Beauty History: Cosmetics in the Edwardian Era

by Gio
beauty secrets of the edwardian era

The Edwardian era takes its name from the brief reign of King Edward VII, son of Queen Victoria. He ruled England from 1901 to 1910.

It also goes under the name of Gilded Age or Belle Epoque. It was an era of opulence and social changes, mass produced abundance and new revolutionary inventions, luxury and wealth, that ended in tragedy with the start of the First World War.

Here’s how the beauty trends changed during this bountiful period:

Cosmetics, magazines and makeup counters

Once frowned upon in the Victorian era, cosmetics enjoyed a comeback. And not just because Queen Victoria wasn’t around anyway to proclaim her disdain for this sinful practice…

The Industrial revolution gave women access to mass produced cosmetics at ever lower prices. The middle classes now could afford what, for a long time, was only reserved for the elites.

They just didn’t want to be seen going home with a pot of rouge. They often entered salons by the back door, so no one would know their secret!

That all changed when Gordon Selfridges opened his famous department store in Oxford Street, London, in 1909. He was the first to place cosmetic on open counters, encouraging women to try them on before buying them. The shock!

The Edwardian era gave birth to beauty counters like we know they today. It also saw the rise of women’s magazines that gave women tips on how to take care of their skin, hair and beauty.

The Edwardian ideal of beauty and how to achieve it with makeup

But what was the ideal of beauty women in the Edwardian Era? Pale skin was still in, but blonde hair was out. The Edwardian beauty was a brunette with a pale complexion and rosy cheeks.

To whiten their faces, Edwardian women used enamel, a white face paint made with white lead (which we now know is toxic). Rice powder or pearl powder could be applied on top of the skin as well.

To get that healthy rosy flush on the cheeks, rouge was applied, while the lips were stained with geranium and poppy petals. Instead, eye makeup wasn’t that common. Burnt matchsticks were sometimes used to darken the eyelids but it was eyebrows that were the main focus for Edwardian women and eyebrow pencils were very popular.

So were belladonna drops, which would dilate pupils and brighten the eyes. Tinted powders and creams could be used on the nails as some sort of nail polish. The nails were then buffed shiny.


Just like women today, Edwadian ladies wanted to keep the wrinkles at bay for as long as possible. At the time, they thought wrinkles were caused by a lack of oil in the body, which would damage skin tissue.

To fight wrinkles, they ate a diet rich in vegetables, fruits and plenty of water. Using olive oil in salads and drinking rich milk and cream were said to help, too.

But wrinkles weren’t the only concern women at the time had. Those who wanted to remove birthmarks, scars, superfluous hair and mole resorted to the help of an electric needle (electrolysis).

And if you just needed to remove excess shine from your face, you could use papier poudre, which were available in books of colored paper for that purpose. Concoctions and creams with Cocoa Butter, Coconut Oil, Almond Oil, Lanolin, Petrolatum, Witch Hazel and Glycerin were also popular.


Perfumes changed a lot in this period as well. While in the past fragrances were made with natural ingredients and essential oils, their supplies started to become scarcer and scarcer because of the exploitation of resources in colonized countries. These natural ingredients were then substituted with synthetic ones, with some perfumes containing both types of ingredients. In any case, synthetic perfumes weren’t as complex and rich as natural ones were, but they were cheaper.


In previous centuries, women didn’t wash their hair (or the rest of the body, eww) often. This too is something that changed in the Edwardian Era when women started to take better care of their locks.

Shampoos started to appear around this time and brillantine was applied to give hair shine. Henna, spread with a small toothbrush throughout hair (which would then be wrapped up in a hot towel for at least 15 minutes) was used to dye hair in beautiful copper shades.

Sulfate of iron was used to darken hair but if you wanted to bleach it instead you would opt for dioxogen and ammonia. And to prevent grey hair, which was thought to be caused by dryness, concoctions of glycerin, oil, rum and oil of bergamot was applied on the locks.



Eleanor March 10, 2011 - 5:38 pm

Wow, really interesting. While not a beauty program, the BBC has an interesting series called the Edwardian Farm, where 2 archeologists and a historian are living that way for a year. It is really interesting to see how they did some of these things, like making lyme from granite in a huge kiln, early combustion engine, etc. Though it does have a little about beauty. I have found it interesting to see how they had to make things themselves (like lyme) that we take for granted today. Since I am in the states, I watch it on Utube.

beautifulwithbrains March 10, 2011 - 9:21 pm

Eleaor, I knew they were doing a series about life in an Edwardian Farm, but I wasn’t aware it was already on youtube. Thanks for letting me know, I’ll go watch it now. I love programmes like that, it’s so interesting to see how people lived in the past.

Mylanqolia March 11, 2011 - 12:19 am

Thanks for this very informative article. I’m very interested in this period as I’m a fan of Sarah Bernhardt. 🙂

beautifulwithbrains March 11, 2011 - 12:05 pm

Mylanqolia, you’re welcome. I love Sarah Bernhardt too and I think she lived in a fascinating historical period. 🙂

Makeup Morsels March 11, 2011 - 5:07 am

I love it when you do posts like this! I never knew that they switched over to mainly synthetic perfumes during this time period, fascinating 🙂

beautifulwithbrains March 11, 2011 - 12:07 pm

Makeup Morsels, I’m glad you enjoy this type of posts. It’s fascinating to know how people lived in the past. This is an era of great changes and lots of things we take for granted now started back then.

LatestGirls March 11, 2011 - 7:45 am

Is that newspaper pic real?

Can’t believe that things like this also existed in those times. Because whenever I see something classic. Its always full with beautiful models acting in it LOL.

beautifulwithbrains March 11, 2011 - 12:08 pm

LatestGirls, yes, that’s a picture of a real newspaper at the time. Fascinating, isn’t it? 🙂

Gibson Girl November 30, 2011 - 5:40 am

My blog has some posts about Edwardian beauty that the interested might like to look at:

It’s interesting that they understood bathing quite well by this time but discouraged hair washing. It was advised that oily hair should be washed about every two weeks, and no one seemed to imagine that hair rightly out to ever be washed more than once per week!

beautifulwithbrains November 30, 2011 - 8:28 pm

Gibson Girl, thanks for the links. I’m very interested in both beauty and history and I’ve just bookmarked your blog. 🙂

And that’s weird indeed. I have oily hair and couldn’t imagine washing them every two weeks only!

Jenny April 21, 2013 - 2:04 am

I have been looking for some hair and make up ideas, I am doing a play with this era…and I cannot believe what women went through for their make up. The things that they put on their faces that are now very!!
I really enjoyed reading everything that was on your website…Thank You!!

beautifulwithbrains April 21, 2013 - 7:41 pm

Jenny, you’re welcome. I’m glad you liked it. And I agree. It’s incredible what women are willing to do for beauty, isn’t it?

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