United Kingdom

The price of beauty in 18th century Britain

Women living in the Georgian era used ostentatious hair and makeup to flaunt their wealth and social standing, a documentary explains.  

White painted faces, faux beauty marks and hairdos that stood several feet high were all styles favoured by late 18th century royalty and aristocracy. 

'You couldn't just be rich, you had to look rich,' explains makeup artist Lisa Eldridge Eldridge in the first episode of BBC2 documentary series Makeup: A Glamorous History. 'And the wealthier you were, the more extreme you could take your look.' 

Among the great beauties of the age was Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, who was renowned for her grace, elegance and over-the-top beauty practices, which were largely influenced by the French court.  

Among the great beauties of the age was Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, who was renowned for her grace, elegance and over-the-top beauty practices, which were largely influenced by the French court. Right, Marie Antoinette 

However it was not without its risks. The most popular form of white paint used to give women a virginal, pure look was made from lead, which in some cases led to fatal lead poisoning.

And by the end of the century such extraordinary displays were considered almost 'dangerous', as the masses turned against the extraordinarily rich upper class and overthrew the monarchy in France.

On a visit to Chatsworth House, the family seat of the Duke of Devonshire, Eldridge discovered how the Duchess of Devonshire kept a hairdresser as part of her full-time staff. 

Indeed the stylist, known simply as Gilbert, was so highly regarded that he earned more than any other member of staff. 

His annual salary was the equivalent of £100,000 a year in today's currency and he was given the same in travel expenses.

'There was a competition to copy the latest trends and to make sure you were always one step ahead,' explains historian Hannah Wallace.  

As with today's beauty regimes, beauty started with skincare. 

Famed Irish belle Maria Coventry, Countess of Coventry, who, along with her sister Elizabeth Hamilton, 1st Baroness Hamilton of Hamilton, was able to 'marry up' into a higher social class. She died of suspected lead poisoning caused by her white face makeup at the age of 28

'In the 18th century skincare was particularly important. At this time, increased consumption of alcohol and sugar took their toll on complexion and diseases like smallpox left many people scarred,' Eldridge says.

The ability to buy soaps and beauty products indicated a level of wealth. The same was true of hair. 

'An elaborate hairstyle showed you had the time and the staff to do it,' Eldridge explains. 'The act of doing your toilette and makeup became a performance in itself.'

In fact makeup was such an important symbol of high art that George III's wife, Queen Charlotte, was painted in front of her vanity. 

On the continent, Marie Antoinette would invite people into her toilette to watch her makeup being applied.  

The signature makeup look of the period was the painted white face, which had by that point been popular for centuries. 

A white face showed a woman had not worked outside, and was therefore wealthy, and was also useful for covering up the signs of ageing and ill health. 

Even those who were of a slightly lower social class could mingle - and even marry - in wealthier circles if they had the hair and makeup of a society beauty. 

By the 1700s it was well known that lead, a popular ingredient used in creating the white face paste, was poisonous, but that did not stop women from using it. 

In fact makeup was such an important symbol of high art that George III's wife, Queen Charlotte, was painted in front of her vanity, pictured

Among them was famed Irish belle Maria Coventry, Countess of Coventry, who, along with her sister Elizabeth Hamilton, 1st Baroness Hamilton of Hamilton, was able to 'marry up' into a higher social class.  

However she reportedly became 'addicted' to white lead and the smooth, flawless finish it provided and eventually died of lead poisoning at the age of 28. 

Her story became something of a cautionary tale to other women. 

By the end of the 18th century, the decadance came to represent everything that was wrong with the society. 

When Marie Antoinette, a famous proponent of ostentatious beauty, lost her head at the guillotine, such a look became not just unfashionable but downright dangerous. 

Excessive displays of wealth were firmly on the outs and Britain began to embrace a new kind of beauty that was 'sensible, practical and pared back'. 

Makeup: A Glamorous History airs tonight at 9pm on BBC2.

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