Minuet Company large header image

Fashion

Painting of lady having her corset tightened18th century fashion required a lot of work. Some went to such lengths that the following rather panicky law was proposed in 1770 (but thankfully never passed):

"An Act to protect men from being beguiled into marriage by false adornments. All women, of whatever rank, age, profession or degree, whether virgins, maids or widows, that shall, from and after such Act, impose upon, seduce or betray into matrimony, any of His Majesty's subjects, by the scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes and bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the law in force against witchcraft and like misdemeanours and that the marriage upon conviction shall stand null and void."

This law makes it sound as though only ladies were vain, but men were just as careful about their appearance as women, and in some cases more so. Fashionistos called Macaronis were infamous for their eccentric styles, often wearing make-up as the ladies did, and earrings. The name comes from the Macaroni Club, founded in 1760 by a group of young men who had made the Grand Tour of Europe, of which Italy was the high point.

Hair

We remember the 18th century as a time of ridiculously elaborate hairstyles, but in fact it was only after 1770 that ladies began to wear their hair high, bulking it out with pads of wool and false hair, or arranged it over a frame, adding ribbons, flowers and feathers. Contemporary cartoons show us exaggeratedly complex styles, but one anecdote is true: at the French court, it was briefly the fashion to wear a model ship in the hair, in celebration of a famous naval victory.

Powdered hair had been in fashion since 1715, and only went out of fashion in 1795 when William Pitt put a tax on it. It was initially used sparsely, but worn more thickly after about 1750. Probably it helped disguise any differences of colour between a lady's own hair and her pads of false hair. It was made of starch, sometimes tinted with colouring, and applied over hair which had been oiled to help it stick.

Cosmetics

Ladies (and Macaronis) had a range of cosmetics at their disposal. White lead powder mixed with egg white could be used to give a fine, pale complexion, although ladies taking the waters at Bath were warned that 'those who use white paste as a cosmetic are liable to have skins turn entirely yellow' from the vapours of the springs.

Rouge was made from lead paste and carmine. Lips were tinted with coloured plaster of Paris. Eyebrows were blacked with lead or with green vitriol and gum Arabic, although artificial eyebrows of mouse-skin were also available to be glued on. Unfortunately the heat of the ballroom sometimes caused them to slip.

Small patches of black taffeta or velvet, cut into shapes like hearts, stars or moons, were also worn on the face. Their placement could indicate disease, personality or political affiliation (Whigs wore them on the right side of their face, Tories on the left).

Hygiene

Painting of a MacaroniContrary to popular opinion, people did wash carefully. Although bathrooms were rare, bathtubs were not, and water was piped into the houses of the rich. Bedrooms were furnished with washstands, and soap was plentiful, with 63 soap factories in London (Pears famous transparent soap was created in 1789).

Lord Chesterfield, who wrote copious advice by letter to his illegitimate son Philip, wrote in 1750, "In your person you must be accurately clean, and your teeth, hands and nails should be superlatively so". He advised the daily cleaning of teeth with a sponge and tepid water. Nonetheless, it was common to lose teeth, and ladies might wear 'plumpers' of cork inside their cheeks to avoid the sunken cheeks that this caused. No woman would admit to wearing them, however, and they were sold under the counter.

Soot was used as a dentifrice, as was lemon juice mixed with burnt alum and salt. Mouth washes were used, made of wine, bramble leaves, cinnamon, cloves, orange peel, gum lacquer, burnt alum and honey infused in hot ashes. Decayed teeth could be drilled with a hand-drill and filled with tin, lead or gold. Dentures of ivory, bone, or wood were available, and set with teeth of ivory, porcelain, or even real human teeth. The prototype of the modern toothbrush was invented in 1780 by William Addis.