You’d think an 18 year old girl becoming queen would give the beauty industry a boost. Surely, such a young girl loved to play with makeup, try the latest lotions and potions, and launch trends, no?
Wrong. Queen Victoria loved to party and dance into the wee hours of the morning – but sans makeup. After the profligacy of her predecessors, Victoria was determined to make the monarchy respectable again. And she didn’t think there was anything respectable about cosmetics.
She thought face paint vulgar, and makeup suitable only for prostitutes and actresses (there wasn’t much difference between them back then). But that doesn’t mean that her subjects stopped wearing makeup. They just became better at hiding it.
Rather than the heavy white paints and bright rouges of the past century, respectable well-off ladies went for the no-makeup makeup look. It perfectly suited the ideal of beauty of the era, which demanded a delicate and fragile look, with a pale complexion, and long curls. Here’s how they achieved it:
The Victorians loved pale skin. It was a sign of nobility. It meant women were well-off, and could afford not to spend hours working outdoors, which would inevitably result in a tan. The horror!
But while their ancestors achieved this ideal with deadly mixtures (some of which were still around in the Victorian age), the Victorians painted their faces with zinc oxide, a white mineral powder. It was much safer, and whitened skin well (it still does; it’s what makes your sunscreen leave a white cast on your skin, both in real life and photos).
Those who didn’t like Zinc, simply avoided the sun and fresh hair. When they ventured outdoors, they’d carry parasols to protect their skin from the sun. Some even drank vinegar. Apparently, they thought that, somehow, it’d prevent a tan!
Fashionistas would take the trend a step farther. They’d paint some very fine blue lines on their skin to make it look more translucent, as the veins underneath were showing. Some would even emphasize their dark circles! How? By applying red rouge on their cheeks and lips. Luckily, this trend didn’t last long!
And, whenever their faces got oily and shiny, they’d dust some powders on. But very sparingly! Just enough to keep shine at bay and add a healthy glow to the skin.
The Victorian Age saw a decline in cosmetics. Respectable women couldn’t be seen buying them! But they did, usually secretly. And they choose natural, my-skin-but-better shades.
Their eyeshadows were made with lead and antimony sulfide; lipsticks with mercuric sulfide; blushes were simply beet juice. But they were all very subtle and applied very gently. The idea was to look like you weren’t wearing any makeup at all.
Same for the eyebrows. They were plucked, but lightly, to give them a polished, but natural shape.
Makeup may have not been popular in the Victorian age, but DIY skincare certainly was. After all, if you can’t wear cosmetics to cover imperfections, you’d better make sure you don’t have any in the first place.
Easier said than done even today, let alone back then. Creams and lotions were made using natural ingredients found in the kitchen and garden, such as almond oil and waxes. Toners were mixtures of water and roses, lilies, or violets. Safer than those heavy metals-laden creams used in the past, but no miracle workers either.
In the Victorian age, a woman’s hair was considered her glory. So, women rarely cut their locks (usually only when they were ill), and often used false hair to give their mane more volume.
Hairstyles weren’t particularly creative. Chignons and buns were very popular, and so were long, gentle curls let loose at the back or sides. Oils were applied to make hair sleek and smooth. Ornate combs and clips would complete the look.
If women wore their hair long, men started chopping it off. The long hairstyles of the past were replaced by much shorter and simpler hairdos. But they would still wear long and full beards and moustaches. That was a sign of manhood!
Love the Victorian era! Thanks for giving us such a thorough presentation 🙂
Pinch, you’re welcome. The Victorian Era is one of my favourite historical periods too. 🙂
Wow, thank you for sharing this. It’s very informative!
“ladies would also preserve their skin pale by avoiding the sun and fresh hair”
How do they avoid fresh hair…?
K, mm, I’m not sure but I guess they preferred to stay indoors than spending time outside.
They would wear masks when they went out side sun so they didn’t get freckles and they didn’t want any colour because if they were pale it made them look rich and it was so they looked rich enough to be able to stay in side and not work in the sun
Faye, that’s so true. Back then, pale skin was really appreciated and coveted.
That is so interesting to know!
Anastacia, I agree, it really is. 🙂
I love this post :D. Also interested in the Victorian era, but I have to say that I’m partial to the Regency era mainly because of Jane Austen. Wonder how later generations will think of our own beauty trends??
Mary, the Regent Era was a very interesting time too. I admit I don’t know too much about it but I love Jane Austen’s novels too. I think I should write a post about makeup in that era too. 🙂
THat sounds great.. I always find myself on google and searching for beauty and skin care practices of yore. 😀 😀
Mary, me too. Beauty and history are both great passions of mine. 🙂
Very interesting! 🙂
Stavroula, it really is. 🙂
how did they apply the makeup? like what tools did they use and how did they get the products ready to use
Victorian, these products were usually prepared by a servant and I believe they used their fingers to apply them.
i love this era, it is interresting to me because of the Biblical standards i choose to hold, it proves we dont need alot of make up and chopping our hair off to be beautiful women.
Jeanie, that’s true. I love makeup because it can transform a face, but it’s more of an accessory for me. It can enhance one’s natural beauty, but women are already beautiful even without.
im obsessed with the Victorian Era, do to Sherlock Holmes, whom I obsess over.
