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Elizabethan Make-up 101
by Drea Leed


The cosmetics worn by women during the time of Queen Elizabeth differed radically from those we wear today. Not only were the materials used--kohl, ceruse, vermilion--far different, but the look that women tried to achieve was different as well. Standards of beauty change over the centuries. To understand the cosmetics worn by Elizabethan women, it's important to understand the effect they were trying to achieve--that "ideal" of beauty that they wanted to imitate.
One of Shakespeare's most popular sonnets pokes fun at the common metaphors used to describe the ideal beauty:

"My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun
Coral is far more fair then her lips fair
If snow be white, why then, her breast is dun,
If hair be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks..."

Even without corroboration from other period sources, one can begin to catch a glimpse of the ideal Elizabethan female: bright eyes, snow-white skin, red cheeks and lips, and fair hair. A fair approximation of this ideal can be found in Lettice Knollys, Countess of Leicester (portrait above) and cousin to Queen Elizabeth herself, who was widely regarded as one of the most beautiful women at court.

First and foremost was her exceedingly pale skin--a prerequisite for a courtly beauty. The manneristic portraits of the late 16th century all portrayed their female (and male) subjects with alabaster complexions, lacking even the rosy glow that became popular during the next century.

Pale skin was a sign of nobility, wealth, and (for women) delicacy, and was sought after by many. In a time when skin problems and the pox were commonplace, sunscreen unheard of, and skin creams and ointments out of reach for all but the well-off, smooth, unblemished and pale skin was a rarity.

This pale skin could be achieved by a number of means, the most popular being ceruse, a mixture of white lead and vinegar that was favored by the nobility and by those who could afford it. This white foundation was applied to the neck and bosom as well. The first record of this skin-whitener was found in 1521, and by the time of Elizabeth's reign was well-established as an essential item for the fashionable woman. Naturally, spreading lead upon one's skin caused a variety of skin problems; some authors of the time warned against it, describing how it made the skin "grey and shrivelled", and suggesting other popular mixtures such a paste of alum and tin ash, sulpher, and a variety of foundations made using boiled egg white, talc, and other white materials as a base. Egg white, uncooked, could also be used to "glaze" the complexion, creating a smooth shell and helping to hide wrinkles.

Once an ideal whiteness was achieved-sometimes complete with false veins traced onto the skin-coloring was applied. Facepaint, generally referred to in period as fucus, came in a variety of reds and was used mainly upon the cheeks and lips. Madder, cochineal, and ochre-based compounds were all used as blush and lip-color, but vermilion (mercuric sulfide) was the most popular choice of the fashionable court lady. Apparently this color could be laid on quite thick; One Elizabethan satirist commented that an artist needed no box of paints to work, but merely a fashionably painted lady standing nearby to use for pigments.

Of course, such heavy and often poisonous make-up caused serious skin damage. Remedies for spots, blemishes, acne and freckles ranged from the application of lemon-juice or rosewater to dubious concoctions of mercury, alum, honey and eggshells. Indeed, washing one's face with mercury was a common period "facial peel" used to make a woman's skin soft and fresh. Ass's milk was another substance favored by the nobility, and mentioned as an ingredient in baths and washes.

Lettice's features also approximate the 16th century standard of beauty--a small, rosy mouth, a straight and narrow nose, and wide-set bright eyes under narrow arched brows were the theoretical "ideal" of the time . Women would use drops of belladona in their eyes to achieve that bright sparkle, and outline them with kohl (powdered antimony) to enhance their size or make them appear more wide set. Plucked eyebrows were de rigeur for a court lady, as was a high brow. A high hairline had been for centuries a sign of the aristocracy--Women would pluck their brow hair back an inch, or even more, to create a fashionably high forehead.

Blonde or red-gold hair such as Lettice's were also eagerly sought after. Dozens of recipies for bleaching hair existed, some of them quite noxious; urine was one substance used. If a woman couldn't achieve the color she wanted, she could wear false hair instead-a very common practice in Elizabethan times. Some women went bald and wore wigs rather than struggle with their own locks. It is no accident that Queen Elizabeth possessed almost all of the traits discussed above-golden-red hair, grey, wide-set eyes, very pale skin and narrow brows--she was a guiding force in late 16th century English fashion, moreso than almost any monarch before or since. Women strove to imitate her curly red hair and coloring.

One of the most surprising--and appalling--aspects of 16th century make-up was the poisonous nature of many of the cosmetics. If an authenticity-bent re-enactor was truly interested in recreating a "period" make-up job, she could be taking her life into her own hands. In addition, the blatant artificiality of period makeup would look ludicrous to modern eyes. Most Elizabethan re-enactors interested in adding period make-up to their ensemble settle for a modern "interpretation" of the period look-a pale foundation with a light dusting of white powder for the face, black or grey eyeliner to take the place of kohl, and matte red lipstick of an ochre or brick color. A light application of blush, placed in an oval along the cheekbone rather than underneath, is enough unless one is playing a courtesan; if you choose, you may either pluck or draw in high, arched eyebrows to complete the look. Achieving the high plucked brow requires serious stage makeup or serious pain.

Of course, all this is for the court lady. The lower and middle classes didn't have the time or resources to devote to serious makeup; young merchant's wives were somewhat notorious for their fancy dress and fashionable makeup, but otherwise you needn't bother.

As for the hair, tightly curling the front portion and arranging it into rolls on either side of the head is a very Elizabethan practice. False hair was commonly used as well, and is sometimes easier to manage than one's own locks.