Cosmetic Rituals of Eras Past

During my undergrad I took a chemistry class in which my final report was on mercury (Hg, atomic number 80), also known as “quicksilver”. Mercury nitrate was used in felt hat-making in the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries (a process called “carroting”) and the liquid and vapors of this process were highly toxic. Additionally, toxicity could leach out of the hat fabric while the hat-wearer sweated and inspired the phrase “mad as a hatter” (also inspiring Lewis Carroll) after the detrimental neurological effects that resulted. This leads me to examine some of the harmful chemicals of cosmetics of past eras.

Georgian, Baroque and Elizabethan wigs and hairstyles never ceased to amaze me in their decadent over-the-top-ness. That hair fetishism has inspired me and my artwork, drawing piles of winding tendrils, on a few occasions.

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Wigs remained fashionable for quite awhile and by the 18th century they reached new heights and became elaborate. Royalty were known for their ornate up-do’s (just like Marie Antoinette) and to hold these high wigs in place they would often employ the use of (gag) lard. And to make it even more un-worth it, the lard would often attract insects and rodents. Cages were sometimes set over the wigs at night to keep mice and rats away. Pretty gross… and this post isn’t even going to touch upon the extreme bodice/bustier contraptions women were supposed to suck themselves into.

During the Elizabethan period when red hair was all the rage, women of the day resorted to cocktails of color that involved lead, quicklime, sulfer and water to dye their hair and wigs. The combination of these elements often resulted in headaches, nausea, and nosebleeds. As a fake redhead myself, I know the color is to die for…but not…literally.

Another “in” look was paleness. The more dark and suntanned a person was the more lower on the class totem pole they were apt to be, toiling in the fields and what not. Paleness signaled luxury from the 15th to the 17th centuries. And while diseases like smallpox were rampant causing unhealthy complexions, stylists of the day recommended such beauty solutions as (gasp) powdering oneself with white lead, which was poisonous. Yikes. I’ve also read online somewhere that in the early centuries women would bleed themselves in order to attain an attractive level of “palety”. Double yikes.

I’ve taken painting classes where the instructors encouraged us NOT to touch such colors as Cadmium Red because of its high toxicity level. I’m not entirely convinced that in these early eras that even toxicity and poisoning would have deterred a woman who is preoccupied with how they look. After all, status and “marrying well” was the be-all, end-all in the female purpose category and looks were held above education, unfortunately. Makeup-less health or security in marriage? I can’t imagine that life and choices were ever easy for women back then.

Metal-poisoned makeup dates back to ancient Egypt, though. Both sexes sported Kohl-lined eyes, Kohl being a mixture of soot and galena, a type of dark lead) along with copper ore. Long-term lead exposure can lead to seizures, coma, and death. And if you wanted really red lips one would need to crush ants and beetles, and add some beeswax. OR, worse, one could mix together red clay, iron oxide (rust), seaweed, iodine, henna, and the deadly bromine mannite, which is uber-deadly and could kill the kisser and the kissee alike. Perhaps the daily use of these deadly cosmetics contributed significantly to abbreviated lifespans. (Ya think?)

So what is a Renaissance girl (or guy) to do about that unwanted hair? Well, apparently, before razors and Nair, homemade concoctions involving quicklime and arsenic would burn the hair off when applied to the skin. And to bring in a little later-period cosmetic-ry, in the 1940’s when resources were scarce due to war, women would sometimes resort to sandpapering the hair off of their bodies.

Damn, beautification hurts.


Read more on cosmetic history here:

And read more in-depth about the hairstyle evolution here:


Steampunk Out That Royal Wedding

The Royal Wedding is coming up and I couldn’t be more oblivious or uninterested. HOWEVER, before you Englophiles out there scream “rubbish!” and toss a hot cup of Earl Gray in my face, I want to express that if the wedding had a steampunk theme I would be all over it. This sexy and cerebral aesthetic can be seen in the costuming of the relatively recent Sherlock Holmes movie (and I secretly wished The King’s Speech would have taken creative license with it). So, imaginarily consulted as the royal wedding planner, I present to you my picks to refashion that boring ceremony into something truly DRAMATIC and COOL. Westminster Abbey wouldn’t know what hit it.

