Beauty Through the Ages: French Revolution

Welcome to the third installation in my “Beauty Through the Ages” series! In this part, we’re going to be looking at one of the greatest era’s for hair and makeup – the French Revolution.

Oh, and in case you want to catch up, you can click to read the first and second instalments!

French Polish

Mid-18th century France was a great time to play with colour and makeup. Makeup was all about status and being seen to be a-la-mode, especially in France, which was the focal point of fashion and the centre from which all of Europe took its aesthetic cue.

This was a jarring change from the medieval era, and both men and women enjoyed using cosmetics heavily. The ‘no- makeup-makeup look’ wasn’t in vogue anymore – visible makeup was in.

Painting your face was very much a part of daily life at court. White lead paint was used to cover the entire face and neck and give the illusion of extremely fair skin. These ‘foundations’ were extremely toxic and didn’t do their skin or body any good. So, the more you used, the more you had to use. Incredulously, people used it even though the effects of lead poisoning were pretty well known. Several English socialites actually died from lead poisoning this way (Jane, 2018). To heighten the effect of pale skin, many women also painted on blue veins onto their neck and chest. Eyebrows were painted on or darkened with lead, kohl or soot. If someone had more sparse brows, they had the option of sticking on false eye-brows made of mouse skin.

The flamboyant style in which the blush was applied was intended to distinguish the aristocracy from the middle classes. This could range from a large swathe of red from the eyes down to the mouth, to neat red circles in the middle of the cheeks. In fact, Madame Pompadour, the long standing mistress of Louis XV, was famously portrayed with heavily rouged cheeks – and the colour became so associated with her in the public consciousness, that a certain shade of deep pink became known as ‘Pompadour Pink’. Unfortunately, some of the most popular recipes for rouge were also highly toxic, often causing mercury poisoning.

Beauty patches were also very popular during this era. They were made of silk, velvet, or taffeta. Due to their dark colour, beauty patches heightened the contrast with artificially whitened skin, and were also very useful in covering up particularly noticeable smallpox scars. In fact, beauty patches developed a whole language of their own. At the French court, for instance, a beauty patch at the corner of the eye signified passion; one on the forehead was supposed to look majestic; and a patch on a dimple was considered playful. These beauty patches could sometimes signify political allegiance as well (Jane, 2018).

The trend of ‘painting your face’ became such an integral part of everyone’s daily routine, that aristocratic women often had a public ‘toilette’, an informal ceremony where they applied their cosmetics in front of an audience. Nowadays… we call them makeup tutorials.

This stuck in France, but eventually people in other countries became repulsed by the use of excessive makeup use and said that ‘the painted French must be unattractive because they obviously had something to hide’. After the French Revolution, the repulsion of the masses towards the excesses of the French Royal Court actually made use of makeup uncommon for a period time (A brief history of cosmetics 2: Dark Ages to mid-20th century, n.d.). Moreover, following this, the Victorian Era was next where Queen Victoria had publicly turned her nose up at the use of cosmetics, and the trend of the natural makeup look was back, yet again.

Hair-way to Heaven

Much like their makeup, the mid-18th century Frenchmen and Frenchwomen loved the opulent, artificial look when it came to their hairstyles too.

It was an age of elegance. Never in European history do we see men and women so elaborately artificial, so far removed from their natural appearance. What could not be done with the natural hair was made with wigs. This epoch was an extravagant explosion of amazing hairstyles, a reaction completely opposed to the modesty and shyness of former centuries (The Hair at the Eighteenth Century, n.d.).

These hairstyles were done in the popular ‘Rococo’ style of the time, where the hairdo formed an elegant ’S’ curve, along with some asymmetries to add in contrast. This gave the impression of the wearer being a rather artistic individual, and added elements of dynamism and brilliance.

Hairdo’s had started to rise higher and higher, and this led to the extensive use of wire constructions and hair pieces. In fact, the higher your hair, the better.

