Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Book time: "Compacts and Cosmetics" - Introduction and "the long 19th century"

As I have previously posted, the book of the hour is Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Day, which I've been wanting to read ever since I saw the author, Madeleine Marsh, in two Lisa Eldridge videos about the history of make-up.

Since it is a rather long period to write about and there are a number of things which I'd like to draw attention to, I thought it would be better to split my comments into a series of posts. Following political history, I decided to divide my posts into:
  • Introduction and "the long 19th century"
  • Inter-war: the rising of Hollywood
  • War and Post-war: a society in recovery
  • Baby boomers: when teenagers are consumers
  • Capitalism wins: supermodels, super products
Expect to see a new text every tuesday until the end of August.


The book covers, as the title says, the Victorian times onwards, with a little introduction on beauty in the Ancient world, going briefly into the Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations. This is mainly to stress how the concern about body image isn't something new, but could actually be traced far back in human history.

As the author is also a historian the focus when writing about an accessory or a particular cosmetic is more towards the use of it and the particular historical moment rather than a pure fetish on the object and its physical description. Although it may not suit avid collectors, this point of view provides an insight on the lives and cosmovision shared by subjects of the time.

Although I'll be writing mainly about the aspects of change in fashion and thinking, Madeleine Marsh also tells how big stores and brands were started and certain products were invented, which are absolutely among the nicest parts of her book, providing a fun, entertaining and yet informative read.

The Victorian Era

Marsh starts at the 1800s when no make-up was allowed and the vanities were expressed through skincare and an obsession with hair. As we know, the 19th century was a very conservative time: etiquette was everything and the idea of tradition reigned, creating rituals from the pompous crowning of Queen Victoria (which came to set the tone for every subsequent crowning and royal wedding ceremony) to the very dressing of common women. Tight corsets and gloves, wigs and some creams were used daily.

If you like me watch a number of BBC series based on period novels, you know that blushing was not a desirable quality, as a woman could never show her feelings, especially if they were directed to men. Therefore, rouge was confined to the stage and to prostitutes (as actresses were also viewed).

To me it was particularly amusing to see those old advertisements. As we often see those wonderful films portraying beautiful and clear skin women from the 19th century, is hard to imagine how it actually was, when hygiene wasn't what it is today and even soaps were just beggining to be widely commercialized. I get the chills thinking about them curling their hair - and eventually burning them - and then having to reach for those wigs and toupès!

The Edwardian Era

The approach on cosmetics change: if before the association they had with the stage was a negative one, with enterpreneurs now looking for famous actresses (whose beauty was admired by everybody, particularly by men) to endorse their products rouge and powder become acceptable, even though mainly for the upper classes. Make-up in general was still regarded as something theatrical, but the availability and diversity of products began to increase due to the changes in illumination, which required more attention to skin.

The creation of department stores also represented a big change on how people, especially women, consumed. (Please watch the Mr. Selfridge BBC series, it portrays exactly this moment.) Selfridges was the first store ever to put cosmetics right at the front, transforming it into a delight and something to show off, rather than to conceal.

Women were beggining to work, to ask for certain rights (like voting) and to question standards. It seems to me like this was a time when even if just to a certain limited extent, women were doing it all for themselves - even if also to prove themselves.

It is very interesting to see how the sillhouette changes dramatically from the victorian woman, all suffocated in fabrics. True, the edwardian fashion was not so forgiving (it was still required to wear corsets to achieve the Gibson Girl look, but at least this provided more freedom to move and bycicles were adapted for women to ride them.

The raising participation of women in the working force was to be even more accentuated during the Great War, which finally ended the long and conservative 19th century.


Next up: we'll talk about the inter-war period: the crazy 1920s and the golden era of Hollywood.

All images were taken from the book "Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Day". Except for the picture with the cold creams (taken from the private collection of the author, Madeleine Marsh), all other images are in public domain.

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