Ideas of Female Beauty in the 1700 and 1800s

Beauty was important to women, but, perhaps, it was even more important to men, because it was a man who noted in the late 1700s that a woman’s “first merit is that of beauty.”[1] People seemed to have particular ideas of what beauty entailed and wrote about it. André Félibien, a French chronicler of the arts and the official court historian to Louis XIV of France in the 1600s, provided the following classical description of beauty often using Venus as the ideal image:

  • The Head should be well rounded; and look rather inclining to small than large.
  • The Forehead white, smooth, and open (not with the Hair growing down too deep upon it;) neither flat nor prominent, but like the Head well rounded; and rather small in Proportion than large.
  • The Hair either bright, black or brown; not thin, but full and waving, and if it falls in moderate Curls the better.
  • The Eyes, black, chestnut, or blue; clear, bright, and lively, and rather large in Proportion than small.
  • The Eyebrows, well divided, rather full than thin; semicircular, and broader in the Middle than at the Ends.
  • The Cheeks should not be wide; should have a Degree of Plumpness, with the Red and White finely blended together; and should look firm and soft.
  • The Ear should be rather small than large; well folded,…with an agreeable Tinge of Red.
  • The Nose should be placed so as to divide the Face into two equal Parts; should be of a moderate Size, strait, and well-squared; though sometimes a little Rising in the Nose,…may give a very graceful look to it.
  • The Mouth should be small; and the Lips not of equal Thickness: They should be well-turned, small rather than gross; soft, even to the Eye; and with a living Red in them. A truly pretty Mouth is like a Rose-bud that is beginning to blow.
  • The Teeth should be middle-sized, white, well-ranged, and even.
  • The Chin, of a moderate Size; white soft, and agreeably rounded.
  • The Neck should be white, strait, and of a soft, easy, and flexible Make, rather long than short; less above, and encreasing [sic] gently toward the Shoulders: The Whiteness and Delicacy of its Skin should be continued, or rather go on improving, to the Bosom.
  • The Skin in general should be white, properly tingled with Red; with an apparent Softness, and a Look of thriving Health in it.
  • The Shoulders should be white, gently spread, and with a much softer Appearance of Strength, than in those of Men.
  • The Arm should be white, round, firm, and soft; and more particularly so from the Elbow to the Hands.
  • The Hand should unite insensibly with the Arm;…They should be long and delicate, and even the Joints and nervous Parts of them should be without either any hardness or dryness.
  • The Fingers should be fine, long, round and soft; small, and lessening towards the Tips of them: And the Nails long, rounded at the Ends, and pellucid.
  • The Bosom should be white and charming; and the Breasts equal in Roundness, Whiteness, and Firmness; neither too much elevated, nor too much depressed; rising gently, and very distinctly separated.
  • The Sides should be long, and the Hips wider than the Shoulders…and go down rounding, and lessening gradually to the Knee.
  • The Knee should be even, and well-rounded: the Legs strait, but varied by a proper Rounding of the more fleshy Part of them; and the Feet finely turned, white, and little.[2]
Venus, the Classical Image of Youthful Female Beauty, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Venus, the classical image of youthful female beauty. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A hundred years later in 1787, a Georgian gentleman detailed his idea of beauty. He noted that “every one will make what alteration his own taste may suggest,”[3] and provided a thirty point list:

