A Northern Renaissance
It took nearly one hundred years for the Italian Renaissance to catch up with the British Isles, but when it did, the results were spectacular. Under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I, England began a quest of expansion that saw the creation of new colonies throughout the world. Large portions of India, Africa and North America were built up under British rule. While the merits of British colonialism may be debatable, however, there is no doubt that the Elizabethan Era represented an expansion of thought as well as an expansion of political power. Legendary playwrights and poets such as Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare based their works on the same Classical material that had inspired the Italians a century earlier. Clothing became increasingly elaborate and make-up quickly followed suit. At a time when a much greater emphasis was put on appearance than on health, however, hygiene and skincare often fell by the wayside.
The Elizabethan Look
During this time, Queen Elizabeth’s look ruled the hearts and minds of British women. While clothing had become increasingly structured throughout the later part of the Middle Ages, Elizabeth took this sense of structure to new heights. Tight corsets were worn to give the body a smooth, shaped appearance. While proper hoop skirts had yet to be invented, women tied large pieces of padding around their hips to thrust their skirts out into wide, oblong hoops. Starched ruffles were worn around the neck and hair was often pinned into elaborate up-do’s. In spite of the extreme ornamentation of their clothing, however, the face was still the focal point of the look and cosmetics took on a much greater importance than they had in Medieval England.
Queen Elizabeth is often credited with being the first of her time to adopt a completely made-up appearance. While she may have been the first, however, the noblewomen of Britain quickly followed suit. Women would paint their faces with a white powder referred to as Venetian ceruse. The best ceruse was made of lead, carbonate and hydroxide. Less expensive alternatives were made from talc or boiled egg, although these were considered to be less effective. Once the heavy powder was applied to the face, women would rouge their cheeks with a red paint called fucus and paint their lips with vermilion. The first lip sticks were made during this time by putting sun-dried vermilion and ground plaster into a device similar to a pen. (Go here to learn more about the Elizabethan lipstick-making process: ) To add a glazed appearance to their look, women would coat their face, make-up and all, in a layer of egg white.
The Great Coverup
During the Elizabethan Era, elaborate make-up was seen as a sign of nobility, because few common people could afford the lead powders and dried vermilion used to create the popular look. As the century wore on, however, cosmetics also began to be associated with disease. Poor hygiene had led to a number of serious plague and smallpox outbreaks and many survivors still carried horrible scars and pock marks on their faces. While disease was rampant among rich and poor alike, only the rich had access to the expensive cosmetics that would cover their scars. Strengthening the connection between make-up and poor health, doctors at this time began to discover that lead powder was not as safe as had previously been thought. Women rarely washed their faces, choosing instead to layer new powder over the old, and years of this treatment were found to turn the skin underneath a dull shade of gray. While many doctors recommended switching to an alum or tin-ash based powder, lead prevailed in popularity.
Many women went great lengths of time without cleaning the powder from their faces. When they did want to remove their make-up, however, they found that the thick, caked-on lead was not easily removed with water alone. In order to strip the cosmetic layers, they turned to a combination of skincare science and superstition, washing their faces with everything from gentle rainwater or donkey’s milk to more astringent red wine or urine. Mercury was also among the common skin care products used to treat acne, wrinkles, scars and discoloration. While it did effectively remove these blemishes, it did so by corroding the surface of the skin and often caused scars that were far worse than those it removed. (Go here to learn more about Elizabethan cosmetics and hygiene: )
In spite of the health concerns of the day, Elizabethan women were known for their excessive beauty and cosmetic practices. It was these excesses, among others, however, that would cause a Puritan revolt in the next century and see Oliver Cromwell take control of the British throne.