“Make-up can be seen as a frivolous subject. But I think it’s hugely important. What we believe to be beautiful is a window on the world we’re living in.” Lisa Eldridge
As a professional make-up artist and Global Creative Director for Lancôme and the presenter of Make-up a Glamourous History on BBC2, Eldridge has a wealth of experience and passion. Over the course of this three-part series, she raises her scholarly spectacles over early make-up and beauty trends and provides an illuminating guide through the evolution of facial fashion, from the early 18th century up to the Thirties. The beauty looks of three periods in Britain are explored and what it reveals about that era: Georgian, Victorian and The Roaring Twenties. You may think make-up is a frivolous business, but Lisa Eldridge argues that what someone puts on the face and why says a lot about the time they live in.
She trawls through the history books and re-created products we haven’t used for decades. There are recipes with crushed beetles, seashells and bear grease (which she substituted with a vegetable oil). She tests them out first on herself and then on a lovely, young model called Queenie. Eldridge really sells her sensory delight in the products and her curiosity about what they meant to the women of the past. The pharmacist Szu Shen Wong, was drafted in to make the more tricky or toxic products in her lab.
It shows the growth of the beauty industry and the start of companies like Boots and the No7 range, which brought beauty to woman of all classes and not just the wealthy, upper and middle classes. Launched by Boots in 1935 as a selection of eleven skincare products this was then expanded in 1937 with some colour cosmetics. The name was reportedly chosen due to the fact that the number seven was often used to signify perfection. It was one of the first brands to really open up beauty for mass audiences and was made available to the ordinary woman. In 2016, Boots celebrated eighty year’s, they continue to sell and hopefully will carry on for many more years to come!
Many lower-class women had to make their own beauty products, in the Victorian age, cleanliness was hugely important and soap became more easily available and used. But beauty products and make-up were only for the rich and wealthy and still had to be purchased secretly as the use of these was seen as immoral. So many upper-class women purchased these under the counter, disguised as medicinal items. Women were expected to be beautiful but only by natural means. To use beauty products or cosmetics was not acceptable to society, only prostitutes and actresses used them. As we all know, even those blessed with natural good looks, still need some help at times, and it must have been impossible for women at the time to follow the rules of Victorian society whilst achieving the expected levels of beauty.
Selfridge & Co. opened its doors in London on the 15th of March 1909. The owner, American, Harry Gordon Selfridge, wanted to make retail exciting and available to everyone. Selfridges, was the first store to bring beauty products to the front of a department store. Selfridge wanted women to be able try the products rather than them being hidden behind a counter. This was very forward thinking at the time and was to totally change the way retailers sold beauty products, as his competitors rushed to copy him. He supported the rights of women, even though this caused him ridicule. I think that the beauty industry was starting to encourage women to be more independent, rather than the early views of women looking pretty for their husbands, it was more modern to look good for themselves. Just been able to openly purchase beauty products was liberating for them.
This is social history at it’s best and for anyone interested in the world of beauty, unmissable. Surprising, although we wouldn’t want to go back to some of the toxic ingredients used, some of the more natural ingredients were very successful. So, as the beauty industry changes, and moves away from its reliance on chemicals, perhaps it also needs to look through historical archives as our ancestors could teach use a few things about making natural skincare and cosmetics.
We take it for granted that we can just go into a shop and buy the products we need or want and for most, historically this wasn’t available to women, in particular working-class women for quite some time. I loved this series, and hope that it returns to discuss, beauty in the forties and current times too.
It’s available to view on BBC iPlayer.