Health and Beauty: The Consumptive Look


This post focuses on “beauty” within 19th century society. This time period is a favourite of mine due to elements of social development, that of fashion, medicine and ideals. The Consumptive Look is of particular interest to me as it integrates all these elements and became central in my academic and personal research interests and projects.

Illness and the process of death associated with tuberculosis and other associated consumptive diseases; patterns and material of dress defined tiny and frail anatomical frames and cosmetics reflected pale, withering and “delicate” looks. I imagine the look as a delicate Snow White character, the humoral colours of white, black and red working together but as a human decline in consciousness and movement.

I have put together a few facts about Victorian and historical cosmetics, incorporating medical aspects and beauty ideals.

  • The term “make-up” was not a common phrase before the 1870s. It was classified under the broader term of “cosmetics.” In this sense beauty is not what we consider the term today – mixtures of varied ingredients were purely for medicinal value. Powers and facial paints were to cover facial defects, blemishes and scars caused by previous diseases such as smallpox.
  • The middle and upper classes received cosmetic “medicines” from local apothecaries or pharmacies while the lower classes experimented with making their own alternatives or buying from others. Mixtures were formed from available chemicals – poisons and paints as well as plants.
  • Cosmetics began to evolve and associations of vanity were created when a gap in the market became known. The working class were unable to afford or know about products; there was also a rise in back street businesses which held cosmetic consultations to adapt blemishes and scars – manipulating beliefs of “natural” beauty.
  • Cosmetics were not limited to women. Men adopted minimalist looks, inspired by the Regency period, to hide their own facial insecurities. Powder forms used to disguise redness and blemishes included zinc oxide and pearl power (talcum powder)
  • Alongside a pale 19th century face was naturally rose cheeks and hint of red lip. This was considered a look of the upper class, “respectable” woman – contrasting with the tanned and worked skin of labours and working people. The equivalent to lipstick was a product similar to beeswax. This included dye mixed with remnants of flowers. The blush on the cheeks also contained carmine dye and coloured juice. Lemon juice was particularly popular as it gave a luminous glow.
  • Queen Victoria was not a fan of cosmetics and make-up. “Painted ladies” – containing a historical religious context was believed to be sinful. It became associated with working class women, specifically sex workers who are depicted wearing more make-up than the simplistic, consumptive look.
  • As beauty became associated with ideals of vanity, society went to extremes to be “beautiful”. Belladonna was used as eyedrops to emphasise the pupils and give them a sparkling and attractive glow. It sacrificed full vision as well as poisoning the body.
  • Hair dye was accessible and many Victorian women experimented with blonde, brown and red hair. It was common, however, to lose hair due to the strong chemicals within the dyes.
  • Despite failures and dangerous mixtures, the Victorians are credited in introducing certain products used today. Cold Cream originated as Crème Celeste – a combination of wax and “spermaceti” which is part of an organ found in the head of a sperm whale. The combination created a moisturiser and a smooth and even finished. The product has been developed into more ethical and safe ingredients.






















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