by Emma Robinson
The cosmetics that were worn by women in the time of Queen Elizabeth are drastically different from those we wear today. Not only were the materials they used very different but the look they were trying to achieve was very different as well. Standards of beauty change all the time. To understand the cosmetics worn by Elizabethan women, it’s important to understand the effect they were trying to achieve—that “ideal” beauty they wanted to imitate.
The ideal Elizabethan female had bright wide-set eyes, snow white skin, rosie cheeks, red lips and fair hair. Pale skin was a sign of nobility, wealth and delicacy was sought after by many. In a time where sunscreen was unheard of, skin problems and pox was a common thing smooth, unblemished skin was a rarity.
The pale skin women (and men) wanted was achieved by a number of ways. The most popular being Venetian Ceruse (also known as Spirits of Saturn), a mixture of white lead and vinegar. This white foundation was applied to the face, neck and bosom. Naturally, smearing lead all over one’s skin caused some serious skin damage not only did it make the skin look “grey and shriveled” there was lead poisoning, hair loss and if used over an extended period of time could cause death.
They lined their eyes with black kohl to make them look darker and belladonna eyedrops (used to dilate women’s pupils, an effect considered to be attractive and seductive). Fashion required eyebrows to be thin and arched which would create a high forehead it was considered to be a sign of aristocracy. Rouged cheeks and red lips were very popular. This was obtained with plants and animal dyes.
This conglomerate of makeup would be kept on for at least a week and when they would finally take it off they would use rosewater, lemon juice or a mixture of eggshells, alum, mercury and honey. Many people felt that the mixture left their skin soft and supple. In reality the mixture was actually eating away their skin.
Learning all this has made me not only grateful for the knowledgable advances in cosmetics that have happened but also has made me question what actually is beauty? And who decides this nonsense. Luckily I will not be doing any Elizabethan makeup for the role of Banquo in MacBeth it’ll mostly be bloody.
Get your tickets to this Halloween’s Macbeth: http://www.grassrootsshakespeare.com/tickets.html