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 âpale 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 1920’s, the spell of pale skin was broken, for a time at least, when Coco Channel made the tan fashionable.