A 55-Year-Old Man With A Long History Of Poorly Controlled History of Skincare Part 13: The Elizabethan Era, 1500-1599

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History of Skincare Part 13: The Elizabethan Era, 1500-1599

northern renaissance

It took almost a hundred years for the Italian Renaissance to catch up with the British Isles, but when it did, the results were astonishing. Under Queen Elizabeth I, England began to seek expansion, establishing new colonies around the world. Most of India, Africa, and North America were established under British rule. While the merits of British colonialism may be debatable, there is no doubt that the Elizabethan era represented an expansion of ideas as well as an expansion of political power. Legendary playwrights and poets such as Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare drew from the same classical material that inspired Italians a century earlier. Costumes became more elaborate, and makeup quickly followed. However, hygiene and skincare are often sidelined in an age where looks are more important than health.

Elizabethan style

During this period, Queen Elizabeth’s looks ruled the hearts and minds of British women. While clothing became increasingly structured throughout the later Middle Ages, Elizabeth took this sense of structure to new heights. Wear with a corset for a sleek, defined body. While the proper hoop skirt hadn’t been invented, women tied large pads around the hips and pulled the skirt out to form a wide oval hoop. A starched ruffle wraps around the neck, and the hair is often pinned into an elaborate updo. However, despite their extremely ornate costumes, the face was still the focal point of the appearance, and cosmetics were more important than in medieval England.

Queen Elizabeth is often credited with being the first person of her day to wear full makeup. However, while she may have been the first, British aristocratic women soon followed suit. Women would paint their faces with a white powder called Venetian crayon. The best waxes are made from lead, carbonates, and hydroxides. Cheaper alternatives are made from talcum powder or hard-boiled eggs, although these are considered less effective. Once the face is heavily powdered, women apply a red pigment called fucus on their cheeks and cinnabar on their lips. During this time, sun-dried cinnabar and ground plaster were placed in a pen-like device to create the first lipsticks. (Go here to learn more about the process of making Elizabeth’s lipstick: http://www.cosmetic-business.com/en/showartikel.php?art_id=1409) To add radiance to their makeup, women would paint on their faces , cosmetics and all, in a layer of egg white.

big cover up

In the Elizabethan era, sophisticated makeup was considered a sign of nobility, as few commoners could afford the lead powder and dry cinnabar used to create popular looks. However, as the century passed, cosmetics also began to be associated with disease. Poor sanitation led to severe plague and smallpox outbreaks, and many survivors still bear horrific scars and pockmarks on their faces. While disease was rampant among rich and poor alike, only the rich were able to cover their scars with expensive cosmetics. Strengthening the link between makeup and poor health, doctors at this time began to discover that lead powder was not as safe as previously believed. Women rarely washed their faces, opting instead to layer new powder over old powder, a treatment that was found to turn the skin a dull gray over the years. While many physicians recommend switching to alum or tin ash, lead is more popular.

Many women have not washed powder off their face for a long time. However, when they did try to remove their makeup, they found that the thick, caked-on lead couldn’t be easily removed with just water. To remove layers of makeup, they turn to a combination of skincare science and superstition, washing their faces with everything from mild rain or donkey’s milk to harsher red wine or urine. Mercury is also one of the common skin care products used to treat acne, wrinkles, scars and discoloration. While it does effectively remove these blemishes, it does so by eroding the skin’s surface, and often creates scars that are worse than the ones it removes. (Go here to learn more about Elizabethan makeup and hygiene: http://www.fragrancex.com/fragrance-information/elizabethan-makeup.aspx)

Despite the health concerns of the time, Elizabethan women were known for their excessive grooming and makeup habits. Yet it was these excesses that sparked the Puritan revolt in the following century and saw Oliver Cromwell take control of the English throne.

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