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Hello? London Calling.
According to our friend, Wikipedia, Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction, alternate history, and speculative fiction that came into prominence during the 1980s and early 1990s. Specifically, steampunk involves an era or world where steam power is still widely used—usually the 19th century and often Victorian era Britain—that incorporates prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy. Works of steampunk often feature anachronistic technology or futuristic innovations as Victorians may have envisioned them; in other words, based on a Victorian perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style, art, etc. This technology may include such fictional machines as those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne or real technologies like the computer but developed earlier in an alternate history.

I love the look so much that I created a drawing last year inspired by this style.

The Springheeled Piper (2010) by Sarah McNabb

 Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for the royal couple and hope they have a long and happy marriage, but being an American overwhelmed with the amount of unnecessary attention and power that ridiculous celebutants here get, I’m not about to export my attention to Britain unless they do something utterly different and noteworthy…something UNstuffy – like hire Brit punk UFC fighter Dan Hardy to be the bouncer, or have David Gilmour or The Clash sing at the reception. This is a wedding for the history books and if I were in charge of it, I’d want it to STAND OUT.

God save the Queen, pip-pip cheerio, Bob’s your uncle, etc.

Additional Interesting Steampunk Sites:
The Steampunk Workshop
The Steampunk Home

Clockwork Couture

Image Credits:
Hair accessory
Groom’s vest
Cuff Links



“Andro-” means “man”, and “gyn-“refers to “woman”.

Androgyny is that velvety soft genre coloring societal fringes. It’s naughty and fun. It wears ties and g-strings, it sports shaved heads and wigs and moves across the room holding out its perfumed wrist. Those with staunch Victorian sensibilities shake their heads and huff aloud. Androgyny just laughs a bold laugh and knocks back a flute of champagne. Firmly rooted in history, it continues to possess many art forms of note.

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A popular fashion strategy in fashion, music, movies and even literature today, androgynous figures were quite visible in classical paintings.

According to Jill Burke, lecturer in Renaissance Art History at the University of Edinburgh: “An explanation that people often given for the Michelangelo men-with-breasts phenomenon – which we should properly call the aesthetic of androgyny – is that they couldn’t get female nude models in the Renaissance, so artists just juxtaposed the head and breasts of women on men’s bodies. Because of stringent controls over female modesty, the idea goes, it was inappropriate for women to get undressed in front of men. In fact, this is the explanation given in Gill Saunders 1989 book, The Nude: A New Perspective– ‘female nudes in the painting and sculpture of the [renaissance] period were derived from male models … so they appear unconvincing”. Now, this is both right and wrong. It’s true of course that for many women, especially women from the upper classes, there was strict control over their dress and comportment in the Renaissance. It’s also true that many of the female figures in renaissance paintings were based on male models – this is common practice, and goes well beyond Michelangelo. There were more men available around a painter’s workshop after all. ”

We can see in modern times the multiple venues of success of the androgynous figure. The characters are interesting provocateurs antagonizing traditional thought. The casting of actress Tilda Swinton as the angel Gabriel in Constantine was brilliant; she looks JUST LIKE a remediation of the Renaissance portrayal of Gabriel. Tim Curry’s lingeried character, Dr. Frankenfurter from Rocky Horror Picture Show sees a cult following and the King-Queen of 1970’s androgynous recording artist – David Bowie, (Space Oddity is actually my phone ringtone) set a very high standard for those who followed.

