Friday 22 July 2016

Powder and Paint: Make-Up and the Medieval Woman by Catherine Hokin

"A woman without paint is like food without salt."

You might think that quote is taken from a particularly literary edition of Femail magazine's never-ending 'name and shame celebrities caught without make-up' feature but it was actually coined by the Roman philosopher Plautus around 254 BC. I offer it as an illustration of both our ongoing fascination with cosmetics (now a $170 billion a year global business) and the attitudes and social connotations that affect its wearing.

 Roman face cream with visible finger-marks
Although they did not match the colourful heights of the Egyptians whose practices they copied, the Roman women Plautus associated with wore a lot of make-up. Their heavily-blackened eyebrows would not look out of place in a twenty-first century city centre, although they would have been framing faces whitened with a chalk and vinegar paste rather than apparently darkened with builders' tea. Cheeks and lips were highlighted in pink or red, thick eyeliner was essential and it was common for wealthy women to employ a cosmetic artist (a cosmatae) a la the Kardashians. 

Not only was make-up heavily used (pun intended), in both ancient Rome and ancient Greece, sporting a visibly painted face appears to have been acceptable across the social ranks. For medieval British women, however, whose lives were increasingly governed by the complex and judgemental rules of the Church, the picture was far more complex. 

 Visible cheek and lip paint
Whatever the current debate gracing the pages of the Huffington Post about the politics of wearing/not wearing cosmetics, it is a truth surely universally acknowleged that wearers use them to look healthier/more rested/more 'attractive'. I have yet to meet anyone who puts their slap on to look worse. It is no surprise, therefore, that the male clerics of the medieval church would instantly equate paint and powder with harlotry: if a woman is temptation enough, goodness knows what madness an enhanced woman could unleash. Based on this logic, cosmetics were banned for quite some time outside brothels. Ordinary women, however, continued to use make-up as is clear from the statuary, paintings and writings of the time. 'Ladies red powder' (made from dried and ground safflowers or angelica leaves or brazilwood chips soaked in rosewater) is mentioned in a number of sources including a twelfth-century poem which complains that statues are going undecorated because the women have used up all the paint. 

Now I know my fiction revolves around rediscovering hidden women's voices but even I cannot pretend the women of medieval England were strutting round plastered in full war-paint in open revolt against the Church and just no one thought to mention it, so what was going on? The answer: very clever rule-bending. Marriage, and avoiding the sin of adultery, was key to maintaining an ordered society: if allowing a wife to make herself attractive to her husband (particularly if she had been afflicted by a disfiguring illness) maintained this, even the clerics could see they had created a problem by condemning cosmetics quite so harshly. So they began to make exceptions to the rules, and women began to bend them: the 'natural look' was born.

 The Natural Look
Unlike the earlier intentionally visible cosmetic fashions, medieval faces can look surprisingly colourless - there were none of the bright pigments that characterised ancient Egyptian make-up and eye-shadow does not appear to have been worn. This look was all about hiding (both the flaws and the fact you were doing it) and enhancing, in this case not just your looks but your status. A pale face signified you did not work outside, a clear one showed you had not been marked by disease. Rather like a modern serum, skin preparation could start with a strawberry juice wash to remove redness or a wet amethyst crystal rubbed against spots, before the all-important paling (a lightening as opposed to the more extreme whitening seen in later periods) could begin. Twelfth century recipes include ground lily roots to whiten the skin but the favourite method used wheaten flour: this would be soaked in water for 15 days, then strained and crystallized to give a white powder that was mixed to a foundation-like paste using rosewater and patted on with a cloth. By the end of the medieval period, the whitening powder had become lead-based and highly toxic to the wearer - in the case of the renaissance Aqua Toffana it had become arsenic-based and far more dangerous to the husbands invited to kiss it but that's another story.

 The medieval make-up artist
Mouths and cheeks would be tackled next with wine or adaptations of the ubiquitous red powder added to lip balms made from beeswax or suet. Apparently a common beauty trick was also to rub a cut lemon across your lips to make them redder. Weirdly this works (I tried it) and the tingle was quite fun but it may not be the most practical thing to keep in your make-up bag! 

It must have been a time-consuming beauty routine. All the preparations seem to have a long drying time and all the tweezing required to maintain the high hairline and thin brows must have taken hours and goes some way to explain why some women resorted to quicklime powders to remove hair. Please do not try this one at home: the whitening effect is created by revealing bone. 

Perhaps there was a subversive element to some of the painting and powdering, I hope there was and at least one of my medieval characters will be wielding her face-brush with as much defiance as her sword. What I love, however, is the one thing that really hasn't changed over the centuries: achieving the 'natural look' still takes forever. As the playwrite Tracy Letts put it so neatly in August: Osage County: "The only woman who was pretty enough to go without make-up was Elizabeth Taylor, and she wore a ton."


Sue Purkiss said...

Fascinating! They must have looked very odd, with all that thick white powder - but I guess they were probably very skilled at applying it.

Catherine Hokin said...

I have awful flashbacks to myself as a goth with a white face and red lips. Not a good look!

Anonymous said...

Given the pigments found on some medieval statues and paintings, I suppose it's no surprise that medieval women wore make up, although I am surprised. I knew pale faces were favoured, but I didn't know they could be achieved artificially.

Icy Sedgwick said...

As a diehard (and daily) wearer of make up, I find this fascinating! And I loved your comment about complexions the colour of builder's tea ;) I have students who I'm convinced must draw their eyebrows on with Sharpies!

Icy Sedgwick

Catherine Hokin said...

It is a fascinating if terrifying trend - half of Glasgow looks like Groucho Marx!

Anonymous said...

This is so interesting!! It helped me so much with my schools Medieval Fair!

Unknown said...

Could you please post sources for this?