Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Monday, July 7, 2008

History of Makeup, Jewelry and Gloves

Since the beginning of time we’ve adorned our figures with some sort of decoration. Whether it is a holly branch, bone necklaces, paint, we’ve always enhanced our looks with makeup, and jewelry.

Today’s blog is going to be on the history of makeup and jewelry, and of course because I love gloves, I’m throwing that in too! But, as usual, I will only be discussing a portion of history, so this concise bit of information will only journey up to the Victorian era.


Egyptians have the earliest documentation of using makeup. Men and women both used an unguent concoction that they would rub on to their skin to keep it moisturized and wrinkle free. People today are still using these methods! Come on, everyone marvels at the feel of silky smooth flesh…

Darkening the eyes of women, for a seductive gaze, was also popular. The gals would use soot to color the lids of their eyes, and their lashes. Underneath their eyes they would color dark green.

There are references in the Bible of women using makeup to paint their faces as well, so we know that women in the Holy land also adopted these methods. Wearing eye makeup supposedly would ward off evil spirits and improve eyesight.

In Roman times, while they still used kohl to darken the lids and lashes of the eye, they also used chalk to whiten the complexion and rouge on the cheeks and lips. White lead was also popular for lightening the face. The Persians used henna to dye both the skin and hair.

During the Middle Ages, having a lighter complexion was a sign of wealth and status. Why? Because the peasants were outside working all day, developing a tan, while the upper classes were able to sit inside at their leisure, or under a shady tree. Needless to say, women used makeup to lighten their skin. Some even went so far as to bleed themselves to achieve the light pallor. Wearing pink lipstick was also popular, as it is today.

There is a story during the late 17th and early 18th century, that an Italian woman created a white powder for the face, which was called Aqua Toffana, or sold as “Manna di San Nicola.” Unfortunately, the makeup was made of arsenic…but on purpose. You see this makeup was sold under the guise of a cosmetic when in fact it was made and sold to women who wished their husbands dead. Over 600 hundred men died, most likely from kissing the faces of their wives. Toffana was executed after the Roman authorities forced their way into the church where she’d sought sanctuary from the charges held against her.

During Elizabethan England women wore egg whites on their faces for a lovely glazed look. Yikes! I wouldn’t want to look like a doughnut! Heavy white makeup was popular, as was ruby red lips. Looking pure was popular, hence the light skin, light hair, red lips and red cheeks.

Elizabeth I, on the right & Lettice Knollys, Countess of Essex and Leicester, on the left. Look how similar? You could mistake Lettice for the queen!

During Charles II’s reign in England (1660- 1685), the use of heavy makeup became popular to hide the pallor of illness, and to associate one’s self as healthy. The men would wear the makeup too; Charles II was one of those who used lots of creams and powders.
This carried through the French Revolution when red rouge and lipstick became popular as a sign of vitality and fun. The French became known as “The Painted French.”

During the Regency era, a pale face was still considered popular and so bonnets and parasols were used to keep the sun from their faces. Unfortunately deadly whiteners, made of lead, arsenic and mercury were used too and could cause hair loss, stomach aches, shaking and eventual death.

There is a story of a famous courtesan, Catherine "Kitty" Maria Fisher who died in 1767 from overuse of the whitener. After being known for her numerous affairs and even having a nursery rhyme sung after her, Kitty married a John Norris, a respectable man. They were only married four months before she passed.

The nursery rhyme goes:

Lucy Locket lost her pocket
Kitty Fisher found it
Not a penny was there in it
Just a ribbon’ round it

Lucy was a prostitute and her pocket was both her poor lover and her purse where she kept her pay. Kitty reportedly took up with the man even though he had no money.

Dandies during the Regency era also wore cosmetic creams, scents, powders and pastes, even rouging their cheeks. Because of this wearing makeup among manly men was pooh-poohed.

During the Victorian era makeup was disliked and associated with courtesans, prostitutes and actresses. Women did use home-made face washes, masks and creams. Lipstick was only used by lower class women, and ladies of the upper class would use a sheer pomade to give the lips a shine. Some would discreetly add a tinge of color to pinken their lips slightly. Natural products were used instead of the deadly ones. Rice powder, oatmeal, rose water, honey, egg whites, beet juice, and lemon juice among the ingredients.


Gold has been very popular for making jewelry at least since Egyptian times. Why? Several reasons. Gold is rare, doesn’t tarnish and is easily manipulated to take on new shapes, either by melting or heating it to bend.

The Egyptians also used colored stones, glass, and enamels to decorate the gold. By Roman times, sapphires, emeralds, garnets, diamonds, and amber were in use.

The wearing of jewelry became so popular amongst all classes of people that during the Middle Ages, sumptuary laws were passed to ban the lower classes from wearing jewelry. In France, a royal ordinance in 1283 states that no bourgeois or bourgeoisie were allowed to wear girdles (belt) that were made of gold, silver or adorned with pearls, and gemstones. In England, the laws were very similar.

