Women’s Hairstyles & Cosmetics of the 18th Century: France & England, 1750-1790
Just as fashions change, so too do styles in hairstyles and cosmetics. The second half of the 18th century is an era particularly identified with hair and makeup, as these became such potent symbols of aristocracy during the Enlightenment and French Revolution. France and (to a lesser degree) England were the fashion leaders of this era, and it is to these countries that this article looks to identify the changing trends in hair and makeup.
In addition to a review of secondary sources (published books and research articles) on the history of fashion in the 18th century, this article draws on paintings and fashion plates as primary sources to examine the fashionable look in beauty. While it is important to note that these sources probably idealized the subject, this is actually very useful for our purpose of determining the desired beauty ideal. When studying clothing, allowances must be made for the many paintings depicting women in “artistic” clothing (Orientalist or Classical drapery) in portraiture, as what is portrayed is often not what was actually worn outside of the studio. Luckily, this does not generally apply to hair and makeup in portraiture; women painted in exotic draperies generally still wore the hairstyles and cosmetics that were à la mode.
Hair styling and cosmetics application had a particularly important function in France. The toilette, or dressing, was a daily ceremony in which important persons were dressed (including hair styled and cosmetics applied) before a select audience; it was the feminine version of the lever. While the ritual was created by Louis XIV and is associated with royalty, aristocracy and even members of the bourgeois classes held their own morning dressing ceremonies before limited audiences.
The ideal woman of the 18th century had hair that was black, brown, or blond (particularly fashionable during Marie-Antoinette’s reign); strong red hair was unfashionable and generally would be dyed a different color, although chestnut and strawberry blond were popular. Her hair was of wavy or curly texture. Her forehead was high, her cheeks plump and rosy, and her skin was white. Fashionable eye colors included black, chestnut, or blue; eyebrows were divided (ie no monobrows), slightly full, semicircular, and tapered at the ends in a half moon shape. Her lips were small, with a slightly larger bottom lip creating a rosebud effect, soft, and red. The paintings of François Boucher are particularly useful as a visual reference for this look.
The 18th century is particularly associated with wigs, but these were primarily worn by men in the period. Wigs were introduced in the 17th century, when King Louis XIII of France (1610-43), who had let his own hair grow long, began to bald prematurely at the age of 23. Courtiers were quick to emulate the fashion, which spread to England during the period of the Restoration of Charles II (1660s-80s). Over time, specific wig styles began to be associated with various professions, and thus considered de rigeur for men of the middling and upper classes. In 1673, an independent wigmakers’ guild was created in France; by the late 18th century, the number of French master wigmakers had more than quadrupled.
However, women rarely wore whole wigs. Instead, they increasingly hired professional hairdressers (coiffeurs) who added false hair to their natural hair. While they were expected to augment their own hair with false hair, padding, powder, and ornaments, women’s hair was supposed to remain “natural” by avoiding the wholesale artifice of men’s wigs.
Both men and women powdered their hair or wig throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Powdering was introduced when King Henry IV of France (1589-1610) used dark powder on his greying hair. Hair powder was originally used mostly as a degreaser. White haired wigs were popular because they were expensive and rare, and so men and women began (in the early 18th century) to use white powder to color their wigs and hair, as it was less destructive than dye.
Hair powder was made from a variety of materials, from the poorest quality in corn and wheat flour, to the best quality in finely milled and sieved starch. It was usually white, but it could also be brown, grey, orange, pink, red, blue, or violet. It is important to note that the application of white powder over dark hair produces shades of light to dark grey, not the paper white seen in films and costume wigs. White powder applied over very light hair produces a heightened blond effect. Powder was applied with a bellows (the powderee being covered with a cone-shape face mask and fabric smock), with a puff for touchups and a knife for removal.
Hair was nearly always curled, waved, or frizzed before styling, in order to create texture. Styling was accomplished with combs and curling irons, held with pins, and dressed with pomade. When height was desired, it was raised over pads made of wool, tow, hemp, cut hair, or wire.
Looking at the period 1750-90 overall, women’s hairstyles in France and England are relatively similar. In the 1750s, English women tended to wear plainer styles than Frenchwomen, but by the 1770s both nationalities are remarkably similar. The major contrast seen in portraiture is the near ubiquitous use of white powder by Frenchwomen throughout the era, while Englishwomen are rarely depicted wearing powder until the 1770s.
Hairstyles of the 1750s were generally small and close to the head. Hair was worn in soft curls or waves, with little to no height. Most Frenchwomen powdered their hair with white powder; Englishwomen generally left their hair unpowdered. In back, the hair was generally arranged in small curls, a twist or braid (worn pinned to the head, not hanging down), or pulled up smoothly.
