November Tea Party Winners: Carrie Fancett Pagels' copy of The Great Lakes Lighthouse Brides Collection - Debbie Curto, Christmas tea - Andrea Stephens, Golden Tea body wash Joy Ellis, lighthouse earrings -- Pegg's SIL from Lake Ann and Perrianne Askew, Pegg Thomas's Leather journal - Shelia Hall, and Writing Prompts book goes to - Connie Porter Saunders

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Face Painting in 18th Century France

In writing Refiner’s Fire, book 6 of my American Patriot Series, I’ve been doing a lot of research on fashion so I can describe my characters’ look accurately. While Jonathan Carleton is temporarily back among the Shawnee at the beginning of this installment, the woman he loves, Elizabeth Howard, is in France, the ultimate fashion destination during the second half of the 18th century. In my last post I took a look at 18th century hairstyles, and this post will cover the specifics of makeup during that period.

In England and France both men and women of the higher classes wore cosmetics from the 17th through most of the 18th century. The portrait of the French artist François Boucher by Gustaf Lundberg at right gives an idea of  what mens makeup might look like. 

In general the French applied makeup more heavily than the English. The goal was not to look natural, but to make an obvious statement of one’s class identity, with the added benefit that cosmetics also served to hide blemishes or the effects of disease, age, or sun. In fact, makeup was actually called “paint.” Wearing it identified one as aristocratic and à la mode. Naturally those of the bourgeois class who aspired to the heights of fashion and/or were trying to elevate their social status would also use cosmetics, although they generally didn’t apply them as heavily as the aristocracy did.

The ideal woman of the 18th century had a high forehead; plump, rosy cheeks; and white, or at least pale, skin. The use of heavy white paint on the face was actually considered more respectable than displaying your own naturally light skin. Fashionable eye colors included black, chestnut, or blue. Slightly full, semicircular, eyebrows that tapered at the ends into a half moon shape were preferred, as were small, soft, red lips with a slightly larger bottom lip that created a rosebud effect. The portraits of François Boucher, like the ones below, illustrate this look very well.

White face paint, called blanc, was applied across the entire face and shoulders, and veins were then traced on with blue pencil to highlight the skin’s whiteness. Blanc could be made from bismuth or vinegar. But because of its opacity, a formulation using lead was most popular, even though it was known to cause lead poisoning. Women actually died from using it. Talk about devotion to fashion!

Rouge was made of vermilion ground from cinnabar, which included mercury, or from creuse made by exposing lead plates to vinegar vapor. Like blanc both are toxic, but obviously that didn’t deter its users! Safer vegetable sources for rouge included safflower, wood resin, sandalwood, and brazilwood, which would be mixed with greases, creams, or vinegars to create a paste. Court ladies rouged their cheeks in wide swaths from the corner of the eye to the corner of the lips. Bourgeois and provincial nobility preferred neat circles of rouge at the center of the cheek to highlight the eyes and the skin’s whiteness.

The lips could be reddened with distilled alcohol or vinegar. By mid-century, however, you could buy red pomades for lips, some in stick form. Preferred shades varied from pink and coral to sometimes as dark as burgundy. Although in portraits you can see a bit of reddish color around the eyes, possibly caused by the contrast with the blanc or a reaction to the lead in it, they were otherwise left bare. Eyebrows might be darkened with kohl, elderberry, burnt cork, or lampblack. Some men and women of the court plucked or painted their eyebrows or used mouse fur to create false ones. I know….eeeeewwww! I can’t imagine what that must have looked like.

Beauty patches, or mouches, were part of the formal or aristocratic look and were meant to heighten the contrast with the white skin. Most popular in the 17th century but worn into the 18th as well, they were made of silk velvet, satin, or taffeta and attached to the face with glue. There could be many different sizes and shapes, and they were worn in various positions with specific meanings. Occasionally several were clustered together on the cheek or forehead in designs like trees or birds.

Below is a short, fun video on applying makeup in the 18th century style.

By the 1750s and 1760s cosmetics were becoming so popular that coiffeuses—vanity table sets—were widely advertised, and to capture the best light, dressing rooms began to be built facing north. By 1781, Frenchwomen were using about two million pots of rouge a year. But styles continue to evolve. In this case, with the advent of the French Revolution at the end of the decade, the painted look fell out of favor along with the aristocracy. Thereafter, fashion dictated a more natural style—if you were lucky enough to keep your head.

How do you think 18th century makeup and hairstyles compare with what people are wearing today? Are they any more bizarre than what you can see on the street or in your local Wal-Mart? I’d love to hear your opinion and comparisons!
J. M. Hochstetler is the daughter of Mennonite farmers and a lifelong student of history. She is also an author, editor, and publisher. Her American Patriot Series is the only comprehensive historical fiction series on the American Revolution. Northkill, Book 1 of the Northkill Amish Series coauthored with Bob Hostetler, won Foreword Magazine’s 2014 Indie Book of the Year Bronze Award for historical fiction. Book 2, The Return, received the 2017 Interviews and Reviews Silver Award for Historical Fiction and was named one of Shelf Unbound’s 2018 Notable Indie Books. One Holy Night, a contemporary retelling of the Christmas story, was the Christian Small Publishers 2009 Book of the Year and a finalist in the ACFW Carol Award.


  1. Highlighting the veins, huh? Kind of weird, but I've heard before that tanned skin was considering too "working class". I've always thought "natural" was best and I truly don't like the black lipstick trend!

    1. It sure does seem crazy to us today, Connie, but I guess with fashion statements like tattoos and black lipstick, I'd say we have our own style issues. lol! Indeed, having a tan put your right at the bottom of the social scale. That's been a real turnaround today, with tans being considered the height of fashion. I'm with you--give this old farm girl the natural look! Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Gross!!!!!! Mouse fur????? No way!I can't believe some of the ways they had be shown off. Did Elizabeth wear this stuff? (Wait! Wait! Don't tell me! I don't really want to knw if it's a spoiler!) I hardly ever wear make-up now! (I can't see to put it on so, I don't bother. Who would want to even show the veins? Sure glad things changed over the centuries. As far the hairstyles, some are just as bad then and now.
    By the way, Joan! I'm still waiiiiiiiiiiiiting!

    1. ROFLOL!!! No mouse fur for Elizabeth, Bev. Her eyebrows are naturally fashionable. I'm sure glad things have changed too, though we have our own fashion foibles. And I'm writing as fast as I can.

  3. When going through 17th & 18th century homes one always finds the "screen" in rooms near the hearth so the makeup wouldn't melt. That tells us something right there. Bravo, Joan, you've really done your research.

    1. Oh, I didn't know that was one of the uses of the screens, Janet! Well, that makes perfect sense. Lol!! Thanks for stopping by. :-)

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  5. I had a typo so I deleted it....

    Joan, I cannot imagine wearing something on my face knowing it was toxic & could be deadly. No thank you. Forget the mouse fur, shudder!

    As for me, I have not worn any makeup for eleven years, give me "natural" any day.
    Blessings, Tina

  6. Hi Joan--
    This is an interesting post--thank you! I'd heard about the lead before but it didn't seem if users made the connection. Sometimes this stuff can get--if not physically addictive--at least psychologically so? A quick personal question: I purchased the non-fiction book called "The First Frontier" by Scott Weisensaul,(about life in the New World before the Revolution) and read a pg. or too on-line before I ordered it. In the introduction it mentions the Hochstetler family in Penna. Wondered if you were aware of the book...Blessings to you and rest of the CQ gang!

  7. p.s. sorry--that's Scott Weidensaul!

  8. Absolutely fascinating! Vanity never ceases!


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