History of Skincare Part 19: The Great Depression, 1930-1939

The Crash

Everything changed suddenly in 1929 when the stock market crashed. Many of the rich became poor overnight and many of the poor became destitute. While shocks were felt across the Western world, America got the brunt of the Depression. Tent and shack cities rose up in urban centers, bread lines stretched for blocks and many people were forced to leave their homes in search of work. Even those who had secure employment, were forced to tighten their belts. Money was scarce and times were uncertain, causing people to be very careful with what they had. Public extravagance quickly fell out of fashion, even among the rich. Displays of wealth were seen as gaudy in light of the mass poverty that had struck the nation. Nevertheless, skin care continued to be at the top of many people’s minds. In fact, by 1930, the cosmetic industry was the fourth largest industry in the country.

While many women had to adjust their beauty routines, they still strove to achieve the looks made popular by their favorite movie stars. Glamour was still in, although it was much more muted than it had been in the 1920’s. Thick cream “glow” makeup was popular, as was eyeliner, lipstick and rouge. While eye makeup was still applied thickly, however, it was toned down from the over-the-top “vamp” eyes of the previous decade. Instead of dramatic bee-stung lips, movie stars and ordinary women alike preferred a simple wash of color across the mouth. In fact, lipstick now came in a multitude of softer pinks as well as the vibrant reds that had been so loved in the twenties. While Max Factor was still the favorite of Hollywood starlets, women now had a number of manufacturers to choose from such as LancĂ´me, Elizabeth Arden and Revlon.

Making Skincare Products in the Depression

In order to boost failing sales, manufacturers came out with a steady stream of updates for their beauty products. Blush was available in both cream and powder form. Lipstick came in an increasingly wide array of colors. Elsa Schiaparelli was the first to release luminous lipstick near the beginning of the decade. She named her signature light pink, “Schiap”, after herself. By the end of the decade, women could buy their lipstick and nail varnish in matching shades. Inexpensive soaps and cold creams continued to be top sellers as well, with Palmolive and Ivory leading the lathery pack.

In spite of the low cost of basic soaps and cleansers, many women chose to save money by making their own skin care treatments and anti aging products. Fashion magazines often printed recipes for cold creams and tonics that could be made from household ingredients. A basic cold cream, for example, might contain ingredients such as beeswax, mineral oil, water and borax. Skin tonic recipes varied greatly and could contain anything from milk and lemon juice to sugar and witch-hazel. Tonics were intended to open up the pores and enliven the skin. Most featured astringent or acidic ingredients as well as an essential oil that served as a scent or perfume.

The Daily Skin Care Regimen

Although multi-step skin care would not be marketed and sold until the 1960’s, most women followed a beauty routine each day that required a number of different products. Whether rich or poor, most women used cold cream to clean their faces. Although soap was widely used, it was considered too harsh for the delicate skin of the face and was generally reserved for cleaning the rest of the body. Cold cream was made with an oil base and it could clean away dirt and grime without drying the skin. Women would apply a thin layer of the cream and then wipe it away with a soft cloth.

Cleansing could be followed by applying a number of stimulants, tonics and complexion creams. Complexion creams were often used as anti aging masks and usually had a high fat or oil content. It was thought that once the fat was absorbed by the skin, it would fill out wrinkles, resulting in a smooth, youthful complexion. Only once their skin was thoroughly cleaned, enlivened, moisturized and treated would women apply the thick cream that would form the base of their makeup.

History of Skincare Part 13: The Elizabethan Era, 1500-1599

A Northern Renaissance

It took nearly one hundred years for the Italian Renaissance to catch up with the British Isles, but when it did, the results were spectacular. Under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I, England began a quest of expansion that saw the creation of new colonies throughout the world. Large portions of India, Africa and North America were built up under British rule. While the merits of British colonialism may be debatable, however, there is no doubt that the Elizabethan Era represented an expansion of thought as well as an expansion of political power. Legendary playwrights and poets such as Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare based their works on the same Classical material that had inspired the Italians a century earlier. Clothing became increasingly elaborate and make-up quickly followed suit. At a time when a much greater emphasis was put on appearance than on health, however, hygiene and skincare often fell by the wayside.

The Elizabethan Look

During this time, Queen Elizabeth’s look ruled the hearts and minds of British women. While clothing had become increasingly structured throughout the later part of the Middle Ages, Elizabeth took this sense of structure to new heights. Tight corsets were worn to give the body a smooth, shaped appearance. While proper hoop skirts had yet to be invented, women tied large pieces of padding around their hips to thrust their skirts out into wide, oblong hoops. Starched ruffles were worn around the neck and hair was often pinned into elaborate up-do’s. In spite of the extreme ornamentation of their clothing, however, the face was still the focal point of the look and cosmetics took on a much greater importance than they had in Medieval England.

Queen Elizabeth is often credited with being the first of her time to adopt a completely made-up appearance. While she may have been the first, however, the noblewomen of Britain quickly followed suit. Women would paint their faces with a white powder referred to as Venetian ceruse. The best ceruse was made of lead, carbonate and hydroxide. Less expensive alternatives were made from talc or boiled egg, although these were considered to be less effective. Once the heavy powder was applied to the face, women would rouge their cheeks with a red paint called fucus and paint their lips with vermilion. The first lip sticks were made during this time by putting sun-dried vermilion and ground plaster into a device similar to a pen. (Go here to learn more about the Elizabethan lipstick-making process: http://www.cosmetic-business.com/en/showartikel.php?art_id=1409 ) To add a glazed appearance to their look, women would coat their face, make-up and all, in a layer of egg white.

