Like the worldly ladies, the army was addicted to hair powder. Officers, and even soldiers, wore powdered wigs. They powdered them with glue or water. The advantage of these methods, according to the authors of instructions concerning the troops, is “that a regiment, doing tiring exercises, in hot weather, is less ragged in its hair-do than if it was only powdered”. The dragoons had to have a sack of powder, a powder-puff and combs, not to mention curling tongs, in their pouches.
The War Minister, Monteynard, forbade the use of glue, as being dangerous for health and incompatible with the attention a soldier should give to being well-combed. He was ignored. So were the Marquis de Boufflers, who wore his hair short, as an example, and the Count de Saint-Germain, who advocated the suppression of the powdered wig.
Under Louis XVI, the boutiques where most people went to be powdered, resembled the inside of flour mills. And because the workers, who so generously distributed the flour to their customers, received a good part of it themselves, they justified the name of merlans (whitings) given to them by the people. In the exercise of their function, they did indeed resemble whitings about to be fried.
On the eve of the French Revolution, there was prodigious consummation of powder and flour for the toilette. A contemporary writer says that with the powder employed in only one day, you could have fed ten thousand poor people.
It would not have been acceptable for a young girl to appear in the world without powder. So, at night, she put on a bonnet of white taffeta, which protected and conserved the powder in her hair. Once the powder had fallen out, the hairdresser re-powdered. The young lady held a great cardboard cornet on her face, so as not to be blinded. The operator sprinkled her head with a white cloud, and was soon covered in it himself.
Shortly before the Revolution, men wore their hair plaited, curled, in horsetails, or in pigtails, and laden with powder and pomade. In 1792, a cry of reprobation was raised against powder. It was absurd, even odious, that part of the people’s food was being lost on the heads of men and women, with no profit to beauty, and with prejudice to cleanliness. Little or no powder, that was the new theme.
“The hairstyle with the most freshness and of the best taste, invented firstly by women, and which has just been adopted by our pretty men, is formed by sausage curls, all of the same length; no powder on the hair.”
The partisans of the Ancien Regime continued to wear powdered wigs. It was their distinctive sign. However, there were some who, without having any particular opinion, wore them in memory of tradition. The national guards for example, who were very proud to resemble the soldiers of the old army.
Among the notable revolutionaries, Robespierre was just about the only one who was not afraid to show himself to his colleagues freshly powdered, in a white tie, evening dress and breeches of the latest cut.
After the fall of the dictator, there were still a lot of powder consumers. A police report from 1794 says that several sections, in particular that of Montagne, proposed drawing up a petition to the National Convention to try to obtain:
“1. That the pastry cooks of Paris be no longer allowed to make cakes with a lot of butter and eggs, as long as these remain rare.
“2. The perfumers use a lot of potatoes to make powder, it would be appropriate to stop this commerce; it would be good that the Committee for Public Good deals with these objects, and acts in advance of the wishes of the citizens on this subject.”
From this moment, powder gradually disappears completely.
We see it come back for a moment during the Egyptian expedition, when veterans started wearing lightly powdered horsetails and cadenettes again, like under the reign of Louis XV. These cadenettes were, in the XVIIIth Century, hair plaited with ribbons and worn on each side of the head.
Bonaparte, during the Italian campaign, had a horsetail and cadenettes decorated with a patch of powder, but he soon got rid of it and prided himself, alone among all of the generals, on having a shaven head. It is also possible that the idea of looking like Titus awoke some feelings in Bonaparte’s soul, which were flattering for his ambition.
At the beginning of the XXth Century, after a few temporary eclipses, powder re-took control of its empire.
Although commonly called poudre de riz (rice powder), there is very little rice, when there is any at all, in its composition. These powders usually have bases of flour extracted from wheat, potatoes, or different almonds, mixed in more or less large proportions with talc or steatite (soapstone), magnesium (magnesium silicate), Briancon chalk, bismuth oxide, zinc oxide…
Starch powder was often substituted for rice flour. The best quality starch is shinier than rice powder. It gives certain blueish tints at a distance, which are very agreeable to the eye, and which are not produced by rice powder. It also adheres better to the skin. This mixture was perfumed with powdered iris, which has a very fine and delicate odour, a little like violet, but gentler.
Powder, however, can be dangerous. A lot contained ceruse (white lead), which gave brilliance, but exposed to saturnism. Vegetal based powder was considered precious for protecting the skin against extreme temperatures and sudden variations, and very useful for calming slight irritations. However, it was eminently nocive for the complexion.
Face powders should not be too perfumed, or they cause headaches and nervous accidents, particularly when an artificial essence is added. To calm the effects, it was recommended to spread the powder over the face with a hare’s foot prepared and fitted with a handle for this use. This system was not very efficient. Obviously.
We shall look at beauty patches tomorrow.