Welcome to the second installation in my “Beauty Through the Ages” series! In this part, we’re going to be looking at one of my favourite historical era’s -the Medieval Era.
In case you want to catch up, you can read the first instalment here!
The Medieval era is one where there was little to no experimentation with obvious makeup, and so, it turned out to be one of the worst centuries for makeup yet.
Early Christian writers had created a strong link between makeup and deception, and this was extremely hard to shake. The church was a powerful political as well as cultural influence and religious opposition to use of cosmetics was significant. Biblical references to ‘vanity’ and ‘harlotry’ frequently included descriptions of painted faces on women. Use of cosmetics and loose morals soon became synonymous (A brief history of cosmetics 2: Dark Ages to mid-20th century, n.d.). Moreover, in this era where disease was rampant, many turned to God and religion to ‘save’ them and thus, this thought was further cemented into people’s minds.
To take this a step further, there were laws against the use and purchase of makeup too! There were laws written to intimidate women into not wearing any makeup, as the church and state considered it a form of trickery or fraud to men or husbands, a misinterpretation of what you actually looked like- and therefore a crime. Thus, women were so scared of being imprisoned or killed for witchcraft because of this that the use of any cosmetic aids diminished tremendously during this time (Hernandez, 2011).
This had a flip side too, though. The clergy made exceptions for women afflicted with illnesses to wear makeup – so that they won’t repel their husbands. This was deemed an appropriate reason for cosmetic enhancement. But, these women had to tread a fine line – she should make herself as attractive as possible for her husband, but not so attractive that she caught other men’s attention.
So, ethereal was in, and women experimented with homemade recipes and concoctions to help achieve a flawless, luminous, glistening and unblemished skin. No mean feat in an era when disease and bad hygiene were so prevalent. Any colour that was added to the face needed to be natural and undetectable (Elridge, 2015). Clear skin was held in particular high esteem because frequent smallpox epidemics left many of the population with unattractive marks across their face and body (A brief history of cosmetics 2: Dark Ages to mid-20th century, n.d.). Moreover, any freckles, moles or marks on the skin were perceived as signs of being a witch because ‘the devil had marked them’, so home remedies were commonly used to try and get rid of them.
Again, pale skin was highly valued as seen with previous era’s, due to its positive connotation with regards to one’s job and social status. Women continued to try and whiten their faces with items like wheat flour or lead based paints, which ended up being extremely harmful for them. To look even paler, they often drew on fake veins with blue ink onto their necks as well.
Women in the 1400s also wanted to have high foreheads and an egg-shaped face, with small nose and lips. They saw this as resembling a child, innocent and pure (Hernandez, 2011). So, they resorted to completely tweezing off their eyebrows and shaving their hairline quite a few inches back. This constant tweezing often left their hairlines and brows extremely sparse, and they hardly ever grew back.
This era is the prime example of the church and state intersecting, and the impact it and level of censorship it had over something like makeup, which was earlier seen as essential to a woman’s face and her being. There were actual legal ramifications over the purchase and use of makeup, and it was unprecedented till this era. The influence of God and religion on cosmetics was one we probably never thought of- but women quite literally went through extreme pain and almost killed themselves to still put on their paint and fit into the tiny box of beauty standards that existed during this era.
Since the lines between the church and the state were blurred during the medieval era, makeup had been banned since Biblical references to ‘vanity’ and ‘harlotry’ frequently included descriptions of painted faces on women, and the use of cosmetics and loose morals had became synonymous in the minds of the people. There was only so much a lady could do without being caught out in public, and the use of cosmetics were kept to a minimum.
So, women were left to experiment with their hair. Unfortunately, even that was looked down upon by the church. The general opinion during this time was – the less hair on display, the better.
So, during this era it was difficult to imagine a person without headwear. Excluding the children, it was compulsory to wear head pieces whether they were men or women belonging to any and all ages. At that time headgear wasn’t only used as a decorative piece, but it also played a part in defining people’s etiquettes and elegance (Patzer, 2011). Persons of a higher rank and social class could be distinguished by their long hair, while commoners wore theirs short. Servants heads were completely shaven. It was customary for the noble and free classes to swear by their hair, and it was considered the height of politeness to pull out a hair and present it to a person.
The degradation of kings and princes was also carried out in a public manner by shaving their heads and sending them into a monastery; on them regaining their rights and their authority their hair was allowed to grow again (Medieval Hairstyles, n.d.). This practice showcases the level of importance that was placed on people’s hair at the time.
Many hairstyles also went through a gradual rise and fall in popularity over the years during this era. At first, hair was first long and flowing and clearly visible. There were no restrictions or any censorship. Long plaits then came into fashion, which was then followed by hair being hidden from view under the style of headdress called a wimple. A covered head was the norm for a long time, hairstyles then changed and coiled buns were displayed on each side of the head. At the end of this era, wearing bonnets was in fashion, and smooth hair parted in the middle was on display on the front of the head, above the forehead – the remaining hair was hidden by the cloth (Patzer, 2011).
Women also liked to play around with hair extensions at the beginning of this era, but eventually, the church had an issue with that as well. The clergy tried to discourage the wearing of false hair by women by denouncing it as the sin of vanity. In fact, Gilles d’Orleans, a preacher from Paris in the 13th century reminded his parishioners that the wigs they wore were likely to be made from the shorn heads of those now suffering in hell or purgatory (Newton, 2002).
Hygiene in this era wasn’t a great concern, and disease was prevalent. Among the lower classes, hair wasn’t washed often and lice were common. The head coverings thus worked in their favour by covering up what was going on underneath it. And again, as is the case with skin, light hair was preferred. Women and men would bleach their hair with strong soap to lighten it and use cover their strands in vinegar and sit out in the sun to lighten it.
This era showcases not only the censorship over hair through religion, but also the importance a full head of hair would carry for a person. The fact that a single strand of hair held extreme importance at this time pushes it beyond just the idea of vanity – it’s something that’s truly a piece of you and quite literally the crowning glory for many royals.
So, what are your thoughts on the trends of this time? Was there anything you were shocked to learn about? Let me know in the comments below!
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