For the Georgians, living in an era of rapid economic and social change, outward appearances could give expression to a wide range of social and cultural factors relating to class, gender, sexuality and even party-political affiliation. Prevailing notions of sociability and ‘politeness’ placed great emphasis on ideals of physical beauty. For women, cosmetics were an essential fashion accessory, enabling them to express their status and cultural refinement by emulating the latest modes in female beauty. Society at large had an ambivalent attitude towards cosmetics, where women (and men) were expected when on public display to conform to certain conventions with regard to their use and maintain the standards of fashionable elegance. Appropriate and tasteful application of cosmetics ensured social acceptability, extravagance and lack of restraint invited condemnation. Members of the aristocracy were often criticized for their heavy-handed use of face-paint and the middle-classes were ridiculed for emulating them. Cosmetics could also be blamed for the erosion of class boundaries, as working-class women painted themselves to resemble their social ‘betters’.
The perfect Georgian face was an oval with a small straight nose, slightly rosy cheeks and lips and a white complexion, typifying contemporary aesthetic ideals of symmetry, proportion and colouring. In an age where disease and disfigurement were commonplace and the working classes had skin darkened and roughened by hard labour and exposure to the weather, a pale, smooth complexion was achieved by applying a thin layer of white lead-based paint to the face and décolletage. Contrasting bright spots of rouge were applied to the cheeks to give colour to the complexion and suggest the blushes of a becoming feminine modesty.
Additional facial adornments used to emphasize a fashionable pallor included small black patches (mimicking beauty spots) made of silk or velvet, applied to the face as a flirtatious embellishment. These also had the advantage of concealing unsightly scars or blemishes. Mouse-skin eyebrows were worn to disguise the loss of hair through ill health, or resulting from the corrosive nature of cosmetics containing highly toxic substances such as lead, arsenic and mercury. Although many of the chemicals used in cosmetics were known in the eighteenth century to be harmful they remained widely available – even later in the period when a more ‘natural’ look was in vogue, the lighter face ‘washes’ in use contained mercury. Such was the pressure to conform to the ideal of physical attractiveness that countless women were prepared to use cosmetics that poisoned skin, hair and eyes and ultimately destroyed the very attributes of beauty they were intended to enhance.