French Mouches: Beauty Marks or Patches

Mouches or Example of Patches Worn During Charles I's Reign, Author's Collection
Example of Patches Worn During Charles I’s Reign, Author’s Collection

Smallpox affected women’s complexion in the 18th century. Because smallpox often left pox scars and because women sometimes had acne, moles, or facial defects, it became popular for women to hide or disguise these problems. They did so using patches that were referred to by the French as mouches (flies).

Patching was initially more popular among the French than the English and was popular until about the Regency period. However, the first written mention of patching occurred in the English book Artificial Changeling, written by John Bulwer in 1653. Despite Bulwer’s mention in 1653, apparently mouches, were popular long before as it was “common with the Roman dames in the latter days of the Empire.”[1]

Man with a Beauty Patch. Public Domain.

Mouches became popular with both men and women by the 1700s. At the time, it was popular to have pale, milky white skin, and women liked mouches because mouches enhanced the radiance of their skin and brought out the skin’s whiteness. Men liked them too and used them to hide defects, but they wore fewer in number than women.

The size of mouches grew larger and larger over time, which caused one person in the 1700s to write:

“Though I have seen with patience the cap diminishing to the size of patch, I have not with the same unconcern observed the patch enlarging itself to the size of a cap. It is with great sorrow that I already see it in the possession of that beautiful mass of blue which borders upon the eye. Should it increase on the side of that exquisite feature, what an eclipse have we to dread! but surely it is to be hoped the ladies will not give up that place to a plaster, which the brightest jewel in the universe would want lustre to supply … All young ladies, who find it difficult to wean themselves from patches all at once, shall be allowed to wear them in whatever number, size, or figure they please, on such parts of the body as are, or should be, most covered from sight.”[2]

Sometimes women wore just one mouche and other times several. Eventually, however, they wore so many mouches it sometimes looked like they were covered in flies. A Frenchman named Henri Misson noted this trend writing in 1719:

“The Use of Patches is not unknown to the French ladies; but she that wears them must be young and handsome. In England, young, old, handsome, ugly all are bepatch’d until Bed-rid. I have often counted fifteen Patches, or more upon the swarthy wrinkled face of an old Hag threescore and ten, and upwards.”[3]

People also began to wear the mouches on places other than their face. For instance, mouches might be located on a shoulder or the neck. Mouches were also of varying shapes that ranged from oblong, square, lozenge, and crescent to star shaped. They were also generally made from fabric with the most popular fabrics being taffeta, silk, or satin, and, because they were gummed, they could be adhered quickly or removed easily.

Boites à mouches. Courtesy of Michel Weber Antiquités.

Mouches were often carried or stored in small decorate boxes called boites à mouches (fly boxes). The boxes also sometimes contained a mirror and a small brush to help with the application of the mouches. Boxes were similar in size to a powder compact, usually had a lid, and were of varying shapes (round, oblong, square). The boxes were created from such materials as mother of pearl, ivory, tin, gold, and so forth.

Because mouches were so popular, various trends developed. Women sometimes wore them in relation to their political affiliations or they applied them to specific spots, such as near the corner of the eye, on the temple, or on the nose. They also began giving the mouches special names, as shown in the illustration below.

Example of mouche placement and meaning of the mouches. Author’s collection.

 

The names and placement conveyed a woman’s mood or communicated a special meaning. For instance, one historian noted:

“Women who wanted to create the impression of impishness stuck them near the corner of the mouth; those who wanted to flirt chose the cheek; those in love put a beauty spot beside the eye; a spot on the chin indicated roguishness or playfulness, a patch on the nose cheekiness; the lip was preferred by the coquettish lady, and the forehead was reserved for the proud.”[4]

During the time of Marie Antoinette women wore them because they thought they indicated youthfulness. This was demonstrated by Madame de Genlis, a French writer, harpist and educator, as she “once remarked after placing two or three on her cheek and chin, ‘Well! What do you think of that? Would you not take me for a girl of twenty?'”[5]

References:

  • [1] “Patching and Painting,” The Book of Days, Vol. 2, 1832, p. 593.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 594.
  • [3] Misson, Henri, M. Misson’s Memoirs and Observations in His Travels Over England, 1719, p. 214.
  • [4] David Bindman, Frédéric Ogée and Peter Wagner, eds., Hogarth: Representing Nature’s Machines, 2001, p. 115.
  • [5] Walton, Geri, Marie Antoinette’s Confidante, 2016, p. 79.

 

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