and support independent artists.

Makeup: 18th Century Whores and Ladies

In 18th century England only one type of woman wore white powder and painted cheeks.  You guessed it, the courtesan or the actress, two demimonde professions which, by virtue of patrons and proclivities, tended to be nearly indistinguishable during the period. Courtesans rubbed elbows (and more!) with lords; actresses encouraged men’s capital admirations, gathering up diamonds the morning after.  Ah, the life.

But cleanliness is next to godliness, girls.  Unlike present day where we brown ourselves like baked chicken, cakey vampirish complexions were à la mode.   Staring around the late 17th century, women of a certain age would gussy up their necks, faces, and sometimes, hands with paint or a fine dusting of powder.  Few dared venture outside without a speck of makeup, be it rice powder or lead paint.  As is common knowledge, freckles were anathema, as were pox scars and blemishes, so pray tell: what was a proper, young lady to do?  Apply elderflower water, add a dash of desperate prayer, don’t forget sundry parasols and bonnets, and if all else fails, flaunt your patches (read To Patch or Not to Patch).

Compared to cosmetic blends, other means of achieving a wintry complexion proved downright vile.  Bloodletting, anyone?  What about fashionable consumption? Surely you wouldn’t object to that.  Women during the period went so far as to mimic one suffering from tuberculosis: white skin, glistening eyes, and waifish slenderness.  Lead paint was the cornerstone of this look, but truly, the usefulness of belladonna eye drops could not be underestimated.

Beauty is pain

If only someone had told the notorious Kitty Fisher that her ghostly visage would result in early retirement from earth, perhaps she would’ve steered clear of the stuff.  But . . . probably not.  She had a reputation to consider and besides, what was a little nerve tingling outside the bedroom?  Really, who cares that the French physician Deshais-Gendron believed in 1760 that pulmonary lung disease among high-born ladies was associated with frequent use of lead face paint and rouge.  A quack, I tell you!  A quack!

Kitty Fisher as Cleopatra dissolving the pearl, Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1759 (Eight years before her death)

Aside from courtesans and actresses, the French fared the worst.  The noblest ladies wore powder and paint by the gobs, whereas the lowest of prostitutes tempt custumors with freshly scrubbed visages.  Curious, but the French and English always were contrary to one another.

Medical Opinion of the Period

Doctors consistently advised their patients to abstain from heavy cosmetics, relating their use to all sorts of unsavory symptoms including, but not limited to: acne, blackening of the skin, rotting teeth, loss of appetite, and the coup de grâce, total paralyis of the nerves.  In Selling Beauty: Cosmetics, Commerce, and French Society, 1750 to 1780, the author Morag Martin states:

“Disease and death were the inevitable followers of fading looks.  Once the skin was exposed and damaged, the chemical in cosmetics affected the functioning of the senses and even the internal organs.  Eighteenth century posthumoral theory postulated that any foreign element in contact with the body forced normally expelled fluids into key organs and blood vessels, destabalizing the body’s balance.”

I think we all can agree:  BAD.

Recipe for Lead Powder 

Several Thin Plates of Lead

A Big Pot of Vinegar

A Bed of Horse Manure


Perfume and tinting agent


Steep the lead in the pot of vinegar, and rest it in a bed of manure for at least three weeks. When the lead finally softens to the point where it can pounded into a flaky white powder (chemical reaction between vinegar and lead causes lead to turn white), grind to a fine powder. Mix with water, and let dry in the sun. After the powder is dry, mix with the appropriate amount of perfume and tinting dye.

I can safely assumes that none of you intelligent beings will attempt this at home, if nothing else because of the horse manure.  Lead is also poisonous!!

Coiffure v. Coiffeur

Easily confused with one another, coiffure and coiffeur have the same letters, only rearranged. Unlike blond and blonde, they have also two distinct meanings, however closely related. 

Coiffure (ending in e) is a hairstyle.  In the latter 18th century we hear the term pouf, a coiffure that refers to the elaborately constructed hairstyle teased over pads with the addition of horsehair for volume and the essential ribbons/decorations to produce towering effects.  Powder is, of course, used. 