The tête de mouton (or “sheep’s head”) style was particularly popular in France in the 1750s and early 1760s. It featured defined twists of curls that were arranged in rows across the front and top of the head, and generally was powdered.
Ornaments included a few small ribbons, pearls, jewels, flowers, or decorative pins styled together and called a pompom (so called after Mme de Pompadour, the famous mistress of Louis XV).
It is in the 1760s that hairstyles featuring height began to appear. This height was generally equal to about 1/4 to 1/2 the length of the face, and is usually styled in an egg shape. Again, Frenchwomen tended to powder their hair; Englishwomen appear to have left the hair unpowdered.
In the mid- to late-1770s, huge hair became all the rage. The height of these styles was generally about 1 to 1 1/2 times the length of the face, and was styled in what was considered a pyramid shape (it also looks very much like a hot air balloon).
This high hairstyle was created using toques (or “cushions”) which were made of fabric or cork and shaped like a heart or spear. It was attached to the top of the head, and then natural and false hair was curled, waved, or frizzed and piled over and around the cushion. Such elaborate hairstyles could be worn for days or weeks at a time. Mary Frampton later recalled,
“At that time  everybody wore powder and pomatum; a large triangular thing called a cushion, to which the hair was frizzed up with three or four enormous curls on each side; the higher the pyramid of hair, gauze, feathers, and other ornaments was carried the more fashionable it was thought, and such was the labour employed to rear the fabric that night-caps were made in proportion to it and covered over the hair, immensely long black pins, double and single, powder, pomatum and all ready for the next day. I think I remember hearing that twenty-four large pins were by no means an unusual number to go to bed with on your head” (1780).
The high hairstyle was often styled into allegories of current events, such as à l’inoculation (vaccine), ballon (Montgolfier balloon experiments); or concepts, such as à la Zodiaque, à la frivolité, des migraines, etc. Ornaments included lots of ribbons, pearls, jewels, flowers, feathers, as well as ships, birdcages, and other items that evoked the theme. In 1774, the Duchess of Devonshire created a sensation when she introduced ostrich feathers into her hair.
Side curls angled up towards the top back of the hair. The back hair was generally styled in a looped-up ponytail or braid. Long curls were often left hanging at the nape of the neck. French styles often had an extra “bump” in the front of the hair, right above the forehead. In this period, both French and Englishwomen usually powdered their hair.
In 1775, Queen Maria Theresa of Austria-Hungary wrote to her daughter Marie-Antoinette,
“Likewise I cannot help but touch upon a point that many of the papers repeat to me too often: it is the hairstyle that you wear. They say that from the roots it measures 36 pouces high and with all the feathers and ribbons that hold all of that up! You know that I have always been of the opinion that one should follow fashion moderately, but never carry it to excess. A pretty young queen full of charms has no need of all these follies. Quite the contrary. A simple hairstyle suits her better and is more appropriate for a queen. She must set the tone, and everyone will hurry to follow even your smallest errors…”
“It is true that I am a bit occupied by my hairstyle, and as for the feathers, everyone wears them, and it would look extraordinarily out of place not to” (quoted in Hosford).
During 1779-81, the shape of the hair started to become rounder and height began to diminish. This lower form of the pouf tended to be worn with fatter side curls than previously.
In 1781, Marie-Antoinette lost much of her hair after the birth of the dauphin. Famous coiffeur Léonard Autie later claimed that he created for her the coiffure à l’enfant, which she wore, along with her chemise à la reine, in the famously reviled painting by Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun. However, the hairstyle can be seen about a year or two earlier. Growing interest in what were considered “natural” fashion, brought about by the Enlightenment, created what was considered to be a more “natural” style in the 1780s. The hair was cut shorter to form a large curly or frizzy halo around the head, which was wider than tall. A small hank of much longer hair, either left straight, in ringlets, or braided, hung down the back or was worn looped up. These styles could still be very large, and false hair continued to be used to fill out a woman’s natural hair.
In keeping with this more “natural” look, powdering began to fall out of favor, although it still appears frequently in paintings and fashion plates. Powder fell definitively out of fashion in France with the Revolution of 1789; in England, it remained popular enough that it was taxed in 1795 to raise money for the war against the French (although this tax was the final death blow). In keeping with the mood of the period, ornamentation became more restrained, generally a ribbon, or a few feathers, flowers, or jewels.
Beginning in the 17th century and continuing throughout the 18th century, both men and women in England and France wore obvious cosmetics. Gender differences were less important than class differences – cosmetics marked one as aristocratic and à la mode, and were adopted as well by those who were trying to rise in social status or become fashionable. Makeup was not intended to look natural – in fact, it was called “paint” — but instead, “…to represent one’s aristocratic identity as declaratively as possible through cosmetic artifice” (Hyde). Women and men showed their respectability and class through white skin, and heavy makeup was considered more respectable than naturally light skin.