An interesting observation is that in Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson chose to portray Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) as an androgynous character. This could be dissected in a few ways: either his personal homophobical nervousness was showing or he wanted Satan to be more of an “it”…and if that is the case then it opens a Pandora’s box of questions on the precise “sex” of God. Even the angels were portrayed as being androgynous, so it is a state of being that illicits further questioning.

Androgyny doesn’t seem as fixated on the sexuality “answer” as it does on posing “the imaginative question” – the one opposing the status quo, making many nervous.  And from a philosophical (and maybe even pedagogical) point of view, I really love that.

My Mission: Hunting Down the Perfect Trench Coat

Spring in Chicago means trench coats, the cutesy tie-the-belt khaki kind. But it is COLD and my little H&M number isn’t cutting it. For years I have been on the lookout for the perfect cold weather military trench coat, and though I’ve freely admitted I’m no fashionista, even I have rules when it comes to hunting down the elusive perfection of my fantasy trench, my version of wearable art:

1. It can’t be too feminine – no ruffles, no odd bias cuts. I want a classic “I mean business” look where the sexiness lies in the seriousness.

Too frou-frou.

2. It can’t be too goth – no chains, hardware, extraneous pieces of leather for God knows what. Went through that phase in the 90s.

Too emo.

3. It can’t be ultramodern cyber goth, either. I was Trinity from the movie The Matrix for Halloween one year. I can’t in good conscience wear that on the street. And no black. It emphasizes goth-i-ness.

Too costumey.

4. It can’t be outrageously expensive. Again, “I don’t want to pay alot for this muffler.” 

£3,500 ($5742) - Burberry. Ugly AND expensive.

5. Go easy on the WWII – It can’t be over-the-top military or overtly steampunk. I don’t want to actually look like I’m on a recon mission or that I’ll pull out a Glock at any moment.

Say "Eastern Front" without saying a word.

6. I dig the high collar, but not in leather. Looks great on the guys in Brotherhood of the Wolf, not so great on a 5’4″ midwestern woman.

Too French Revolution-y.

7. Go easy on the rivets – I don’t want the coat to be over-peppered with them. Like a leather sofa in a fancy parlor.

Looks like a bullet-proof coat that was shot up with a tommy gun.

So yesterday I found the right balance of military chic (yay!)…
And it was on clearance (yay!)…

This bowl of porridge was just right.

At K-Mart (oh no… I don’t want Burberry but I don’t want crap, either)…
For $7.99 (get the hell outta here! Too good to be true. Polyvore listed it at $50 at K-Mart.)
So I went to add it to my online cart, and COULD NOT: the site says there was an “error” and to “try again later” (alas, it wasn’t meant to be.)

I Tweeted my disdain to K-Mart for their technological faux pas. Deal teases. If it was out of stock, SAY SO, don’t give me false hope.

Sigh…so back in the trenches I go…I know this coat exists in some realm…my hunt continues.

Strike A Pose, There’s Nothing To It…


[I am actually doing the arm movements to Madonna’s song “Vogue” here. Stop laughing. Please, I’m very sensitive.]

On a recent visit to the bankrupt Borders store on Chicago’s North Avenue I won the liquidation lottery; I found these four postcards, which were originally marked $1.25 for…(omg)… $0.17 each! I know, big deal, right? But it is those rare little art-victories that sweeten life. Believe me, I go through life with the “not paying alot for this muffler” mentality when it calls for it. As I sit back in my Winston chair and arch my fingers like Mr. Burns from the Simpsons, I secretly plot to descend upon Dick Blick for their Wednesday spin-the-wheel promotion. I want that damn Dick Blick t-shirt. For free. I already have the sketchbook and — (slaps self in face) — allow me to refocus.

The one thing about fashion photos of the 60’s and 70’s is that they all look like they were tinted in the hot colors that kitchens of that era were decorated in: a hue of orange or lime or yellow. Fruit-flavored taffy colors. But the core enduring style in these vintage-seque postcards, all from British Vogue, seems to rear its head (every, what, 30-years or so?) if you buy into the school of thought that fashion is cyclical. It seems to be true.

