Looks that Kill: 11 Impossible Beauty Standards from History
Looks that Kill: 11 Impossible Beauty Standards from History

Looks that Kill: 11 Impossible Beauty Standards from History

Natasha sheldon - November 12, 2017

Looks that Kill: 11 Impossible Beauty Standards from History
Maria Gunning, Countess of Coventry by Hugh Douglas Hamilton (Courtauld Institute of Art, London.) Google Images

A Pale and Interesting Complexion

Up until the early twentieth century, pale skin was much desired by European ladies of standing. White skin was a status symbol; it told the world that you did not have to labor out of doors. Instead, you could stay indoors and let others do the hard work for you.

Merely staying out of the sun did not always endower skin with the right degree of transparency- primarily because skin tones vary so much. So if a lady’s natural skin tone wasn’t pale enough, she needed to look for something to augment it. Some women resorted to leeches to drain them of blood for that ‘pale and interesting’ look. However, most fashionable ladies turned to face paint, which they brushed onto their face, neck, and cleavage to give the desired alabaster sheen.

Ceruse was the most common form of white face paint. Not only did it lend an alabaster whiteness to the completion but it also hid any skin blemishes. This concealing property was one of the reasons ceruse was so favored by Elizabeth I, as a bout of smallpox in 1562 had marred the Queen’s complexion.

This fashionable white foundation was made from finely ground white lead powder mixed with vinegar. The mixture combined to form a smooth, luminous paint. From the Renaissance onwards, the addition of a mercury illuminator intensified ceruse, giving a silvery sheen to the skin and increasing the cosmetic’s coverage.

However, ceruse was also highly toxic. The lead base ate into the skin, causing eruptions that in their turn blemished the face- so encouraging ladies to use yet more to cover up. Persistent use could also cost the wearer their life. Georgian society beauty, Maria Gunning, the Countess of Coventry died at the age of just 27 because of her love of cosmetics. Feted by society for her beauty, she would not give up face paint despite her husband’s disapproval. She died on September 30, 1760, from blood poisoning brought about by its prolonged use.

Despite the apparent dangers, ceruse remained in use for several centuries. Fortunately, in the 1920s, the spell of pale skin was broken, for a time at least, when Coco Channel made the tan fashionable.

Looks that Kill: 11 Impossible Beauty Standards from History
Edwardian ‘S’ shaped corset. Google Images

The Corset

Up until the sixteenth century, there was no need for women to change their body shape to suit fashion. Clothes were shaped practically, to satisfy the dimensions of the individual- not the other way around. However, in the sixteenth century, the first corsets were designed to help ladies achieve the raised bosom and cylindrical torso that had become the fashion.

These early corsets were essentially bodices stiffened with buckram. They were not designed to change the body shape; they merely acted as a ‘board’ between the body and the gown. However, by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, reeds and bones were being added to corsets, making them adjustable. By this time, the garment was designed to mold the body to suit the gown. The corsets of this period primarily pushed up and bolstered the bosom without attempting to restrict the waist too much. Tabs spread over the hips, sparing the abdomen from constriction.

However, in the nineteenth century, corsets took a nasty turn. The emphasis shifted from the chest to the waist – with the aim to make this as small as possible. Boning became heavy with the average corset consisting of between sixty to one hundred whalebones. Whereas earlier corsets gave a certain amount of support to the body, even helping posture and the back, Victorian corsets were instead restricted. They made it hard to eat and breathe and were dangerous as well as uncomfortable.

By the late nineteenth century, moves were afoot against the corset. The Rational Dress Movement attempted to promote more comfortable clothing styles that did not put fashion above health. Medical opinions of the day backed them. In 1890 and 1892, The Lancet published two articles denouncing the dangers of corsets. X-ray evidence followed in 1908, with pictures showing the effects of ‘overlacing’ (the practice of pulling the corset too tight to achieve a tiny waist). The day of the extreme corset was over and by the 1920s corsets had fallen out of fashion.

Looks that Kill: 11 Impossible Beauty Standards from History
Georgian Lady. Google Images

The Dangers of Big Hair

Wigs and hairpieces have been a feature of western European fashion since the Renaissance and remained so today. However, seldom were wigs more elaborate, unpleasant, and downright dangerous than in the eighteenth century. Simply put, a Georgian lady’s hair had to be ‘big.’ Up until 1760, most ladies were content with a modest, egg-shaped dome of hair. This dome was created by curling the hair and then piling it over pads or wireframes to create height and volume. If the natural hair was insufficient, false hair- often from horses- was used as a supplement.

However, Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire took wigs to a whole new level- literally. Not content with a modest amount of elevation, the young Duchess pioneered an entirely new look. Her hair towered up to three-foot above her head, adorned with accessories such as stuffed birds, waxed fruit- and even model ships! Not to be outdone, other English society ladies followed suit and a new fashion craze was born.