Suzanne, it’s a fascinating time period, isn’t it?
So hairless brows? And the makeup ingredients are so toxic! Congrats on having this post in the Sparknotes article. 😀 I thought I had to comment because I think it’s quite a deal.
Janessa, that was an awful trend, wasn’t it? And the ingredients… I’m so glad things have changed now. And thank you!
Thank you 1000X!!! I’m a photographer and I’m planning a shoot using Victorian era dress but the model has dreadlocks I wanted see if they used cosmetics are the time. Thanks so much again!!!
Matt, you’re welcome! Good luck with your shoot!
Hello, I was just wondering where you found the sources for your article, im currently writing an essay on the role of skin in victorian beauty and im struggling to find and sources, any help would be very much appreciated!
Natasha, I’m afraid I don’t remember what sources I’ve used. It’s been so long since I wrote this article. I will try to find them again, and if I do, I’ll let you know. And good luck with your essay!
This is so interesting, so they don’t use much makeup? I guess that’s a good thing:-) I’m very much obsessed with the victorian era, it’s such a fascinating time haha although I wouldn’t want to live in that time, I’ll have to wear dresses!!!!
Hailey, some women did, but they didn’t have a good reputation. Back then, natural was in. I agree, it’s one of my favourite historical eras. Very fascinating. But those dresses! They must have been so uncomfortable!
I loved your detail about the ingredients used in the make-up. Someone asked about women going outside or not. It was very regimented in the middle and upper classes. They ALWAYS wore hats; it was considered improper to go outside without a bonnet. Also, veils were usually used. Then the parasols, so not much sun reached their faces. Women were also not supposed to go out alone, so that limited time outside the house, even in Edwardian times.
I had never heard that about painting veins and dark circles! Sheesh. Mme. Gauthier, the subject of Singer Sargent’s infamous “Madame X” portrait, was known for mixing some metal (possibly lead!) with her powder to make her face look lavender-toned! He grew very frustrated with the unnatural color of her skin, but painted it anyway. The artist was not one to flatter his subjects.
One of the most famous pale beauties of that era was Irene Forsyte, the heroine of Galsworthy’s trilogy, “The Forsyte Saga”. Every man who sees her goes into raptures about her pale (yet “warm”) skin, as well as her perfect face, figure and passive air that is so alluring to them. Her possessive and brutal husband Soames, who marries again later, objects to his second wife’s use of lip salve, even though it’s the 1920’s!
Gwynhwyfar, thank you for your comment. That’s true, women didn’t have many opportunities to get much sun on their faces. It’s sad, but I guess they did age a bit better for it, if that’s any consolation.
I didn’t know that about the infamous Madame X. How fascinating! Thanks for sharing.
What were the hair colors in Victorian England?
Christy, women just sported their natural hair colours back then.
Quick Question: Was Queen Victoria the leader of these beauty ideals or was she just following the trend? After all, she was young and impressionable. Then again, she was Puritan which explains the modest look. Do you know the answer?
Alejandro, it’s difficult to say who influenced who. What’s sure is that people always imitated royalty, and Queen Victoria was no fan of makeup. But to what extent she led the trend, I don’t know.
Long hair was coveted, but titillating to men, so women generally wore their hair up. If you ever were to look at some of the more promiscuous pictures at the time many of the women have their hair down.
Gianna, great observation. Thanks for pointing that.
Very wonderfully informative post! Love reading it, however…I disagree with a few points. Where did the information concerning the men cutting off the women’s hair if it they grew it long came from? Everyone knows that true respectable Victorian men and women were “suppose to be” church going citizens. In the Bible, it says that a woman should not cut her hair off, so why would the men cut the women’s hair if it grew too long?? I’m confused why they would do that to the women. That doesn’t make sense.
I also learned that those rose-water toners and tonics also worked at the time, and they still work today. I am a woman of color and I wash my face with rose and lavender infused witch hazel everyday, and it has done WONDERS and MIRACLES for my skin. And I decided to do this years ago after I read an old Victorian article that those kinds of floral infused tonics and toners worked back then. I only use water and cleansers twice a week while using the floral infused witch hazel twice a day every single day, and I no longer get breakouts like I used to. You should try it for yourself.
Sharon, thanks for sharing your experience with Victorian toners and glad you enjoyed the post.
Oops, I think that was a misunderstanding. I didn’t mean to say that men cut women’s hair off. Of course, they didn’t. The sentence should read “while women wore their hair long, men started chopping their own off.” Men’s hairstyles became shorter at this point.
I hope you don’t mind im using some information for my project but giving this page full credit thank you!
Hannah, go ahead. Glad it helps.
Pale skin is still coveted all throughout the world today. People in Asia, Africa, Europe and the US use lightening creams. Only a small percentage of women today like tan colored skin.
LS, I guess I live in a part of the world where women crave a tan. But you’re absolutely right, so many people bleach their skin to make it paler. Why can’t we just accept our natural skin tones? Every shade is beautiful.
Thank you for sharing this info! It’s an enjoyable read! It’d be cool to go back in time and experience a little bit of each era, I think.