Coiffeur, on the other hand, is a male hairdresser.  Marie Antoinette had her favorite, Léonard Autié, the man responsible for the essential Antoinette style – the pouf.  Translated into English in 1909 and full of anecdotal Louis XV and XVI court references, his book, Recollections of Léonard Autié: Hairdresser to Marie Antoinette is available here on google books.


One might say there were as many pouf styles as there were aristocratic women.  Poufs celebrated social and political occasions; one’s love of a collection of items, be they portraits or dogs or whatnot (called pouf au sentiment); the queen with feathers a la reine.  One of Antoinette’s most fondly remember coiffures was the “pouf a la Belle Poule.”  Complete with a model of a frigate at full mast, floating atop curls and powder, it celebrated the triumph of the eponymous French ship over an English vessel Arethuse off the coast of Brest  in 1778.

Middle to Late 18th Century Coiffure Evolution

Notice the difference between Madame de Pompadour’s coiffure in the 1750’s and Marie Antoinette’s in the 1770’s – it’s striking. 

by François Boucher, 1757

Pompadour wears her natural hair closer to her head.  Brushed back from the forehead and temples, the hair is twisted in a small bun at the crown.  The detailing, pearls and ribbons(or in this case, flowers), is simpler than the vast ornamentation displayed in the pouf.


Marie Antoinette by Jacques-Fabien Gautier d’Agoty, 1775

Antoinette first wears the pouf to Louis XVI’s coronation in 1774 and starts a trend of neck-breaking coiffures that only mellows (at least in terms of height) when her fondness for the petite trianon and the queen’s hamlet call for more natural styles.  Instead of tall and ungainly, the coiffure now frizzes from the temples and fat sausage curls cascade down the neck.  In lieu of feathers or figurines, the top of the head is covered with a large  puffy hat secured with a band of ribbon.  


Vigée Le Brun, 1785, Konopiste Castle, Prague

For a great b&w sketches of coiffures worn in France during the 18th century, see  Also worth a looksie is for a collection of Antoinette portraits through her life.

Pretty Little Vases




Flowers pictured:  blizzard mock orange, morden blush rose, lady’s mantle, mexican evening primrose.


To Patch or Not to Patch

The Allure of Beauty Patches

The 18th century can thank the Duchesse du Maine for bring patchy back. Although their popularity waned after the reign of Louis XIV, beauty patches would rise to the height of fashion in the 1760s, worn by both men and women to either hide their imperfections or flaunt their pristine white beauty.

A popular anonymously written poem makes this metaphor:

Her patches are of every cut
For pimples or for scars
Here’s all the wandering planet’s signs
And some of the fixed stars
Already gummed to make them stick
They need no other sky.

Some contemporaries of the trend remarked that migrating patches made constellations of the wearer’s face as the patches were shaped to resemble stars and celestial bodies. Other times the silk, velvet, or taffetta adhesives were cut into hearts, diamonds, or the more elaborate animals, insects, and figures (fyi: if one were poor, the patch might be made of mouse skin).

Like the fan, patches were worn to suggest a certain mood or state, with each placement having a name. Corner of the eyes was the passionate; middle of the cheek, the gallant; the nose, the impudent; near the lips, the coquette, and to masks scars or pimples, the concealer. 1  A patch on the forehead signified dignity, around her lips, kissable.  A bethrothed young woman wishing to announce her new status sported a heart on her left cheek.  Upon her marriage she switched the heart to the right. 

Can you guess this lady’s intent?   She’s passionate and kissable (and looking to land a man for the night!)

Portrait of a Lady – Thomas Gainsborough 

(modified for your patchy enjoyment)

The favored color was black, but green, purple, blue or red might be use to enhance a lady’s gown or her eyes.   Dark skinned women were seldom seen wearing patches because their foremost purpose was to show the striking comparison of black against pale white skin.

According to one of my sources, “a great lady always had seven or eight, and never went without her patch-box, so that she might put on more if she felt so inclined, or replace those that might happen to come off.” 1

Faience Patch Box from the Polk Museum of Art, ca 1745

Seven or eight? Seriously?  That would look like a strange case of the pox and not, I imagine, altogether beguiling.



1.  The XVIII century

2.  England of Song or Story

3.  Women & Gender in 18th Century Russia