Victorian Beauty - Preston Park Museum and Grounds (2024)

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The history of Victorian makeup is a fascinating one; from using deadly arsenic to achieve a translucent complexion, to women using secret back doors to purchase beauty products, here we tell the story of Victorian beauty.

Obvious makeup was taboo in Victorian times

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Portrait of a Victorian women in 1880 – natural look with no obvious makeup

In sharp contrast to their Georgian predecessors, the Victorians had a great disdain for obvious makeup. To the young Queen Victoria, makeup belonged on the stage with actresses and prostitutes, but that did not mean that her subjects stopped wearing makeup, instead, they just got better at hiding it!

Clear faces, bright eyes and tinted lips were desirable, but everything had to look natural. It was believed that cheeks painted with blush had to look flushed, and lips had to look bitten rather than painted. Eyebrows were lightly plucked and darkened with natural ingredients, and eyeliner all but disappeared in the Victorian era. Perfume was considered suitable, but only in floral scents and never applied directly to the skin.

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Victorian Rouge by Bourjois who are still selling cosmetics today

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Victorian glass perfume bottles, including Lavender and Violet de Parme

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Compact powders from the collection at Preston Park Museum

Deadly makeup

The lengths in which woman would go to achieve thisnatural look would often be deadly. Instead of using lead-based paints popular in Georgian times, some Victorian women would nibble on wafers made of deadly arsenic to achieve bright eyes and a translucent complexion. They would also use drops of belladonna in their eyes to dilate their pupils and make their eyes look bigger. Belladonna is also known as deadly nightshade and in high concentration can cause blindness. A cheaper alternative was lemon or orange juice- imagine squirting that into your eye!

Makeup would be purchased in secret

Skin issues such as pimples, freckles and blemishes were considered shameful, and women only ever bought their cosmetics in secret. Different powders were available in white, blue, and pink, to hide these blemishes or counteract the yellow glow of candlelight. Even then, the powder was used sparingly, just enough to hide any shine and marks. Some businesses had secret back doors for their wealthy female clients, and most women hid their makeup in old prescription bottles.

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Jar of Harriet Hubbard’s cleanser

Cold creams were the only cosmetic that a woman could be seen to use. As a result, women like Harriet Hubbard Ayer launched their cosmetic companies off the back of different types of these fashionable cleansing creams. These toners and creams were made from very natural ingredients, intending to fight blemishes before they appeared.

The Edwardian ideal

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A portrait of an Edwardian women – wearing eyeliner and with big hair and pencilled eyebrows

By the Edwardian era, cosmetics experienced a surge in popularity. Magazines printed makeup adverts and skincare advice, but women would still buy their makeup secretly. Pale skin remained popular until the First World War, but blonde hair was no longer the ideal, so women used henna to dye their hair in copper shades.

Charles Gibson’s photographs of his Gibson Girls perpetuated the Edwardian ideal of beauty – brunette women with pencilled eyebrows, big hair, and tinted lips. Cheeks needed a healthy flush, but women still used belladonna in their eyes! Skincare also remained important, with women applying several creams during the day.

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Edwardian hand cream

Victorian beauty at Preston Park Museum

You can see a selection of Victorian and Edwardian cosmetics including rouge, skin tonics and Victorian perfume bottles on display at Preston Park Museum. Why not visit the replica Victorian chemist to find out more about the role they would have played in secretly supply Victorian women with beauty products? Find out more about the Victorian Street at Preston Park Museum.

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Victorian Beauty - Preston Park Museum and Grounds (2024)

FAQs

What was the Victorian beauty concept? ›

Clear faces, bright eyes and tinted lips were desirable, but everything had to look natural. It was believed that cheeks painted with blush had to look flushed, and lips had to look bitten rather than painted.

What were the beauty secrets of the Victorian era? ›

Common skincare ingredients included rose water, glycerin and cucumber. These would be used to moisturize and improve the complexion. Women who employed the "painted" look used white paints and enamels on their faces and arms. This would mean avoiding exaggerated facial expressions, because the substances would crack.

