Three mid-nineteenth century royal beauties served as the glamorous ideal for women in the Victorian Era. These three beauties were the Empress Eugénie (wife of Napoleon III, Emperor of the French), Princess Alexandra of Denmark (wife to Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, and heir apparent to Queen Victoria), and Elizabeth of Austria (wife to Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, and monarch of other states in the Austro-Hungarian Empire).
Newspapers, journals, and fashion magazines regularly referred to the three women. Portrait artists, such as the German painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter, known for his portraits of royalty in the mid-nineteenth century, also captured their beauty on canvas. However, what all Victorian women wanted to know was the beauty secrets of these three royal women. Continue reading →
Victorian women were highly body conscious. They wore corsets to create tiny waistlines and bustles and petticoats to enhance and improve their buttocks. Victorian women were also idealized in paintings by popular nineteenth-century artists, such as James Tissot. These idealized images of body conscious Victorians, helped to contribute to Victorian women wondering what they could do to retain their youthful beauty as they aged.
One Victorian magazine published an article on beauty in 1893, and it is provided below almost verbatim:
The physical beauty of women should last until they are far past fifty, says a writer in Siftings. Nor does beauty reach its zenith under the age of 35 or 40. Helen of Troy comes upon the stage at the age of 40. Aspasia was 36 when married to Pericles, and she was a brilliant figure 30 years thereafter. Cleopatra was past 30 when she met Anthony. Diane de Poitiers was 35 when she won the heart of Henry II. The King was half her age, but his devotion never changed. Anne of Austria was 38 when described as the most beautiful woman in Europe. Mdme. de Maintenon was 43 when united to Louis, and Catherine of Russia was 33 when she seized the throne she occupied for 35 years. Mdlle. Mar was most beautiful at age 45, and Mdme. Récamier between the ages of 35 and 55. The most lasting and intense passion is not inspired by two decade beauties. The old saw about sweet sixteen is exploded by the truer knowledge that the highest beauty does not dwell in immaturity. For beauty does not mean alone the fashion of form and colouring, as found in the waxen doll. The dew of youth and a complexion of roses sometimes combine in a face that is unmoving and unresponsive, as though lacking utterly the life spark. A woman’s best and richest years are from 26 to 40. It is arrant error for any woman to regard herself as passé at an earlier day.
There were many fashion evils during the late 1800s, but the evils of the Victorian chignon were said to be the worst. A chignon was a hairstyle that had a knot or coil of hair arranged and worn low at the back of a woman’s head or at the nape of the neck. However, by the 1890s the chignon’s placement was higher on the head and the styles between the 1870s and 1890s were also more feminine and elaborate.
The main objection to the Victorian chignon seemed to be that they were not created from a woman’s real hair. Rather they were composed of false hair pieces that one person designated “hirsute deceptions.” Another person noted that they were “an offense against elevated morality, because, though they deceive nobody, they are intended to deceive, and deceit in any form is an offense against sound morals.” There was also this gem, “‘Glory of a woman is in her hair’ … but nothing is said about the glory being attainable by the use of somebody else’s hair.” In fact, hair pieces were so popular one contemporary writer of today notes: Continue reading →
Antoine Le Camus wrote Abdeker: or the Art of Preserving Beauty in 1754. It is half “oriental tale” and half recipe book filled with cosmetic recipes. In the book Camus claims that “the face is the chief Seat of Beauty.” But Camus also asserts “beauty is that Form of an entire body, which pleases every one our senses.” Based on his beliefs, he also devised a model of the perfect woman and here are his deductions.
“The Form of an entire Body, that can be consider’d as beautiful, ought to please our Eyes by its Extent.” This meant a person was not be too fat or too thin or too big or too little.
“The Colour of the Parts is one of the Articles that Nature should observe in the Composition of a handsome Body.” Skin was to be fair in color because brown, yellowish, or freckled skin was said to be “accounted ugly.” Continue reading →
The Grecian Bend was a stooping fashion that first made its appearance England in the 1820s, although it did not reach the pinnacle of popularity until Victorian times (somewhere between 1869 and 1880). It supposedly acquired its name from the graceful Venus de Milo as she inclined slightly forward. The stooping fashion was also imitative of a physical affliction. Because physical afflictions often could not be corrected or because famous people had the afflictions, people copied them and adopted them as a fashion statement, just like they adopted the Alexandra Limp. Moreover, the Grecian Bend seemed erotic to Victorians because a woman’s breast and rear jutted out. Also making the fashion more appealing, was the belief that any woman who adopted the Grecian Bend was bold and daring.
