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History of Skincare Part 13: The Elizabethan Era, 1500-1599
A Nordic Renaissance
It took almost a hundred years for the Italian Renaissance to catch up with the British Isles, but when it did, the results were spectacular. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, England began a quest for expansion which saw the creation of new colonies across the world. Large parts of India, Africa and North America were built under British rule. Although the merits of British colonialism may be debatable, 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 Italians a century earlier. Clothing is becoming more and more elaborate and makeup is quickly following suit. At a time when appearance was much more important than health, hygiene and skin care were often overlooked.
The Elizabethan look
Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth’s look dominated the hearts and minds of British women. As clothing had become increasingly structured throughout the latter part of the Middle Ages, Elizabeth took this sense of structure to new heights. Tight corsets were worn to make the body look smooth and fit. While proper hoop skirts had yet to be invented, women tied large pieces of padding around their hips to make their skirts stick out in wide, oblong hoops. Starched frills were worn around the neck, and the hair was often pinned up in elaborate buns. Despite the extreme ornamentation of their clothing, however, the face was still the focal point of the look, and cosmetics took on far greater importance than they had in medieval England.
Queen Elizabeth is often credited with being the first in her time to adopt a completely made-up appearance. Although she may have been the first, however, the noble women of Britain soon followed suit. Women painted their faces with a white powder called Venetian whitewash. The best white lead was composed of lead, carbonate and hydroxide. Cheaper alternatives were made from talc or boiled eggs, although these were considered less effective. After the thick powder was applied to the face, the women painted their cheeks with a red paint called fucus and painted their lips with vermilion. The first lipsticks were made around this time by putting sun-dried vermilion and crushed plaster in a pen-like device. (Go here to learn more about the process of making Elizabethan lipstick: http://www.cosmetic-business.com/en/showartikel.php?art_id=1409) To add an icy look to their look, women smear their face, make-up and all, in a layer of egg white.
The Great Concealment
In Elizabethan times, elaborate make-up was considered a sign of nobility, as few ordinary people could afford the lead powders and dried vermilion used to create the popular look. As the century progressed, however, cosmetics also began to be associated with disease. Poor hygiene had led to a number of serious epidemics of plague and smallpox and many survivors still bore horrible scars and pox marks on their faces. As the disease raged among rich and poor, only the wealthy had access to the expensive cosmetics that would cover their scars. Reinforcing the link between makeup and poor health, doctors at the time began to discover that lead powder was not as safe as previously thought. The women rarely washed their faces, opting instead to layer a new powder over the old, and years of this treatment proved to turn the skin a dull shade of gray. While many doctors recommended switching to a powder made from alum or tin ash, lead prevailed in popularity.
Many women have gone a long time without cleaning powder from their face. However, when they wanted to remove their makeup, they found that the thick, embedded lead was not easily removed with water alone. In order to strip away the cosmetic layers, they turned to a combination of skincare science and superstition, washing their faces with everything from sweet rainwater or donkey’s milk to red wine or urine more astringent. Mercury was also among skin care products commonly used to treat acne, wrinkles, scars, and discoloration. Although it did remove these blemishes, it did so by corroding the surface of the skin and often caused far worse scars than the ones it removed. (Go here to learn more about Elizabethan cosmetics and hygiene: http://www.fragrancex.com/fragrance-information/elizabethan-makeup.aspx)
Despite the health problems of the time, Elizabethan women were known for their excessive beauty and cosmetic practices. It was these and other excesses, however, that would provoke a Puritan revolt in the next century and see Oliver Cromwell take control of the British throne.
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