  1. Youth.
  2. Stature, neither too high nor two low.
  3. Neither too fat nor too lean.
  4. The symmetry and proportion of all parts.
  5. Long hair, or prettily curled, fine and silky soft.
  6. The skin smooth, delicate, and of a fine grain.
  7. Lively white and red.
  8. A smooth high forehead.
  9. The temples not sunk in.
  10. The eye-brows in arcade, like two lines.
  11. The eyes blue, their orbits well-fashioned, and turned to sweetness.
  12. The nose rather long than short.
  13. The cheeks rounding away in softened profils [sic], and dimpled.
  14. An agreeable smile.
  15. Two lips, pouting, of the coral hue.
  16. A small mouth.
  17. Teeth, pearly white, even and well set.
  18. The chin rather round, plump, and ending with a dimple.
  19. The ears small, and close to the head.
  20. A neck of ivory.
  21. A breast of alabaster.
  22. Two balls of snow, firm, self-sustained, and deliciously distanced.
  23. A white hand, plump and long.
  24. Fingers tapering.
  25. Nails of mother-o’-pearl, and oval-formed.
  26. A sweet breath.
  27. An agreeable voice.
  28. A free unaffected air and carriage.
  29. The shape noble, easy, and disengaged.
  30. A modest gait and deportment.
Queen Louise of Prussia Admired as the Most Beautiful Woman in Europe During the Georgian Era, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Queen Louise of Prussia admired as the most beautiful woman in Europe during the Georgian Era. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

By the Victorian Era, the idea of beauty was changing, and there was a greater emphasis on internal beauty. One author noted that “many women who can lay no claims to a beautiful face have carried captive the hearts of plenty of men by the beauty of their form [and the temple of their soul].”[4] In fact, the soul was not to be neglected as “every woman owes it not only to herself, but to society, to be as beautiful and charming as she possibly can.”[5] Mid to late nineteenth century people also noted that beauty began in infancy, and, at least one author commented:

“[N]othing should be done at that tender age to obstruct the natural swell and growth of all the parts … [a] girl should understand, as soon as she comes to the years of discretion, or as soon as she is old enough to realize the importance of beauty to a woman, that she has, to a certain extent, the management of her own form within her power.”[6]

Portrait of Madame Récamier—Celebrated Beauty of the Regency and Victorian Era—by Jacques-Louis David, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Portrait by Jacques-Louis David of Madame Récamier, who was a celebrated beauty of the Regency and Victorian Eras. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Besides the idea that a woman had power over her form and that corsets and stays were perhaps injurious, there were other areas of beauty that needed to be considered in the nineteenth century. Exercise was one such area as it was noted that plenty of exercise, in the open air resulted in a handsome form and a handsome form was made much more so by a woman’s ability to be elastic, which resulted in a “flexible, wavy and undulating [form] as … graceful [as] … lilies of the field.”[7] A fine and well-trained voice was another element of beauty, but it was deportment in the late nineteenth century that was claimed to be the most essential element of beauty because according to one source:

“[T]he most beautiful and well dressed woman will fail to be charming unless all her other attractions are set off with a graceful and fascinating deportment. A pretty face may be seen everywhere, beautiful and gorgeous dresses are common enough, but how seldom do we meet with a really beautiful and enchanting demeanor!”[8]


  • [1] Bell, J., The Dictionary of Love, 1787, no page number.
  • [2] Hay, William, Fugitive Pieces on Various Subjects, 1771, p. 16-18.
  • [3] Bell, J., no page number.
  • [4] Montez, Lola, The Arts of Beauty, Or, Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet, 1858, p. 24.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 25.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 26.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 34.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 70.

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  1. October Austen On Dit | Austen Authors on October 8, 2016 at 9:12 pm

    […] Ideas of Female Beauty in the 1700 and 1800s by Geri Walton […]

  2. Jason Stark on January 31, 2021 at 9:18 am

    I’d love to read a description of ideal MALE beauty, as written by a woman….if they were even “allowed” to think such “unwholesome” thoughts.

    I’ve a feeling most men of that age wouldn’t qualify. Look at Albert: know for gluttony, was balding and yet he was a womanizer with many know affairs. How would he have ranked according to “ideals of MALE handsomeness” as written by leading female thinkers of the time??

    • Tracy on March 22, 2022 at 7:36 am

      Not to tall, about 6 inches taller then the woman … strong jaw line, beautiful eyes incompassed by thick lashes. Full head of not too thick clean hair well kept soft but firm to hold style. Hint of pink on his cheeks, simi broad shoulders with smaller waistline, not too much hair ..muscles noteable but not too much, nice firm but larger butt need something to see. Legs well worked with some muscles not overly hairy, feet well kept and not huge scared or misshapen with nicw toe nails.

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