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Skin Deep: the Beastly Art of Beauty; Reality and Ridicule

Report of the lecture given by Amanda Herries MA
on June 23rd 2010

I have never before attended a DFAS lecture with more laughs, or gasps of horror to be heard from the audience!

We were first asked to consider the efforts we all make to look and smell pleasing. We use soaps, shampoos, creams, powders and perfumes. We choose our clothes carefully and visit the hairdressers to make ourselves appear, perhaps, more attractive, younger, fashionable and generally pleasing to the eye. It seems this was always the case. There is evidence from ancient societies, such as the Egyptians and the Greeks, showing the use of potions, lotions, makeup and decorative clothing.

There is even more evidence from the 17th and 18th centuries - many portraits of fashionable people, artefacts and literary evidence. Even Shakespeare refers to this when Hamlet says to Ophelia "God gives you one face, and you give yourself another." However, the best evidence comes from the great cartoonists and satirists of the day, such as Hogarth and Cruickshank, who show, by exaggeration, how ridiculous we make ourselves when we become "fashion victims."

It seems that red hair was very fashionable in the early 17th century - no doubt imitating Good Queen Bess - which seems reasonable, until we hear that hair dyes were concoctions including honey, rhubarb, potassium and aluminium silicate!

The Puritans discouraged artificial enhancement but from the middle of the century, for 150 years, fashion became more and more ridiculous, and indeed positively dangerous.

The use of "patches" on the face, was the fashion for 150 years. These were made of silk, black taffeta or red leather and were glued on to, perhaps, cover a scar or pimple. They could be anything, from a simple star or moon shape, to a silhouette of a horse-drawn hearse!

During this time Charles 1st introduced the wearing of men's wigs (periwigs) no doubt because he was losing his own hair! They were long and intricately curled. The curls were held in place with lots of animal fats, and to cover the fat they were heavily powdered with corn starch or plaster of paris. How heavy they must have been - and how hot and smelly! Wigs, clothes and human bodies saw very little washing during this period, but, never mind, you could cover up the stench with lots of strong perfumes! Women used their own hair, but hairstyles became larger, and taller as time went on. They were enlarged with pads and pieces, and heavily greased and powdered, like the men's wigs, and decorated with flowers, fruit or dyed ostrich feathers. Men could take their wigs off to sleep, but ladies had to sleep sitting up to preserve the "hair-do" which would last for several months! Ladies would carry, in their pockets (useful little draw string bags) a handy little kit of essential items that included a tool with a scoop for removing ear wax at one end, and a spike at the other end for scratching their very itchy scalp!

Cosmetics were worse! It was the fashion to have smooth pale complexions with rouged cheeks and lips. This look was achieved with creams and pastes made with lead powder, mercury and arsenic! One fashionable lady, Maria Gunning, died of lead poisoning at 27 years of age.

Clothes for the rich and fashionable were beautiful, heavily embroidered creations. We can see them in the lovely paintings by Gainsborough, Reynolds and the like. However, the body shape necessary to wear them was achieved with extremely tight corsets, whalebone and lacings. Some bits of the body, such as calves, bottoms, shoulders, busts, were exaggerated with pads, to give a grotesque effect.

It wasn't until the 1790's, when there was drought and famine in England, that sense began to prevail. How can you waste corn on making hair powder, when people are starving? The government put a tax of a guinea on hair powder. It became so expensive that only the rich, such as lawyers and doctors clung on to their wigs.

So, when we raise our eyebrows to some bizarre modern fashion, or tut tut over people resorting to cosmetic surgery, botox and the like, we will remember Amanda's fascinating lecture, and know that nothing is new!

Gail Delamare

An archaeologist by training, Amanda Herries worked at the Museum of London for ten years, specialising in social history and the decorative arts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and lecturing and writing. In 1988 she went to live in Tokyo, Japan, with her family. While in Japan, she wrote extensively on Japanese culture and art collections and she continued lecturing for Japanese audiences, often appearing on television. In 1995 she returned with her family to Britain, bringing a Japanese tea-house to feature in a new garden in Scotland. She now lectures on a number of English and Anglo-Japanese subjects, including gardens.