At first, this wasn’t an issue as such because social norms dictated women to keep their long locks, but as the length rose, wigs were in demand. Powder also appears to have been used sparingly by ladies at first, but with increasing frequency after 1750. No surprise if you consider that hairdos mostly consisted of natural hair, the length, fineness and shininess of which they wanted to show off. When hair-pieces entered the picture, powder was a good way of covering up the differences in colour. The ideal lady of the 18th century had hair that was black, brown, or blond, particularly fashionable during Marie-Antoinette’s reign; strong red hair was unfashionable and generally would be dyed a different colour, although chestnut and strawberry blond were popular. Moreover, hair was often of wavy or curly texture (Women’s Hairstyles & Cosmetics of the 18th Century: France & England, 1750-1790, n.d.).

In terms of men’s hairstyles, they often turned to wigs as well. Their tendency to start losing hair earlier than ladies prevented them from wearing and styling fashionable hairdo’s. These wigs were often brushed back hair, with maybe a pigtail at the end wrapped in black fabric, followed by two to four rolls above the ears. Men’s fashion at the time did dictate an upward tendency but that trend soon died out, and their hair length, whether they wore wigs or their natural locks, remained pretty much the same.

Again, hair gave the people an inkling of the wearer’s social class. The higher and more elaborate your hair, the higher your social standing. Interestingly, this is the time when the concept of ‘nouveau-riche’ came along, and in contrast, the noble women with old money wore slightly sober and elegant hairstyles, though they were still very elaborate.

At the end of the century, artistic and cultural styles changed; it appeared the “neo-classic” style, much more sober and conservative, with a return to the classic Greek and Roman aesthetic during the Romantic Age. Big hair eventually had its moment again in the 70’s and 80’s, and again, that trend died out around the 90’s. Perhaps, the first people who stopped to use the old style of powdered wigs and much elaborated hairstyles, were, paradoxically, the same aristocrats who formerly started to spread around that fashion. Because of the fear of being recognised, and, further imprisoned and guillotined during the Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, they went out of their houses with plain and simple clothes, and with natural haircuts; with no wigs, short hair, not covered, and, as too much, wearing coiffures of neo-classic style (The Hair at the Eighteenth Century, n.d.).

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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Posted by

Makeup geek, writer, and musician from New Delhi, India. Pretty much in a constant mood of casual existential despair, but hey, I’m trying to make the best of it x

35 thoughts on “Beauty Through the Ages: French Revolution

  1. So fascinating to read about make up and fashion trends at French court. I did know about European nobles using lead powder and sometimes even dying from poisoning but I didn’t know all the details.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, thank you so much, you made my day!
      And yes, I agree, they definitely had some rather… questionable beauty practices at the time, but it’s always so interesting to learn about them.
      Thanks for stopping by x


      1. I actually saw a great documentary last Diya about beauty during Versailles time and it was so interesting.
        I remember they said when they get older their face with all the bad products they used were pretty bad ! Haha.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m really enjoying these posts from this series! It’s so interesting to find out about makeup from different ages. It was quite interesting to read that ‘…the painted French must be unattractive because they obviously had something to hide’ reminds me of how even in today’s society some people have this misconception that makeup is used to hide our appearance! But I definitely don’t see it like that x

    Lauren |

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, I’m glad you’re enjoying this series! And I completely agree that this misconception that has continued till date- I suppose some things never change and some ideas will unfortunately always remain ingrained in our minds.
      Thanks for stopping by x


  3. It is fascinating! People are ready to sacrifice their health in the name of beauty. I guess, this aspect haven’t changed a bit since the French Revolution. Thank you so much for this post, it is super interesting, as always!

    Lots of love ♥ January Girl

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Your beauty through the ages posts are always so interesting to read! That’s so cool that they had their own kind of makeup tutorials back then. I love how extravagant everything was, although I can’t imagine putting lead paint on your face.

    x Kara |

    Liked by 1 person

  5. As always, AMAZING!
    I had no idea that there were such early beauty tutorials, that is so neat! I’m not sure how I feel about mouse-skin eyebrows though haha I have to say that the Greek trends are my favorite so far!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! While I do appreciate the ingredients that Greeks used (lead paint? thank u, next) I still love how ‘extra’ the French were!


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