They may not have worn the make-up shown in the TV series, but women of the era would have followed published advice says Lisa Smith

By Lisa Smith

We’ve all become accustomed to historical inaccuracies in period TV shows (including Bridgerton) but fans of Regency-inspired romance fantasy can’t seem to get over the modern beauty techniques on show. Acrylic nails, fake lashes and ‘BOTOX’, screamed a recent headline in The Daily Mail.

Modern beauty magazines are full of tips and tricks to extend, enhance or conceal. Young ladies from the Regency era (1811-1820) were also interested in beauty advice, but their regimen was a bit different from ours.

Across Europe, young ladies and their mothers were bombarded with beauty advice from physicians, perfumers and moralists alike. For early 19th-century debutantes, the heavy application of cosmetics, commonly associated with the mid-18th century, had become passé. A natural look was the hottest new beauty trend.

True beauty, these ladies of the ton (fashionable society) were told, came from cleanliness, rather than in the make-up aisles of some 19th-century equivalent of Sephora or Boots.

Regency recipe and advice books typically included tips for skincare rather than cosmetics. Natural beauty, medical writers made clear, began with good health. Health came from regular exercise (walking or riding), moderation in diet and cleanliness. Clean skin had moral implications.

It is prostitutes that would have worn make up, not members of the ton

According to medical writers of the time, clear skin signalled good health, which in turn suggested potential fertility – a major preoccupation in the marriage mart. This emphasis on skin was set against the backdrop of high rates of venereal disease, particularly in London where an estimated 20 per cent of the population contracted syphilis before the age of 35. Syphilis could be congenital, meaning that even a chaste young lady might be affected. Skin problems were a main symptom of syphilis.

There were other reasons for young women to avoid cosmetics. A popular advice manual, Mirror of the Graces, which was written under the pseudonym of A Lady of Distinction in 1811, identified two problems. Many face paints contained poisons, such as lead, which could ruin your skin or cause illness. But a painted face also made it difficult to see the truth of your mind and emotions, concealing as it did the subtle shifts in skin colour.

Of the types of cosmetics available – lacquered lips, face powder, eyebrow colouring and rouge – only rouge was acceptable, and then only if a young woman was ill or anxious.

The Lady of Distinction offered “healthy” methods to encourage natural beauty. These could be made at home or by an apothecary, or even purchased at various shops. The recommended beauty treatments included hair and face washes; lip balms and creams; scented waters; treatments for blemishes, sunburns, tans or freckles; and methods of removing wrinkles or firming up the skin. The ingredients were not cheap, including things like spermaceti (whale sperm), benzoin (tree resin) and ambergris (waxy substance from the digestive system of sperm whales). The cost of natural beauty could be high.

Chapped hands? Paste of Palermo was a soap that smoothed and protected with its mixture of soap, salad oil (softening), lemon juice (extra lather), silver sand (exfoliating) and perfume (scent).

Sunburn from too much exercise? Try fard, a useful paste of sweet almonds, spermaceti and honey.

Dull skin from too many late nights? A water to give lustre to the face included wheat bran, eggs and ambergris.

Need rosy cheeks? Try virgin milk, a tincture of benzoin (a tree resin) and spirits of wine to pull the blood into your cheeks and make them rosy. It also smelled nice and could be used on pimples and other skin problems.

Lips dry and pale? A lip salve of marrow, spermaceti, raisins, alcanna root and balsam of Peru should soften them, while providing a vermilion tint.

Young women did not where cosmetics as they could hide changes in emotions

Bridgerton, curiously, depicts the elite young ladies as wearing cosmetics (eye shadow and blush) and the prostitutes as clear-skinned and cosmetic-free. The reverse would have been true in Regency England, given that prostitutes were thought to have much to conceal: venereal disease and dissolute living.

The light eye shadow (and strong-looking acrylic nails) worn by the young ladies in Bridgerton is not historically accurate, but may instead represent that they took particular care of their appearance. The lengthy skin care practices of the Regency period are challenging to capture on screen. The cleanliness of the prostitutes, however, suggests their own clean health status and the Bridgerton men’s relative safety in visiting them.

For Regency ladies, good skin was about much more than just skin-deep beauty. Good skin was a visible sign of one’s health, fertility and morals.

Lisa Smith is Senior Lecturer in History, University of Essex. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence