History of Skincare Part 15: The Age Of Enlightenment, 1700-1799

A Continuation of Excess

While most of Europe was ruled by Royalty during the eighteenth century, it was the philosophers who truly controlled the courts. Court philosophers were common and the royalty of the time not only contemplated their philosophies, but tried to put them into practice. Reason and logic were the trends of the day and the new theories were increasingly applied to fashion, cosmetics and skincare as people slowly began to take a more logical approach to style.

While the French court of Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, may have been a bastion of philosophers, it was actually the last place to see the decline of excess. Court fashion dictated that wigs be even higher than they had been the century before and that faces be decorated with even more elaborate beauty spots. Heavy powders were still worn along with the vermilion lip color that had been popular for centuries. The English court was even facing a rejuvenation of excess as the monarchy was reinstated and Puritan dictator Oliver Cromwell was replaced by King Charles II. Freed from decades of repression, British nobility took to the styles imported from the French court, embracing everything that had been previously considered bawdy and uncouth. An increasing amount of skin was revealed as bustlines were cut lower, and both British and French fashionistas took to powdering their chests with the same lead used for their faces.

Philosophers of Intellect and Reason

As the century wore on, many people began to take a more logical, reasonable approach to skincare. Instead of relying on superstition, they tried to incorporate scientific practice into their hygiene regimes. Many people started to think of milk as an easy cure for all types of ailments. Women would bathe in milk to give themselves softer, clearer skin. It was also believed that milk contained soothing properties and that drinking milk was good for the skin as well as for the temperament.**

As the philosophers mused on topics such as purity, vanity and morality, the decadent styles perpetrated by the French and English courts began to decrease in popularity. At the beginning of the century, women still wore heavy face powder, lots of rouge and some even pasted on fake eyebrows made from the fur of small animals. By the end of the century, however, cosmetic use had been drastically toned down. A clean-faced look was considered ideal and there was a much greater emphasis on naturally beautiful skin, now that the scars and pockmarks were not being covered up.

Magazines: Interdit!

One of the clearest signs that the age of extravagance was coming to an end was the public disfavor of the fashion magazines of the day. These magazines, which provided practical and stylistic advice on fashion and skincare, were deemed “interdit,” French for forbidden. While it was still legal to manufacture and to own these magazines, they were rejected by polite society as being vulgar. They depicted women in various states of undress and they explained in great detail methods for applying face powder, rouge and lip color. Fashion no longer allowed women to dress so flamboyantly. The structured gowns of the Baroque and early Enlightenment periods had been replaced by soft, flowing dresses. The elaborate make-up had been replaced by naturally-glowing skin. While it may have still been acceptable to add a touch of pink rouge to the cheeks, face powder and vermilion lips were reserved for the lowest classes of society: actors and prostitutes. ***

Public opposition to cosmetics became so ferocious that some countries even outlawed their use entirely. By the end of the century, the English Parliament had passed a law forbidding women to wear cosmetics. Form-altering clothing such as bustles, wigs and high-heeled shoes were also banned, due to the belief that wearing them was a form of deception. The English King himself preferred to wear a simple three piece suit. The French court, on the other hand, continued to promote the extravagance it had enjoyed for centuries. It was this extravagance, in the midst of nation-wide poverty, that eventually prompted the French Revolution at the end of the century.

While fashions may have changed and magazines may have been deemed impolite, however, women continued to invent new ways to care for their skin. A book published late in the century, titled “The Toilet of Flora,” outlined methods and techniques for preparing skin care products. As the nineteenth century ushered in the tight rule of Queen Victoria, these natural, unassuming techniques would be needed more than ever.


** Read more about the Enlightenment attitude toward milk here: http://eventful.com/events/doctor-ordered-milk-age-enlightenment-/E0-001-039199708-7

*** Read more about fashion magazines during the Enlightenment here: http://www.jolique.com/general_interest/evils_of_artifice.htm