A Favourite Look: 18th Century Makeup Today

Makeup is a part of a routine that dates decades for me. I used to do ballet and during performance season, we children either had to wait for one of the mums to do our makeup — praying it would be one of the mums who were good with eyeliner — or learn how to do it yourself. Ever since then, before leaving the house and joining all the other players on the stage of life, I sit down in front of a mirror and apply my makeup. It’s calming and it makes me who I am.

A lot of the looks that I had to learn to master for ballet were actually quite functional, as you had to highlight your face in a way that was distinguishable from far away — otherwise your parents might fail to spot you!

I am not telling you any of this randomly — what, you might ask, has this to do with 18th century makeup? Well, there is a correlation, as I see it. It seems to me that the practice of making up one’s face starts with the emphasis of certain parts, and it starts more importantly with being identified in a crowd.

“Queen Anne of Great Britain,” Charles Jervas.

“Queen Anne of Great Britain,” Charles Jervas.

It is no mystery that the use of cosmetics was something used by aristocratic ladies. If you were at court, amongst a huge crowd of courtiers, you would have wished to stand out. So it became important for your features to be highlighted.

The functional was not the only aspect that went into it, of course. As with many things, this was a practice that soon became cultural. While patches were applied on the face to cover marks or pox scars, the positions of these very patches soon became discreet enough to function as a method of communication for women, proclaiming everything from ‘I am available for a romp!’ to ‘this is my political allegiance.’

And once it became cultural and it spread, it of course became the object of parodies and satires. In the Rape of the Lock, Alexander Pope versified the process of a lady’s ‘toilet’ in a way that is both an insight and a commentary that verges on the bombastic.

And now, unveil'd, the toilet stands display'd,

Each silver vase in mystic order laid.

First, rob'd in white, the nymph intent adores

With head uncover'd, the cosmetic pow'rs.

A heav'nly image in the glass appears,

To that she bends, to that her eyes she rears;

Th' inferior priestess, at her altar's side,

Trembling, begins the sacred rites of pride.

Unnumber'd treasures ope at once, and here

The various off'rings of the world appear;

From each she nicely culls with curious toil,

And decks the goddess with the glitt'ring spoil.

This casket India's glowing gems unlocks,

And all Arabia breathes from yonder box.

The tortoise here and elephant unite,

Transform'd to combs, the speckled and the white.

Here files of pins extend their shining rows,

Puffs, powders, patches, bibles, billet-doux.

Now awful beauty puts on all its arms;

The fair each moment rises in her charms,

Repairs her smiles, awakens ev'ry grace,

And calls forth all the wonders of her face;

Sees by degrees a purer blush arise,

And keener lightnings quicken in her eyes. ”

The picture painted here is incredibly detailed. The mention of faraway places points towards the development of commerce, for example. And we know that where there is money and trade involved, then things get serious enough that monster in (you cannot see me, but I am rolling my eyes here). One of the effects of makeup becoming important in the economic life of 18th century England meant that a road towards affordability would have been paved though an increasing demand. And, oh dear, what if women that are not aristocratic started to look like ladies? Oh merciful God save us!

But this is what happened. Tita Chico explains in her book Designing Women: The Dressing Room in Eighteenth-century English Literature that ‘cosmetic adornment in the seventeenth and eighteenth century was often perceived to threaten social order’ (109). Men back then, similarly to men of today, were terrified by the idea of women hiding something (see the discourse, ‘if you’re dumb enough to think my lids are naturally golden, that’s on you buddy!’).

That does not mean that makeup was not — and is not — also connected to stereotypes of how a woman should look. I for one like the idea of men being threatened by makeup — always have, always will. And as with many issues, there is no point in trying to reduce it to something simplistic: makeup can be revolutionary and a form of self-creation, makeup can be messed up and toxic. It’s up to us to negotiate this balance.

“Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough,” Sir Godfrey Kneller.

“Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough,” Sir Godfrey Kneller.

What I like about the aesthetic of this period is that it actually shows something simple but effective. The main products would have been a rouge for the cheeks and lips and then a powder (which could have been used on hair too at a later time). When I look at the painting of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough by Sir Godfrey Kneller, the vibe I get is seductive, sophisticated and almost pastoral, like a shepherdess from a poem, with apples on her cheeks. It is distinguished and highlighted even more by the fact that red basically becomes the only colour in an otherwise symphony of blacks and whites. I like it because to me it’s a balance between the natural and the dramatic.

Today I would probably not use too much powder, I would keep things a bit more glowy. I would definitely go strong on the blush — it is also a trend that seems to be picking up again. And a defined arch of the eyebrows. Apparently, back then, some people used to shave them completely and then applied perfectly groomed false ones… made of mouse hair! EW! Definitely would not do that, do not recommend!

The way I would do it, it would look a little bit like… this!


This is my interpretation of an 18th century makeup look, and a shameless attempt at imitating the poise and elegance of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. Did I succeed? I guess I’ll let you decide if I am your Favourite.

Rory Mara is Beauty Editor at The Attic of Eighth. She loves the ballet, books, beheadings, and alliteration.