However, such substantial hairstyles were not without their problems. Firstly, there was the question of practicality. Because of the time, it took to style it, not to mention the cost, the hairstyles had to last for weeks. This complication meant that ladies had to sleep upright to preserve their hairstyles. Even the simple business of traveling in a carriage was troublesome, as most could not accommodate women’s crowning glories. This problem meant fashion-conscious female passengers often had to sit on the floor!

Then there was the issue of hygiene. Not being able to brush let alone wash the hair for weeks at a time meant that head lice infested the head. So these itchy hairstyles needed another accessory – the scratching rod. The rod was used to poke into the deepest recesses of the hair to provide some relief from the discomfort.

But irritation aside, these prodigious hairstyles were a health hazard. The society papers of the time were full of tragic tales of often fatal misadventures involving a lady’s hair and fire. However, in July 1778, ‘The Morning Standard’ had an extreme case to report. Lightning struck a young lady sheltering from a storm in St James Park. According to the paper, her hair was “erected to an enormous height, and consequently stuck full of long wire pins: unfortunately, these acted as conductors and set her headdress on fire by attracting the lightning.”

Looks that Kill: 11 Impossible Beauty Standards from History
The gelled hair of an Egyptian mummy. Google Images

Hair Gel Egyptian Style

If you think that hair gel is a modern invention, you are wrong. A Recent investigation of mummies by a team from the KNH Centre of Biomedical Egyptology at the University of Manchester in the UK has proven that ancient Egyptians were using a fat-based hair gel over two thousand years ago.

The mummies in question come from a Greco Roman cemetery in the Dakhleh Oasis of the western Egyptian desert and are between 3500-2300 years old. A sample group of eighteen male and female individuals aged between 4-58 were selected. Some of the sample groups had been deliberately mummified in traditional Egyptian style while others were natural mummies. These mummies were people from a lower social stratum of Egyptian society who could not afford to be artificially preserved after death but were naturally preserved by desiccation in the arid desert conditions.

Of the eighteen, nine were found to have their hair coated in a fatty substance. These include natural as well as embalmed mummies. Based on this, the team concluded that the material on their hair was not part of the embalming process. Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry showed that the substance contained palmitic and stearic acid. Although these compounds are also found in plants, the Manchester team believes they came from animals.

The hairstyles of the mummies were well preserved and very elaborate. Both natural and artificial female mummies sported carefully curled hair that held its style remarkably well. Curls were either long coils or short curls plastered onto the scalp. In both instances, the fatty substance seems to have stuck them in place. Likewise, the male mummies sported short, slicked-back hair- again held in place by the ‘hair gel.’ Whether plant or animal-based, this ancient hair gel was not just an elite fashion aid; Egyptians of all social classes used it.

Looks that Kill: 11 Impossible Beauty Standards from History
Vincent Czerny: The Surgeon who carried out the first Breast Argumentation. Google Images

Early Breast Enhancements

Breasts have always been a significant part of fashion, and every age has tried to make the most of them. At various times, small or large breasts have been in vogue, their shape either concealed or enhanced by garments. However, until the late nineteenth century, no one could increase the actual size of the breasts themselves- despite the best efforts of women and doctors.

Initial attempts to increase breast size were mild enough. Women were recommended to rub unguents and oils into the chests several times a day to promote growth. These rubs could be special ‘growth serums’ or else just plain coconut or olive oil. The results were not a spectacular success.

Then, 120 years ago, the first successful surgical breast enhancement was carried out. A Bohemian/German surgeon called Vincenz Czerny. Czerny was called upon to rebuild the breast of a 41-year-old singer who had lost part of her breast to a tumor. Czerny was lucky as the woman provided the implant material from her own body. She had a benign, fatty tumor on the right half of her lower back. Czerny was able to remove this and use it to rebuild the breast.

The success of Czerny’s surgery started a spate of attempted breast enhancements. The problem was, not everyone had handy spare tissue that surgeons could use as fillers. So, experiments began with many weird and wonderful alternatives. Not all were surgical. In the 1890s attempts were made to inject breasts with paraffin, a fad that quickly died out when doctors realized the paraffin leaked into the rest of the body.

In France in the early 1900s, women desperate to increase their breast size but not so keen on an operation or dubious injection began to experiment with large suction cups, which they fixed to the breasts to firm them up. The theory was, the cups ‘showered ‘ the breasts with cold water, causing the fibers of the mammary glands to contract, firming and lifting the breasts.

The suction cup was no great success either. So surgeons continued valiantly searching for a satisfactory artificial filler they could implant during surgery that would not be rejected by the body. Between the turn of the twentieth century and the 1960s, scientists experimented with some weird and wonderful implants such as glass and ivory balls, sponges and even ox cartilage. Finally, in 1961, a solution was found when the first successful silicon breast implant took place.

Some Sources For Further Reading:

Greek Reporter – Would You Be Considered Beautiful in Ancient Greece?

Bustle – The Ideal Eyebrows In Ancient History

CNN – Work, not sex? The real reason Chinese women bound their feet