Women who adopted the Grecian Bend quickly discovered they were more than bold or daring because they soon found they were in severe pain. Being stuck in such a strange position caused back aches and was said to be “wearisome” for those who had to maintain the position for hours. However, despite the aches and pains, thousands of woman embraced the Grecian Bend. At its peak it was seen regularly at watering places, such as Bath. But Bath was not the only spot where the Grecian Bend became popular. Soon the fashion spread across the ocean to America. Continue reading →
Alexandra of Denmark married the Prince of Wales in 1863, and as a princess, her every fashion decision was admired by English women who copied her, including what became known as the Alexandra limp. She acquired the limp in 1867 after suffering an illness that “threatened to contract her leg and make her a cripple.”
Whenever Alexandra appeared in public she used a walking stick and exhibited a slight limp. Her infirmity was soon copied by “distinguished people, and the ‘Alexandra limp’ was adopted by various members of fashionable society.” In fact, her limp became so popular Victorian people everywhere — even in foreign countries — were greeted by limping women, and proponents claimed it would supersede “chignons, panniers, wasp-waists, and the Grecian bend.”
One newspaper reporter noticed the imitators and stated, “[A] monstrosity has made itself visible among the [Edinburgh] female promenaders in Princess Street, viz., ‘the Alexandra Limp!'” The reporter also maintained that “Grecian bends and preposterous mincing steps as of a duck on hot plates have been common enough … [on] our fashionable exhibition streets; but this newly acquired affectation excels them all.” Continue reading →
By the late Georgian era, gone were the towering headdresses. In its place was a woman’s natural hair, considered her crowning glory. With a more natural look and styles taken from the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, women attempted to achieve a gorgeous head of hair. Hair color was one of the most important aspects. Fortunately, if a women did not like the color of her hair, she could change it. Once a woman had the right hair color numerous tips existed for washing it. One writer advised it should be “occasionally well washed with soap-and-water,” although there were also critics who opposed hair washing all together. To keep the hair glossy and shiny, combing and brushing came next, and, according to one nineteenth century writer, “the oftener the comb and brush are subsequently used in the day, the better it will be for the luxuriance, smoothness, and set of the hair.” But brushing was not the only prerequisite to luxurious hair. Sometimes oil or pomade was added, and, if the hair was styled, there were curling tongs, crisping irons, or papillotes, small pieces of paper that curled the hair and were humorously called paper shackles by one writer. To preserve the hairstyle and ensure it lasted for more than a day, women often wore nightcaps. Continue reading →
During the mid-1800s, Dundreary whiskers, or as the British called them, Piccadilly weepers, became popular. They were long bushy, carefully combed side whiskers, worn without a beard. The whiskers were named for Lord Dundreary, a character in Tom Taylor’s 1858 British play titled Our American Cousin performed at Laura Keene’s theatre in New York. The play was a farce about a boorish but warm-hearted American named Asa Trenchard who was introduced to his aristocratic English relatives.
It premiered on 15 October 1858, and Edward Askew Sothern, an English actor known for his comedic skill, aptly portrayed Dundreary while American actor Joseph Jefferson played Trenchard. Sothern initially thought his part was “dreadful” and was reluctant to accept it because he worried that portraying Dundreary might permanently damage his career and reputation. However, he did accept it, and when the cast was gathered for the first reading, Jefferson described in his autobiography what happened: Continue reading →
When Jane Austen was publishing Pride and Prejudice and Napoleon was being exiled to Alba, cosmetics were used by Regency women “to produce a healthful bloom on the countenance.” As a woman’s face, neck, and hands were frequently exposed to nature’s harsh elements, great care was taken to restore beauty and luster back to her skin. In fact,Regency women were sometimes willing to try strange things, such as “eating chalk, drinking vinegar, [and] wearing camphorated charms,” all in the hope of whitening their skin or maintaining a youthful appearance. Despite the Regency woman’s best efforts, nature often took its toll. Regency women suffered from age spots, freckles, pimples, spots, sunburns, or wrinkles.
Beauty was sometimes a strange process in the 1700 and 1800s. Some women went so far as to cover their faces with lard or apply masks “plastered … with a perfumed pomade to preserve the complexion.” There was also a mask of sliced veal (steeped in milk) that was applied to the face, and, of course, the ever popular milk bath that fair beauties soaked in, while those who had long since seen the bloom of youth bathed in astringents, such as wine. But, perhaps, one of the strangest beauty fashions was a practice that first began in the 1600s and was adapted by both sexes. It was chicken-skin gloves, sometimes called Limerick gloves. Continue reading →