France’s Second Empire brought back makeup. La Paiva used great amounts of it. Lola Montes, whose affair with Louis II of Bavaria was widely known, wrote quite a study on beauty, where she reveals a host of recipes, some of which merit trying. They at least have the essential quality of not harming the health of those who use them.
Mme Vestris, to conserve the youthful freshness of her complexion, never went to bed without first covering her face with a sort of paste composed of “the whites of four eggs mixed in rosewater, 15 grammes of alum, 15 grammes of sweet almond oil”. It all had to be beaten until the mixture had acquired the consistency of a paste. After that, it was spread on a silk or muslim mask.
This composition not only retarded the appearance of wrinkles, it also gave back youth and firmness to the skin. This recipe was without risk, but that was not always the case.
Lead whites, known as theatre white or albaster white, were most detestable ingredients, and considerably deteriorated the skin. Three classes of society principally used them. Artists, women of the world and prostitutes.
For the artists, the use of white makeup was necessary for their profession. Because of this, they usually lost their freshness and their health, very early. Sometimes, even their lives. They usually succumbed to organic lesions.
The women whose existence had no other goal but to please, also paid a cruel tribute to their abuse of makeup. Its effects on them usually showed through various neuroses, which revealed a serious attack on health, and even on the bases of life, which they almost always lost early.
As for the women of the world who only used makeup in much rarer circumstances, they usually only felt passing illness, instead of irremediable lesions.
The red colours were prepared with vegetal or animal colourings, and with talc. The colouring matters which entered into the composition of these reds were cinnabar, carmine, carthamine, the colouring matter in Brazilian wood…, either alone or mixed with other substances, according to the nuances which one wanted to obtain.
All of these reds presented no serious danger to health. But cinnabar red or vermilion, known as common red for the theatre, was a red talc, coloured by mercury sulphide. This gave excellent results from the point of view of its colour, but detestable ones from the point of view of the subject’s health. It determined the absoption of mercury into the organism.
From the Renaissance, makeup procured most undesirable secondary effects, and the Venitians, to diminish the toxicity of rouge, slept with veal scallops soaked in milk, on their faces. Instead of cinnabar (mercury sulphide), it was preferable to use eosine (the name recalls the beautiful tints of dawn), whose combinations with potassium or baryta constitute excellent red makeup under electric lights.
The blue for imitating veins was prepared with Briancon chalk (talc), reduced to powder, passed through a silk sieve, tinted with the required proportion of Prussian blue, and transformed finally into a paste by the addition of a little water lightly gummed. When this paste was dry, it was put into pots in the same way as rouge. After having softened the colour with white, veins were indicated with a stump dipped in the blue.
Black was also used, or an Indian makeup with a soot base. It served mainly for eye makeup. The black was so popular at the court of Peter the Great, that the Russian ladies plucked their eyebrows completely, and substituted a thick layer of black lead for their natural arch.
To resume, mineral colours all presented inconveniences of varying gravity, the most redoubtable of which were lead poisoning (saturnism) and mercury poisoning (hydragyrism).
As the notion of hygiene progressed, the medical corps addressed itself to the noxious aspect of makeup. As early as the end of the XVIIth Century, Louis-Antoine Caracioli was condemning the use of rouge. Later, Lavoisier looked for a way to detect mineral reds, more dangerous than the colours of vegetal origin.
In 1799, The Societe royale de medecine was given the task of examining and authorising the sale of new products. From this date, numerous booklets on health, where it was recommended to prepare one’s own products, appeared. Recipes were given in them to replace those of Grandmother, not always reliable.
In spite of this, the abuse continued. Serious reglementation and efficient controls only appeared at the beginning of the XXth Century.
Used well, that is to say, using natural or non-corrosive products, makeup had, and still has, the advantage of seducing and enhancing beauty. As Baudelaire proclaimed in Le Figaro, 3 December 1863, “Woman is well within her rights, and even accomplishes a sort of duty, in applying herself to appear magic and supernatural… ”
Tomorrow, we’ll start looking at the dangers of hair dyes.