Beauty Through the Ages: Victorian Era

Welcome to the fourth and final installation in my “Beauty Through the Ages” series!

Ah, it’s been a long journey – there was an incredible amount of research and writing behind it all, but I have loved learning more and seeing all my work come to fruition. The best part, though, has been all your support – thank you all so much for sticking with me throughout!

In this last and final part, we’re going to be looking at the Victorian Era.

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

Victorian Values & Makeup

In 1837, Queen Victoria’s proclamation that makeup was vulgar and unladylike led to a huge backlash against the painted face. While there was no true “censorship” on makeup in this time period, following what was deemed acceptable in polite society was the norm. Anything other than a clean, scrubbed face was deemed to be morally dodgy and it was a major faux pas to appear to be wearing makeup (Elridge, 2015). During the French Revolution, the use of obvious make-up had already taken a backseat, save for a bit of rouge on the cheeks. Clergymen preached against “painted ladies” pointing to Jezebel and godless heathens around the world as examples of ill repute. The Church of England, along with Britain’s empire building, was determined to bring purity and modesty to women of all lands (Fleming, 2012). Makeup was no longer a way to show your social status, rather, it was a sign of purity. This was one of the major points in history where religion and makeup intersected and dictated a woman’s worth. Early Christian writers had also created a powerful connect between makeup and deception that was hard to shake, and by this point, makeup had gone from being distasteful to sinful.

Around the 1840’s, makeup was only worn by actresses and prostitutes – both which were often lumped into the same social category. They often went the extreme route, with gaudy makeup and jewellery. But, by the 1850’s, women started adopting more subtle applications of makeup. During this decade, ‘Creme Celeste’ became popular. It was a facial paste made of a mixture of white wax, spermaceti (from an organ inside sperm whale’s head), sweet almond oil, and rosewater. While this paste helped moisturise the skin, it also aided in covering blemishes and gave a lightened, smoother complexion. This little paste eventually developed into a common emollient and cosmetic remover, soon known as cold cream (Hall, 2015). Men also indulged in using these pastes as moisturisers, and topping it off with a little powder, discreetly of course – a pale complexion was desirable for both the sexes during this era.

They say necessity is the mother of invention – or, at the very least, some workaround hacks and tricks. Women who wanted to create a rosy glow could do so by using a lip balm that contained a sneaky hint of colour, or resort to pinching their cheeks or biting their lips. Other stealth tactics could be employed, such as using coloured wrapping paper which was cut into small squares and dampened to release the dyes, then rubbed onto the cheeks and lips. These, of course, could be bought by any respectable lady. The only makeup the Victorians condoned was the use of a little powder – but never in public. A pale complexion with rosy cheeks was still very much in fashion, accentuated with somewhat red lips and drawn on blue and purple veins.

Personal grooming and hygiene became a priority, and women made sure to painstakingly go through their beauty routines every single morning. This involved plucking their eyebrows, dusting on rice powder, zinc oxide or ‘pearl powder’ to hide their blemishes, darkening their lashes with burnt hair pins, applying lip and cheek tint using crushed flowers and putting a drop of lemon or orange juice in each eye to help cleanse them. Often, the poisonous Belladonna plant was also used to add a luminous glow to the eyes, but it resulted in cloudy vision (Fleming, 2012).

Buying and owning make-up was considered so scandalous that many used chests with secret compartments to store them, or transferred the products into jars of acceptable skin creams and treatments. Oftentimes, ladies also sent their servants over to the next town for make-up purchases so as to not be embarrassed. Such was the fear amongst women of both the upper and middle class alike of being found out owning face paint.
One may actually look back and claim that this era is where the no-makeup makeup look originated from, which has been quite popular recently. Past or present, the goal has remained the same: use 10-15 products and consciously apply them in such a way that makes it look like you ‘woke up like this’.

Maybe she’s born with it, maybe its Maybelline?

The Second Combing

When Queen Victoria had made it clear that the use of make-up was looked down upon in polite society, one can imagine the audible gasps that would’ve left ladies mouths. No more face paint, no more rouge. No way to stand out from the crowd or spice up your look. A middle class lady would’ve even berated to herself – all they had left to play with was a loose corset and cheap fabric!

Thankfully, women soon realised that they still had their crowning glory- their hair.

In the Victorian era, hair was considered to be a valuable asset for women. Notably, this is the time period where the connect between long hair and femininity was strengthened. Women didn’t really cut their hair, and the longer it was, the better. It was considered a beauty ideal to have long, silky hair, and this led to a lot of different hair styles being popular throughout this era- after all, there was enough hair for a lady to experiment with.
Interestingly, these long, luscious locks weren’t supposed to be worn down in public- no ‘respectable’ lady above the age of 15 or 16 would do that (Harris, 2016). Loose, flowing hair did have an interesting connotation though – it marked a period between childhood and adulthood for young women. Girls who were of marriageable age, but not engaged, would wear their hair down and without a hat or bonnet as a signal of their eligibility (Smith, 2012).