Catch the Sun Looks, May 1966 (cover) Vogue

While gorgeous and artfully shot, this model looks a bit like Uma Thurman turned Oompa Loompa, but it still is an amazing cover. 

Latin American Flamenco Ruffles, March 1968, Vogue. Dress by Gerard Pipart at Nina Ricci

I don’t know if this flamboyant traditional Latin ensemble will ever come back into fashion, but I can say that the ballet-style strappings hint at flats that have been seen on the streets the past couple of years. The bold colors are popular for spring and summer still, but hats like this? Maybe at the Kentucky Derby. Looking at this postcard makes me happy. It makes me think of the primary color bus on “The Partridge Family”. Admittedly not a fashionista myself, I had no idea that Nina Ricci was around back then.

This postcard taught me something, so, Lesson #1 – look for bits of education in the most obscure of objects.

Silver Pink, February 1966, Vogue

 This postcard is my favorite. This could have been shot today, in 2011. And that type of visual endurance demands respect. The glasses, the scarf, the hairdo, the muted colors – they all put my closet to shame. And the use of the silver crackly surface that is matted just enough to suggest reflection is brilliant. This postcard makes me want to scour eBay for a pair of those kickin’ tinted glasses.

Jerry Hall, May 1975 (cover), Vogue

The blue theme in this postcard is lovely and what imprints this little doozy in time is the obvious landline phone and the swim cap, but the photographer did an interesting thing: he created a triangle shape within this very organic photo, having her hold the line behind her head. It wasn’t just about beauty but the design of the shot. And I have to say that something isn’t right about Jerry Hall. It isn’t right that she still looks fabulous today. Is the secret to her beauty-longevity in all the fruit-flavored colors of the 70s? I don’t know.

Lesson #2 – don’t accidentally spill your coffee on vintage-esque postcards. This is what I did following this post. (Sigh)


Decorgasm? Yes, Please!

Some people you come across in life are effortlessly hip.
Some people you know may communicate purposefully.
And some could even belong to that rare tribe of industry professionals who are just …cool as hell. But I find that few people are all three. 

However, Laura is.

An Illinois senior interior designer by trade, Laura’s aptly titled blog, Decorgasm, is a culmination of an obvious love affair with several facets of style mixed with a keen and concise conveyance of what inspires a design professional.

Sharing her experiences in what inspires her and what her clients demand, Laura’s style of conversational writing is a breath of {non-pretentious} fresh air: intertwining amusing asides, practical bullet-pointed lists of observations, and reader assignments attached with invitations for photo-sharing opportunities. One specific post highlights an honest love/hate relationship with abstract art. Laura posts interior design situations where she opines on the visual conflict presented, linking and referencing publications as she goes. Laura’s colorful posts are as stylishly fun as they are informative.

We’re all in need of a good Decorgasm so I recommend checking out this blog …it is certain to satisfy.

A Chic Direction

From the Valley to the Hills: Keeping You In the Loop

I will be the first to admit that, while an artist, I lack fashion skills. I tragically wear unflattering horizontal stripes, I wear my favorite heels until the heels themselves looked like a pack of cheese graters attacked them, and I wear (gulp) tennis shoes with my work clothes when I walk to work. Tennis shoes. Nothing frumpifies an outfit quicker. And I loathe the trends: skinny jeans, Bieber hair, sparkles, heroin chic. 

I would, however, like to get more educated on fashion so I can appreciate a good seam, or hemline. And I do currently appreciate fashion illustrations – they look great on ALL body types. One site I would like to point out for artistic fashion artifacts, trends, deals and beautiful illustrations is A Chic Direction. One of the bloggers, Amelia,  is a colleague and friend and her flair and love of this art form is unmistakeable. If you’re like me and  in need of some “fashion police” tips and ideas (without the bitchy television hosts) then I highly recommend checking out A Chic Direction.