During England’s Georgian period, which is the time when a series of kings named George held the British throne (roughly 1714-1830), developed many interesting fashion and beauty practices. Some of them, such as wearing giant, powdered hairstyles like Marie Antoinette, would be considered merely silly by us today. But a few of the beauty treatments and fashion choices of the time were either deadly or just plain disgusting. Here are just a few of the things fashionable British women did in the era of Jane Austen.
Contrary to popular belief, most of the crazy hairstyles we associate with this era in both Britain and France were not wigs. Powdered wigs were worn mainly by men. Women used their own hair to create these styles. Stylists would build wooden and wire frames on top of their clients’ heads, pad them with horsehair to fill in the gaps, and apply hair powder to the hair to give it that fashionable whitened color.
These styles were very expensive to create, so ladies often kept them in place for weeks at a time, sleeping on special headrests designed not to muss the hair. This obviously meant that hair would go long periods of time without being washed. Lice and other vermin often found its way into the elaborate hairstyles.
Instead of removing the hairpieces and trying to comb or wash out the lice, ladies carried scratching rods with them so they could alleviate the itchiness. There wasn’t much else they could do anyway, since there were no safe and effective pesticides for dealing with the creatures. The only known treatment for lice was mercury, which could kill, so just dealing with the itch was preferable.
Unlike today, sun-browned skin was highly unfashionable during the Georgian era. It was associated with poor people who had to work in the fields. White skin was highly prized, and women resorted to cosmetics to achieve porcelain whiteness.
The active ingredient in many of the available cosmetic creams was lead. Lead and other toxic materials, like mercury, were also present in the creams used to give lips and cheeks a red tint. Not only did this makeup cause illness and death in its users, it also eventually ruined the skin and caused hair and teeth to fall out, thereby destroying the beauty it had been used to create.
Oddly enough, poorer women were luckier than the rich in this aspect. They could not afford expensive lead-based cosmetics, and had to use flour to whiten their skin. Though not as fashionable, it spared them the painful deaths caused by the pricier creams.
Hair and skin weren’t the only body parts expected to be white. A full set of white teeth were also required to be truly fashionable. With all the sugary treats available to the upper classes, not to mention the loss of teeth from using lead makeup, keeping a perfect white smile was a bit of a chore. Tooth powders made of cuttlefish bone and spirit of vitriol were used to whiten teeth. The problem with these is that spirit of vitriol was another term for sulphuric acid, which whitened the teeth by stripping off their enamel.
Many Georgian ladies had to have teeth removed, if they didn’t fall out on their own. To maintain their appearance, they would purchase false teeth. Some of these were made of materials like porcelain or ivory, but many came from corpses from the morgue or gathered from dead soldiers on various European battlefields. Often, these donor teeth would transmit infections and diseases to their new owners. If you were wealthy, you could pay a poor person for his or her teeth and hope they were not infected with any communicable diseases.
So, the next time you gaze admiringly at a painting of a beautiful Georgian lady, with her creamy skin and fashionably styled hair, you should keep in mind that you are looking at a carefully-constructed, and possibly deadly, façade.