So, adult, married ladies preferred styled up-do’s – especially upper class women. Their hair style was also done keeping in mind the entire silhouette of their dresses – clean and polished called for a middle parting and a sleek bun, whereas a more elaborate outfit may have warranted lots of accessories and false pieces, usually made from human hair.

Accessorising with hats, bonnets, combs and pearls was quite common. A middle parting was preferred, and hair would usually be tied back in a neat bun, or with braids or twists. In the 1840’s, long ringlets termed ‘barley curls’ became fashionable, and this was followed by the popularisation of large wings and rolls on the sides of the head during the 1850’s. From here on up until the 1880’s, frizzy bangs, pompadours, chignons, all had their moments as well (Harris, 2016). Thus, there wasn’t exactly one ‘defined’ look that was representative of this era. But, some main, common characteristics were simple, smooth and tight up-do’s. So it comes as no surprise that the trend of having one’s hair styled by professional hair stylists arose during this era and gained popularity in a short span of time. After all, hair had to be perfectly in place, and having even one stray hair outside of your bun or plait was frowned upon.

A great contrast is the men’s hairstyles at the time. They tended to keep their hair neat and short, often dabbing it with oil. They also usually sported trimmed moustaches, beards or sideburns (Victorian Era Hairstyles for Women, n.d.). Again, it was very clean and simple.

But, throughout the 19th century, one can notice that the volume and height of hair became higher and higher, eventually culminating into the famous ‘Gibson Girl’ look which was popular in the Edwardian era. In contrast, this was a more light, airy look, which may have been reflecting the changing times and the doors opening toward a more equal and modern society for women.

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!

Again, thank you so much for sticking with me. I had a lot of fun creating this series, and I hope you liked it too! Back to regularly scheduled content for now.

Oh, and don’t forget to follow me on Instagram too. Sorry, shameless self-plug. I’ll start posting my makeup looks on it soon, I promise.


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

40 thoughts on “Beauty Through the Ages: Victorian Era

  1. This was really interesting and enjoyable to read. It’s incredible the power makeup has had and it’s significance through society – how times have changed. We’ve gone from hiding to confidently displaying cosmetics.
    Yet hairstyles (the long, shiny hair, middle partings and buns etc) have stood the test of time. I’m amazed the products and ingredients women would need to use in order to create rosy cheeks and lips etc. Fantastic post and great writing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, thank you so much, Laura!
      Makeup really has evolved and gone through so much, but hair trends have remained somewhat consistent. That’s such a great observation.
      And of course, I don’t really blame the women for sneakily using whatever they could get their hands on to rosy up their cheeks. I’d do the same if I would be socially ostracised for buying blush!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You’ve done it again! Beautifully written with a ton of information! I can’t wait to see what kind of research post you do next 🙂
    I screamed internally when I read that people used to put citrus juice in their eyes, I can’t imagine how terrible that felt. I love the up-dos! My hair is so fine and I have such a big forehead that if I wear an up-do, I look like an egg. It was interesting to learn that even way back then they were using human hair for wigs and such.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, you flatter me!
      I bet the citrus juice felt terrible, especially Belladonna! They were slowly blinding themselves in the pursuit of beauty.
      Oh, and if you look like an egg with an up do, you would’ve fit perfectly into the Medieval Era – egg-shaped heads were all the range! Meanwhile, I’ll be chilling in the French Revolution with my mouse hair beauty patches and flaming blush, lol.


  3. I did know some of these Victorian beauty trends but not all of them. I think I remember that it was popular to have an influenza look, with pale skin, rosy cheeks and wet shiny eyes, but I didn’t know to what lengths they went to achieve it. How strange they actually put citrus juice or that poisonous plant in their eyes to make them more clear and to achieve that look. It is odd to think that make up was almost illegal and that women had to hide their usage of it and go to great lengths to acquire it. I bet that it wasn’t easy to achieve that no make up look for more than one reason.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! It’s fascinating to see how far makeup has come. I’m so happy that we can now use it without censorship – crazy to think that wasn’t the case earlier.


  4. These posts are always so interesting! It’s crazy the lengths people had to go to look a particular way when we can easily just go out and buy the makeup products we want without putting ourselves at risk xx

    Lauren |

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is such an interesting post, thanks for sharing Khanak! The bit about women using burnt hair pins for their lashes, and lemon juice/poisonous plants in their eyes to brighten them is quite shocking! Wow, so crazy! It’s fascinating to learn about beauty throughout the ages and to see how makeup has evolved over time. Really enjoyable post, thanks for sharing! ❤ xx

    Bexa |

    Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s fascinating to look back over previous fashions, as they nearly always end up going full circle and ending up in the shops in some form or another in present day! 🙂 x

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Khanak, thank you so much for this informative excursion back to my favorite Victorian Era! I never through that wearing an obvious makeup was a taboo in that time, it was an interesting discovery.
    Lots of love ♥ January Girl

    Liked by 1 person

  8. It’s so interesting what women went through to get around the no-makeup rule! Using the dye from colored wrapping paper was a smart idea. And the hairstyles actually look really nice. I really enjoyed reading this series!

    x Kara |

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This was such an interesting and informative post! I love to learn about different eras of beauty and to see how some of their techniques and trends are still very prevalent today. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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