How did women first get the idea of applying little pieces of black taffeta to their faces? In the beginning, these cut-outs simulated the ramifications of veins on the temples. But what was their origin? Could it be a doctor’s prescription for a certain plaster to calm a headache? The effect produced on the face of a pallid woman might have encouraged her friends to do the same.
Some say that it is the Duchess of Newcastle, under the reign of Charles II, who had the idea of covering the pimples that she had around her mouth, with a piece of black material. A rival, seeing that it enhanced the whiteness of her complexion, and that she gained a certain je ne sais quoi by it, started to do the same thing. This introduced the fashion of beauty patches, which reigned despotically for more than a century.
However, the use of patches was apparently known even in Ancient Rome. The Romans appear to have been very prone to pimples. In the writings of the Greek doctors who cared for them, as many as twenty-three different denominations of pimples can be counted. It was therefore natural that they tried to hide them, just like the fashion-conscious ladies of the XVIIth Century.
They used little black plasters in the form of a crescent, called splenia. They applied them to give the effect of having been scattered on the skin. These patches were supposed to imitate the little spots commonly known as “beauty spots”. Sometimes , instead of plasters, little dots were made with a brush, to create the crescent form.
It can be presumed that it is not in imitation of the Romans that the young lords from the time of Louis XIII suddenly had the fantasy to wear patches. For it wasn’t only women who wore them. Men also started wearing them.
The taffeta which was used to make these little plasters was cut into strange shapes. There were the crescent moon, the star, different flowers, and even animals or people. The face looked like a shadow-play performance.
Their positions on the face varied. There were, however, some favourite places. The seven principal ones were: at the corner of the eye, la passionnee; la galante, in the middle of the cheek; la baiseuse, at the corner of the mouth; on a pimple, la receleuse; on the nose, l’effrontee; la coquette, on the lips. A round patch was called l’assassine. At one time, women wore patches circled with diamonds on their right temple.
Massillon, who strongly condemned this mania, was preaching at Versailles in front of an auditory of elegant lady sinners. He thought that he could kill this fashion by exclaiming ironically: “Why don’t you put them everywhere?” His advice was followed within the hour. The fashion-conscious ladies put them in all the places where they hadn’t yet thought to put them. And this was how the mouches (patches) a la Massillon were born.
It was very important to know where to place patches. Sometimes it was a pimple or a tumour which needed to be cleverly concealed. Sometimes, it was a sign that was placed near dimples which, according to Cardinal de Bernis, gave so much grace to the royal favourite’s smile.
We know that Mme de Pompadour used patches in a singular circumstance. She wrote a letter, enclosing the whole plan of a military campaign, to Field-Marshal d’Estrees. On the plan, the different points which he was to attack or defend were indicated by patches.
In the first years of the XVIIIth Century, the use of patches had become general, almost everywhere. At this time, all women possessed a patch box. The richness of the decoration was in accordance with their social position.
Under Louis XIV, artists represented mythological scenes on them. Under Louis XV, they displayed graceful subjects, surrounded with rocaille ornamentation. Under Louis XVI, Venus and Cupid appeared, with their attributes. They were made, at this time, with Martin varnish, incrusted with gold and silver.
Closed, they looked like snuff-boxes. Inside, they were divided into three compartments, two of which were closed by a lid with hinges. The third, in which particles of rouge can often still be seen today, contained the brush used to apply it.
When it was good taste to wear rouge, fashionable women used boxes with double compartments. One was destined to receive patches, the other, rouge. Patches were sometimes kept in jewellery-type boxes of green and gold leather.
The patch box was part of a girl’s marriage trousseau for a very long time. It was among the jewellery that was distributed at court in certain circumstances. The description of the toiletry set given by Louis XV to the Dauphine in 1680, mentioned three patch boxes in vermilion.
Patches did not survive the French Revolution. It seems that they have completely disappeared since then. Unless we count those young ladies who put pencil dots on their faces, in a pale imitation of the taffeta beauty patch of yore.