Precious stones were kept by many. Some of the lower classes and middle classes would keep the stones against future needs, like savings. The upper classes when they weren’t flaunting them on their persons would save them for more jewelry, plate or give them away as gifts during weddings and New Years. Of course they also kept some for sentimental value as we still do today.

The wearing of jewelry is much like we do today also. Some worn on day to day occasions and some that are kept for special days and celebrations.

Crown jewels have always been important to any empire. (More on crown jewels 8/25/08.)

Fake jewelry became popular during the Middle Ages as well and was often used for children, funeral proceedings and sometimes intently, just as it is today. The Italians were especially good at creating the fake jewels to look real.

During the 17th century jewelry became more a part of ones costume, and women often had earrings, made from pastes, to match each of their outfits during the day. At night, precious gems and stones were used. Stomachers on gowns were often decorated with the jewels as well. Sometimes even sleeves and skirts might be adorned with jewels and brooches here and there. Pearls were very popular especially on clothing. In Paris a man named Jacques developed a method to make very realistic looking pearls by coating blown glass hollow balls with iridescent fish scales and varnish. He would fill the balls with wax to strengthen them.

The cameo became hugely popular during this time, and with the widely easy making of steel, and glass and porcelain they were made in abundance. By Victorian times, machine made jewelry was being made quite a bit. Some Victorian women rebelled against these pieces preferring the hand crafted. Jewelry by this time was also being seen as more romantic.


Glove making goes back to caveman times where they would make mitts to cover their hands from the cold. The crude mittens grew from oddly shaped constructions to the fingered creations they are today. Many see glove making as an art.

Made of leather, fabric and metal they take all sorts of shapes and forms. The glove that a horse master wears was infinitely different to the delicately embroidered glove of a lady. The leather glove of a gardener is different from the sleek leather of a gentleman. Three-fingered gloves would be worn by field hands and shepherds or even a falconer. Five fingered gloves were worn mostly by people of the church, nobles and royals.

Homer mentions in his book The Odyssey the Laertes is wearing gloves to protect himself from the brambles.

Besides being used as protection from cold weather, thorny bushes, or being used as part of armor or simply a fashion statement, gloves hold many symbols too.

In Regency times if a woman were to slowly peel away her glove, it would be like a striptease! In medieval times if a man threw his gauntlet, it meant a duel to the death. Same thing in Regency times, if a man slapped another man with his glove, a fight was inevitable.

It was during the 13th century that lady’s began to wear gloves as a fashion statement. They were made of silk, furs, leather and linens, and reached from wrist to even elbows. Some were adorned with jewels and pearls, or embroidered with gold, silver and corded silks. There were even sumptuary laws during some times and places! Samite (a heavy silk, sometimes interwoven with gold) gloves were banned in 1294 in Bologna, and in 1560 perfumed gloves were banned in Rome.


Gerri said...

It was all interesting as usual, Michelle, but I thought the Aqua Toffana story was really interesting. :D

Anne Carrole said...

Great post. Was the reason they went to more natural ingredients for make-up because they realized the lead-based/arsenic-based compounds were killing them or was it just the fad to go natural? Fascinating stuff!

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you Gerri! I thought it was pretty interesting too :)

Thank you for your comment Anne Carrole, I think it was a combination of both.

Anonymous said...

Michelle, what a interesting subject. It left me quite intrigued. Thanks for sharing!

Eliza Knight said...


I'm so glad you liked it :)

Chicks of Characterization said...

Interesting as always Michelle! I so love my cameo's!!! Thanks for sharing!!! :O)

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you Chicks!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Awesome post Eliza which is why I passed on the Excellent Blog award to you for History Undressed.

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you Elizabeth! I didn't even know there was such an award :) I'm honored!

Bearded Lady said...

Hi Eliza, great post! I love your blog and reallt appreciate all this great research. It's a big help for me because I write nonfiction for kids and kids are always fascinated by how people lived in the Middle ages.

A few little tidbits to add that I always use to gross out the 7 year olds...

Urine was used to give women that extra bit of glow (puppy urine was especially coveted in Louis XIV’s court). Ironically, we still sort of use this ingredient in today’s skin products. Many contain urea to soften skin. Euuuuu makes you think twice about modern cosmetics.

Egyptian makeup – Cleopatra was no dummy when she bathed in donkey’s milk. New research shows that Donkey’s milk contains oligosaccharides which increase the number of good bacteria and has anti-aging properties.

And the eye makeup that Egyptians used was not just for looks. Copper ore, galena, and carbon (used in Egyptian eye make up) are antiseptics which protect against germs.

Scarlet said...

Hi, I know this is an old post but I've only recently discovered your blog. Your Tudor rellies pix are misidentified. That's Elizabeth in her Rainbow Portrait on the left, & her cousin Lettice Knollys on the right. Just FYI b/c I am a font of useless info like that ;)

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Frederico said...

There were some serious health hazards and big risks that people took during the Elizabethan era in the name of beauty.