Victorian Beauty and How to Retain It

“On the Thames,” by James Tissot in 1882. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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.

“Young Lady in a Boat,” by James Tissot in 1870. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Some Useful Hints

In the course of years, however, a time arrives when the coming of age must be recognized, when the muscles begin to relax, the skin to lose its polish, and roundness and softness gives place to angles. Contentment and good humor will still outrival all medical inventions as a preservative of youth. A woman, beautiful in all else, but wanting mirth, will grow old, sour, thin, and sallow, while the merry, fun-loving woman will be fresh and sweet, despite life’s happening and sorrows. Every person should sleep alone, and all physicians support this injunction. A buoyant girl will be rendered irritable, ill, and imbecile by sleeping with a sullen, morose woman. This matter is understood in Oriental countries far better than in Western nations. Every girl is recommended to make a study of beauty; but beauty of the real kind, not the fictitious type, and cramped figure, gaudy apparel, and liberal use of paints, dyes, and washes. True beauty rests on plain living and high thinking, on blood, bearing, and brains. it is in one sense a relative thing. To dip far into philosophy on the subject, is not necessary. The difference between genuine and meretricious beauty is well understood by our race according to its own standards. Temperance, purity, and exercise create an external beauty indicating interior excellence. An expansive head conveys the idea of mental excellence and a bad skin that of impure blood. But perfect beauty according to art standards is not essential, nor is born regularity of features. Beauty is due to grace and activity; to the vital system, the trunk, digestion, flesh-texture, tint; the vigour of brain, emotion and expression. Here is a broad field for self-interpretation and improvement. Every woman should stand often before her mirror in critical judgment and earnest investigation of personal advantages and defects, as one means of correcting grimaces, distorted attitudes, and awkward motions.

Waiting (also known as In the Shallows). Courtesy of Christie’s.

The Facial Expression

A woman who has lost peace and happiness is indeed prodigal if she sends her face after them. The friction of a hand dipped in soft water will often banish pallor from cheek and temple. To be definite, this application of massage to the face should not be downward, but upward and outward, bearing in mind the labours of the day. The sensitive muscles of the mouth especially are to be smoothed from the daily strain. The gospel of relaxing, of “letting go” of one’s-self, at times, is essential to facial well-being. The nervous system like the violin, must not always be kept at concert pitch. All this requires effort, but beauty is not to be attained on other terms. The greatest attainable excellence of the body should be developed and maintained harmoniously. Beauty means harmony, balance, the mental fire of sensibility, as well as bodily fascination. Banish fretting, trivial perturbation, scowling, whining, wailing, excessive laughter, and pointless smiling. The culture of beauty must be a life-long, noble purpose.

In the first place, health is all-important. Flesh, texture, and tint, for example, depend upon it. A complexion lacking lustre, plumpness, and elasticity shows a lack somewhere in the vital or nutritive system. A mild diet, gentle temperature, even digestion, open-air exercise, sleep, and a tranquil mind, pertain to loveliness. Mistakes of diet begin usually in childhood. Often a girl sits down to a potato and pickle, several cups of strong tea, pies, cakes, ices, and fiery condiments. If meat be on the bill of fare there is a chance that it has been spoiled in the cooking. As a result, when the girl is twenty her eyes are dull, teeth yellow, gums pale, lips wan, flesh flaccid, and skin unyielding. Recourse is had to padding, face washes, stains and belladonna. The habits of life are unaltered. Before there can be improvement a change must be made, and firmly persisted in. The diet, while generous, must be temperate. Peppered soups, stews, game patés, ragouts, and spices are not good for the complexion. What is termed the epicureau woman will have, before she is thirty, a blotched face and flabby flesh. Women of nervous and sanguine temperament should restrict themselves to a diet of eggs, milk, bread, fruit, light, broths, and crustacea. The beautiful woman who takes malt and spirituous liquors daily conspires against her beauty. A lady who consulted a physician concerning her red nose, confessed that her nightly tipple was whisky and water. “Leave out the water,” said the doctor, “and your nose will soon be purple.” Tonics containing iron, phosphoric acid, and other drugs are often found harmful to the complexion.

A Girl in an Armchair (The Convalescent), 1872 by Tissot. Courtesy of TopArt.

Errors in Food

It is now generally understood that most of the discomfort suffered by the human race is due to errors in food. Judgment should be used as to food and occupation, and gluttonous satisfaction of the appetite always avoided. If the complexion has become thick, red, and pimply, the remedy is not in the use of drugs and decoctions. Paints and enamels render the face dry and chalky, and would destroy a velvet bloom if it existed. A great deal of beauty at low cost can be obtained through the plentiful use of rainwater, sunlight, and open air exercise. Frequent bathing is a healthful luxury, especially with the addition of sea salt. Bodily exercise should be carried on temperately, its aim being facile muscle, supply joints, and pliant limbs — in a word, physical beauty. Excessive gymnastics make the joints prominent. How many women know how to walk? Observe them in the street or entering a drawing-room — even the better classes. One shambles, another slouches, as if her shoes were down at the heels. But most of them drive, straining every muscle in their bodies, ploughing along with strenuous effect like a ship in a high sea, and facing head winds. Five minutes’ instruction in stage walk, properly observed, would rectify every bit of this. A perceptible swing of the body should be manifest, with every step that is, advance all of one side at the same time, with a slight turn right and left of the shoulders as the corresponding foot is protected. A long step — not a stride — easy, unhurried, the leg thrown forward from the hip. This is the secret of the ideal gait. The highest beauty is the beauty of expression, and the cultivation of this requires the crushing out of envy, hatred, malice, and all low motives and passions.


  • How to Retain Beauty, in Wells Journal, 19 January 1893, p. 3.

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