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:


“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.