Wherein the pinnacle of Georgian English beauty was an increasingly blind and toothless Ronald McDonald.
The fashion designer Marc Jacobs once said, “I always find beauty in things that are odd and imperfect, they are much more interesting.” If this is the case, then Marc should find exquisite beauty in the fashions of Georgian England, because there are few things odder and more imperfect than a face smeared with horse poop and lead.
White as Snow
Georgian high society was determined to demonstrate that, like Bachman-Turner Overdrive, they “love to work at nothing all day.” One of the simplest indicators of whether you were an aristocrat or a laborer was your skin color: laborers had tanned skin from busting a hump out in the sun, whereas the well-to-do Georgian had pearly white skin from staying indoors like a wig-wearing Nosferatu. If they had been capable of time travel, the most posh could have had a lark shuffling down the street chasing terrified Greeks during Anthesteria.
Even with hiding from the harsh rays of the cruel sun, however, many Georgians were unable to naturally develop the glacial skin tone that told jealous onlookers they were either fashionable or dead. These upper class unfortunates then resorted to makeup on their necks and faces to fake the look (as makeup became more widespread the lower classes began adopting the look, leading to a veritable arms race in blinding white face paint as each group strove to replicate the ethereal sexiness of incipient rigor mortis).
Key ingredients in this face paint were vinegar and lead (which turned skin white without making it shiny), but Fenja Gunn in the classic The Artificial Face: A History of Cosmetics gives the secret ingredient in at least one cosmetic of the time: a bed of horse manure. The recipe instructs,
Steep the lead in the pot of vinegar, and rest it in a bed of manure for at least three weeks. When the lead finally softens to the point where it can pounded into a flaky white powder (chemical reaction between vinegar and lead causes lead to turn white), grind to a fine powder. Mix with water, and let dry in the sun. After the powder is dry, mix with the appropriate amount of perfume and tinting dye.
Dying is Your Latest Fashion
As even the first-century Romans could have told the Georgians, the problem with using lead in makeup is it could lead to plumbism, i.e., lead poisoning. The lead in face paint caused skin problems, tooth decay, blindness and even death. Countess Maria Coventry, whose husband was so scandalized by her wearing makeup that he (vainly) attempted to rub it from her face one evening at dinner, died in 1760 at the age of 27 from lead poisoning caused by her high-intensity pursuit of fashion; even more poignant, the lead so greatly damaged her skin that she spent her last months hiding away from the crowds around Hyde Park who had previously mobbed her to merely gaze upon her beauty. Ironically, the makeup-hating Lord Coventry’s alleged mistress, Kitty Fisher, also died seven years later from lead poisoning.
We are fortunate to have makeup that has been tested and regulated to reduce health risks—including makeup for which animals were not harmed in the testing—but even world leaders can be notorious for seemingly unnatural skin tones. The trick, of course, is to at least avoid going full-Ronald McDonald—and here’s a nightmare image to highlight the dangers of the Georgian extreme.
Image: Maria Coventry, Countess of Coventry (after Francis Coates) (1760) (Source)