What was considered a beautiful woman in the 1800s? ›

The ideal nineteenth century beauty had pale, almost translucent skin, rosy cheeks, crimson lips, white teeth, and sparkling eyes. She was waspishly thin with elegant collarbones. However, physical appearance alone was not enough to ensure that one would be seen as beautiful or socially acceptable.

What does the typical Victorian woman look like in appearance? ›

During the start of Queen Victoria's reign in 1837, the ideal shape of the Victorian woman was a long slim torso emphasised by wide hips. To achieve a low and slim waist, corsets were tightly laced and extended over the abdomen and down towards the hips.

How did Victorian ladies wear their hair? ›

Victorian Women

The Victorian period of fashion was about living more simply than the previous era. Hairstyles eventually became more natural and demure with hair parted in the middle, drawn into a bun or coil with curls allowed to fall loosely at the sides of the head.

What hair products did Victorians use? ›

Along with wax pomatum, bandoline was part of a group of hair products which were referred to as “fixatures.” In his 1857 book The Art of Perfumery, G. W. Septimus Piesse describes how “the little feathers of hair, with which some ladies are troubled” could be made to “lie down smooth” with the aid of wax pomade.

Did Victorians wear lipstick? ›

In the Victorian era, thanks to the Queen's public declaration that makeup was “impolite,” women resorted to lip biting, rubbing red ribbons on their lips, and trading recipes for lipstick “with their friends in underground lip rouge societies.” For women of privilege, trips to Paris, where they could buy Guerlain's ...

How often did the Victorians bathe? ›

Most people would bathe once or twice a week and use a washcloth daily.

What was the perfect woman in the Victorian era? ›

The ideal Victorian woman was pure, chaste, refined, and modest. This ideal was supported by etiquette and manners. The etiquette extended to the pretension of never acknowledging the use of undergarments (sometimes generically referred to as "unmentionables").

What did women's bodies look like in the 1800s? ›

In the 1800s, fashionable Victorian women were expected to be curvy. Tight-laced corsets squeezed women's bodies to give them the desired tiny waists. Danish-born actress Camille Clifford, one of the 'Gibson Girls'.

What did Victorian ladies wear under their dresses? ›

It was often the structures beneath Victorian clothing that gave women's fashion its form. Corsets (also known as stays) moulded the waist, while cage crinolines supported voluminous skirts, and bustles projected a dress out from behind.

What was the average height of a Victorian woman? ›

People were around 2 inches shorter in the 19th century than they are now which would mean women in Victorian England were typically around 5 ft 2. Queen Victoria was about 4 ft 10 and she was considered quite short at the time.

How many dresses did a Victorian lady own? ›

“Quality” ladies would more than likely have 10 or more dresses to wear. During the Victorian era, which spanned from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, a Victorian lady's wardrobe would often include a range of dresses suitable for different occasions, social events, and daily activities.

What was the aesthetic of the Victorian era? ›

The Aesthetic movement denounced the sober morality and middle-class values that characterized the Victorian Age and embraced beauty as the chief pursuit of both art and life. The movement is often considered to have ended with Oscar Wilde's trials, which began in 1895.

What was the concept of the Victorian era? ›

Victorian era, in British history, the period between approximately 1820 and 1914, corresponding roughly but not exactly to the period of Queen Victoria's reign (1837–1901) and characterized by a class-based society, a growing number of people able to vote, a growing state and economy, and Britain's status as the most ...

What were the Victorian ideas of femininity? ›

Consequently, women were ascribed the more feminine duties of caring for the home and pursuing the outlets of feminine creativity. Victorian men also expected women to possess feminine qualities as well as innocence; otherwise, they would not be of marriage potential.

What is Victorian Girl and the Feminine Ideal about? ›

In Victorian England, the perception of girlhood arose not in isolation, but as one manifestation of the prevailing conception of femininity. Examining the assumptions that underlay the education and upbringing of middle-class girls, this book is also a study of the learning of gender roles in theory and reality.

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