Cosmetics also had practical aims – their use created what was considered an attractive face, and they could hide the effects of age, blemishes, disease, or sun.
In France, nearly all aristocratic women wore cosmetics (Louis XV’s dowdy queen Marie Leszcynska was one of the few who did not). In fact, the painting of the face was a key part of the public toilette, the informal ceremony where an aristocratic woman dressed her face and hair before an elect audience. French aristocratic women wore thick layers of white paint, large streaks of rouge, and beauty patches (mouches).
However, cosmetics were not limited to the upper echelons. Any bourgeois with aims of being à la mode would also have worn cosmetics (although perhaps not as heavily). Cosmetics declined in price and rose in availability over the century, and were even more frequently made at home by the less well to do. The middle classes tended to prefer tones of pink instead of red, and applied rouge in circular patterns rather than streaks.
In the 1760s, cosmetics were growing in such popularity that coiffeuses (vanity table sets) began to be heavily advertised, and dressing rooms were built facing north for the best light. By 1781, Frenchwomen used about two million pots of rouge a year.
A review of portraiture shows that Englishwomen were less likely to wear obvious cosmetics than Frenchwomen in the 1750s-60s (in other words, they were wearing cosmetics but with a more natural look) – but by the 1770s-80s, Englishwomen and Frenchwomen wore nearly identical amounts of cosmetics. In the 1780s, heavy use of cosmetics declined with the growing trend of a more “natural” look.
The key aspects of the 18th century cosmetic look were a complexion somewhere between white and pale, red cheeks in a large circular shape (particularly for French court wear) or upside down triangle, and red lips. There were two main cosmetics worn by most women and men: blanc and rouge.
Shiny white face paint was applied across the entire face and shoulders. The most popular white makeups used on the face were made of lead, which was popular for its opacity despite knowledge of lead poisoning. Kitty Fisher, a famous English beauty, died at age 23 (in 1767) from lead poisoning. Blanc could also be made from bismuth or vinegar. Veins could be traced with blue pencil to highlight the whiteness of the skin.
Red makeups were made of vermilion (ground from cinnabar and including mercury) or creuse (made by exposing lead plates to the vapor of vinegar); both are toxic. Vegetable sources for rouge included safflower, wood resin, sandalwood, and brazilwood. These would be mixed with greases, creams, or vinegars to create a paste. Court ladies wore rouge on the cheeks in wide swaths from the corner of the eye to the corner of the lips. Bourgeois and provincial nobility wore neater, circular dabs at the center of the cheek to highlight the eyes and whiteness of the skin.
Lips could be reddened with distilled alcohol or vinegar. By mid-century, red pomades (some in stick forms) for lips were being sold. The shades of red seen on lips varied between pink and coral, occasionally veering into burgundy.
Eyes sometimes had a bit of reddish color around them, probably caused by contrast with the white makeup or a reaction to the lead in blanc, but were otherwise left bare. Eyebrows were half moon shaped with tapered ends, and could be darkened with kohl, elderberries, burnt cork, or lampblack (soot from oil lamps). Court men and women sometimes plucked and painted their eyebrows, or occasionally wore false eyebrows made of mouse fur.
Beauty patches (“mouches”) (made of silk velvet, satin, or taffeta and attached with glue) were part of a formal and/or aristocratic look. Their height of popularity was in the 17th century, but they still continued to be worn in the 18th century. They were meant to heighten the contrast with white skin. There were numerous sizes and shapes, worn in various positions with supposed meanings. In England, they took on a political meaning, with supporters of Whigs and Tories wearing patches on opposite sides of the face. Occasionally, patches could be worn together in designs, like trees or birds on the cheek of forehead.
In the 1750s-60s, Frenchwomen generally wore an extremely artificial look, with cosmetics used heavily and obviously. The face was extremely pale, with rouge applied in large, round circles on the cheeks. The eyes were left bare, sometimes with darkened brows, and lips were reddish. In contrast, Englishwomen usually appeared somewhat naturalistic, with cosmetics used sparingly and discreetly. The face was pale but not extreme, with the option of rouge applied in an upside down triangular shape, from the cheekbones almost to the jawline (similarly to how naturally pale women flush). Eyes were bare, and lips were reddish.
In the 1770s-80s, Frenchwomen and Englishwomen followed the same look: somewhat artificial, with cosmetics worn heavily and obviously, but not as extreme as in France in the mid-century. The face was pale but less extremely white, with rouge applied in the upside down triangular shape. Eyes were bare, sometimes with eyebrows darkened, and lips were reddish.
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