The Great Coverup

During the Elizabethan Era, elaborate make-up was seen as a sign of nobility, because few common people could afford the lead powders and dried vermilion used to create the popular look. As the century wore on, however, cosmetics also began to be associated with disease. Poor hygiene had led to a number of serious plague and smallpox outbreaks and many survivors still carried horrible scars and pock marks on their faces. While disease was rampant among rich and poor alike, only the rich had access to the expensive cosmetics that would cover their scars. Strengthening the connection between make-up and poor health, doctors at this time began to discover that lead powder was not as safe as had previously been thought. Women rarely washed their faces, choosing instead to layer new powder over the old, and years of this treatment were found to turn the skin underneath a dull shade of gray. While many doctors recommended switching to an alum or tin-ash based powder, lead prevailed in popularity.

Many women went great lengths of time without cleaning the powder from their faces. When they did want to remove their make-up, however, they found that the thick, caked-on lead was not easily removed with water alone. In order to strip the cosmetic layers, they turned to a combination of skincare science and superstition, washing their faces with everything from gentle rainwater or donkey’s milk to more astringent red wine or urine. Mercury was also among the common skin care products used to treat acne, wrinkles, scars and discoloration. While it did effectively remove these blemishes, it did so by corroding the surface of the skin and often caused scars that were far worse than those it removed. (Go here to learn more about Elizabethan cosmetics and hygiene: http://www.fragrancex.com/fragrance-information/elizabethan-makeup.aspx )

In spite of the health concerns of the day, Elizabethan women were known for their excessive beauty and cosmetic practices. It was these excesses, among others, however, that would cause a Puritan revolt in the next century and see Oliver Cromwell take control of the British throne.

History of Skincare Part 5: Imperial China: From the Tang Dynasty to the Ming Dynasty, 618-1644

Desiring the Pale

By the time the Tang dynasty rolled around, the women of the Imperial Court had turned skin care and cosmetic application into a fine art form. Borrowing artistic techniques from the Buddhism that had spread throughout the country, women turned themselves into gilded statues, complete with smooth, porcelain skin and facial appliques. Having a pale complexion continued to rise in importance as court women went to new and greater heights to whiten their skin, both temporarily and permanently.

From Pre-Imperial times, Chinese women had desired pale skin. As agriculture became increasingly important to the culture and the economy, tanned skin grew to be associated with a working class made up of farmers and fishermen. While noble women at first desired a whiter complexion to show that they did not have to work, however, a powdered face and smooth skin soon became a fashion statement. During the Tang dynasty, courtesans began taking more extreme measures to lighten the skin on their faces. While they continued to press on white powders made from lead, they also used special gels and lotions derived from natural ingredients to remove pigment and permanently bleach their skin. One of the most popular gels was made from songyi mushrooms, an ingredient that is still used in many skin lighteners today.

The Seven Steps to Beauty

Even in this time of lead powders and pigment-altering creams, the Chinese approach to skin care was still a holistic one. Nutrition, health and circulation were still considered to be necessary to maintaining a beautiful complexion and many lotions were developed using medicinal herbs popular in traditional medicine. In fact, while skin care had been previously confined to the bed chamber, many Tang dynasty women carried small containers of lotions and other cosmetics so that they could touch up their faces at will.

This is not to say, however, that Tang dynasty courtesans applied their make up in public. Their make up was, in fact, applied in seven separate steps each morning. The first step was to powder the face with a thick white foundation. The second step was the apply rouge to the cheeks. The third step was to gild the forehead with golden ocher. The ocher was painted on in complex patterns based on the gold gilding of Buddhist statues. The fourth step was to trace the eyebrows. The fifth step was to paint the lips a brilliant red. The sixth step was to dot the cheeks. The seventh and final step was to paste a floral applique between the eyes. (You can read more about the seven steps to beauty here: http://www.chinatoday.com.cn/English/e2004/e200411/p60.htm )

The Art of Applique

Although facial appliques first gained major popularity during the Tang dynasty, they remained popular throughout the many centuries of Imperial China. As outlined by the seven steps of cosmetic application, there were actually several different types of appliques. While the dotted cheek had been around since the early days of the Imperial Court, it had, by this time, lost any remnants of a practical use and was used strictly for fashion. In fact, it was very rare for the dots to even be round anymore. While one of the most popular designs was a crescent moon across the cheek, these so-called dots could take the form of any number of shapes from flowers to insects. The floral applique placed between the eyes had a similar number of variations. It could be made from paper, gold foil or shell and the patterns ranged from flowers to fans, from dragon flies to oxhorns.

While not precisely an applique, traced eyebrows continued to be an important part of facial adornment. By this time, designs had become far more elaborate than they had been during the Qin or Han dynasties. While the different shapes were generally patterned after objects found in nature, the shapes themselves were a far cry from the natural shape of an eyebrow. Willow leaf eyebrows were one of the most popular designs, with round, olive-shaped eyebrows not far behind. The Emperor Xuanzong even commissioned a book called Shi Mei Tu, which outlined ten different eyebrow patterns. (You can read more about facial appliques and eyebrow patterns here: http://www.chinatoday.com.cn/English/e2004/e200411/p60.htm )

From lead powders to skin bleaches to eyebrows shaped like olives, many of the skin care techniques and cosmetic approaches of Imperial China seem foreign in today’s world. Their holistic approach to skin care, however, and their whimsical make up show that Imperial China still has a lot to offer the modern world.