Last year, many of us submerged ourselves in the Regency times whilst watching Bridgeton created by Chris Van Dusen and Shonda Rhimes and based on the romance novels of Julia Quinn. Whilst not strictly historically correct, it was visually pleasing, very entertaining and totally watchable escapism. It also created an interest in the history of this period. The Georgians witnessed the birth of industrialisation; radicalism and repression and extreme luxury alongside extreme poverty. Bridgeton, shows the formalized courting season in London in 1813, as wealthy high-society family’s scheme to pair off their eligible offspring. Showing the Ton, from the French phrase le bon ton meaning in the fashionable mode, or the In Crowd in our modern terms, at its best and worst.The Regency is the period of social and cultural development seen by many as a glorious epoch in British history. As the First Gentleman of Europe the Prince Regent actively encouraged many of the new movements in painting, sculpture, decoration, literature, music, technology and science.
In the last decade many historians have become fascinated by the similarities between the eighteenth century and our own times. The free-wheeling commercial development of the Georgian era, its unabashed enjoyment of consumption of all kinds and the importance of newspapers and magazines in everyday life. This also was the beginning of the culture of celebrity, as Georgian’s held an obsessive interest in all kinds of fame.
The Georgian era is from 1714 to 1837 and named after the Hanoverian Kings George I, George II, George III and George IV. The Regency period was from 1811 to 1820 when George, Prince of Wales, governed the country as Regent during the madness of his father, George III.
This was a period of great change, as cities grew, trade expanded and consumerism and popular culture blossomed. Known for its lavish fashions, sumptuous food and decadence. In high society, the more over the top the better, best shown in Sofia Coppola’s film, Marie Antoinette in 2006 which was the retelling of France’s iconic but ill-fated French queen. The excess of the period ended with Marie Antoinette’s head been lifted off by its pomaded pomp for a Republican crowd. The Georgian era was a period of ostentation and inequality when it was fashionable for both men and women to flaunt their wealth with excessive displays of hair and beauty products. The more elaborate it was, the longer it took to do, and the more expensive the ingredients, the better. Men’s fashion was equally flamboyant to match the liberal period they lived in with powdered wigs, collared frock coats, and the early to mid-1800s Beau Brummel provided a fashionable figure to follow in terms of what to and what not to wear. It was the last time in history that male attire was as elaborate as women’s making Harry Styles appear quite conservative by comparison.
On BBC’s twos Make-up a Glamourous History, with Lisa Eldridge, a professional make-up and Global Creative Director for Lancôme, explores what the beauty of the time reveals about the era. Discovering how in this period of extreme wealth in Britain, the rich entered an arms race of beauty. Eldridge tries out all sorts of Georgian recipes with crushed beetles, seashells and bear grease. (Which she substituted with a vegetable oil) Later, she recreates an authentic Georgian look on a 21st century model, with towering hair and whitened complexion. (Without, using toxic lead powder like the Georgians). It had been known for a time that some ingredients such as lead and mercury were very harmful to health, but were still used by many. Pale skin was considered a sign of wealth as it meant you didn’t have to work outside. Eventually, zinc oxide and talc were used to whiten the face, which was less opaque and relatively less harmful.
Sometimes, additional facial adornments were used to emphasize a fashionable pallor included a small black mole, little clippings of dark velvet, silk or glossy silk applied to the face as a flirtatious embellishment, sending a possible suitor a message about yourself. However, it was said that a promiscuous manner of patching may be productive of ill consequences and ruin many a fair character. These also had the advantage of concealing unsightly pox scars or blemishes. 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. Members of the aristocracy were often criticized for their heavy-handed use of face-paint. The Georgian look might be ravishingly beautiful but was insanely time -consuming. That was the point. Only the very richest could afford the time and products and this was a period of staggering inequality.
The French Revolution (1789-1799) had the biggest impact on women’s Regency makeup. For a start, it swept away the widespread and extravagant use of makeup that was associated with the decadent aristocracy. The Regency period had a more delicate appearance which extended to the hair, with wigs and enormous headpieces falling out of fashion, curls, feathers, and natural hair were prized. The upper classes wanted their daughters to look respectable and be pleasingly natural, think of Jane Austin.
Beauty and fashion can be seen as a frivolous subject, but what we believe to be beautiful is a window on the world we’re living in and a reflection of society and social history. Personally, I find it fascinating. I worked in a Georgian House Museum, and therefore learnt a lot about this period. If you are interested in finding out more: Amanda Vickery, Lucy Worsley and Annie Gray all write interesting accounts of the time.