The Holy Grail of Beauty

Facing Beauty: Painted Women and Cosmetic Art

By Aileen Ribeiro

New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011, 371 pp. $45.00, hardcover 

Reviewed by Linda Simon

Reading Facing Beauty is like walking through an expansive exhibition of western portraiture, accompanied by an erudite and gracious guide whose historical knowledge of art, literature, fashion, and popular culture is capacious. Aileen Ribeiro, professor emerita at the Courtauld Institute of Art, is an art historian whose specialty is fashion. She is the author of several books on eighteenth-century dress, as well as The Female Face in the Tate’s British Collection, 1569-1876 (1987), the companion to a small exhibition. That publication inspired Ribeiro’s inquiry into concepts of real and ideal female beauty, and women’s efforts to enhance or mask their features with cosmetics. The result is this gorgeously produced book, illustrated with more than 200 plates: artists’ portraits, fashion illustrations, advertisements, and cartoons from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-twentieth century.

In addition to the works of art themselves, Ribeiro’s sources include poetry and fiction, myths and religious tracts, women’s advice manuals and magazines, and personal writings such as letters and diaries. The book is organized chronologically, surveying cosmetic use in antiquity and the Middle Ages, and going on to focus in greater detail on the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and modern times. In each section, Ribeiro examines both depictions of the ideal face and body, and philosophical and cultural assumptions about the connection between the physical and the spiritual, beauty and virtue.

Artificial enhancement of women’s appearance has a long history. Even in antiquity, Ribeiro notes, upper-class woman and courtesans used cosmetics to embellish their features: the face was painted with white lead powder, the cheeks reddened with wine sediment or red mercuric sulphide, and the eyes outlined with various black substances, including residue from oil lamps. Without written testimony from the period, Ribeiro can only speculate about women’s motivations for using these substances: she concludes that pale skin evoked delicacy and purity—in literature, complexions often were compared to pearls and praised for milky whiteness; and pallor exemplified elite status because it indicated that a woman did not engage in manual labor outdoors. Furthermore, face paint could hide the ravages of age or disease. Reddened lips provoked erotic attention, and outlining the eyes made them appear larger and brighter. The effect, as a whole, served to advertise a woman’s sense of self-worth, her sexual vibrancy, and her youth. “Youthfulness,” Ribeiro observes, “was, and is, the holy grail of the beauty industry.”

In the Middle Ages, facial pallor was also prized and enhanced with powder, but otherwise, in religious writings at least, cosmetics were condemned as satanic temptation: in a thirteenth century tapestry, the sin of vanity was depicted as a woman styling her hair as she gazes into a mirror.  Ribeiro notes, however, that cosmetics were available, and advice manuals provided hints for using them. Medieval women, like women after them, did not always heed warnings against vanity.

The Renaissance saw a new emphasis on women’s self-presentation in both daily life and in art, an emphasis that shaped women’s penchant for make-up. Portraits by male artists provide ample testimony of the ideal of beauty in this period: the soft, supple, well-endowed body; the long, slender throat; and the face characterized by pale skin, rosy cheeks, and red lips. These attributes, Ribeiro notes, prove consistent through time because they evoke “the physiological changes which occur during sex—the moist glow on the skin, flushed cheeks and brilliant eyes.” Blondes were especially favored during the Renaissance, inspiring the laborious application of bleach. Some writers expressed alarm at women’s use of cosmetics, claiming that the result was deceitful; a woman so artfully masked might have something insidious to hide. Yet many philosophical tracts argued that outward beauty reflected inner virtue, inspiring women to take great pains to ensure a beautiful, and apparently virtuous, image. One of the most fascinating details of Ribeiro’s study is the fabrication of cosmetics by apothecaries or by women themselves. By the sixteenth century, recipe books offered formularies for skin potions. Almonds, oil, water, and beeswax were a few innocuous ingredients; but other recipes called for urine, snake fat, cooked pigeons, and ground pearls, among many other, more toxic, substances.

By the early seventeenth century, the Protestant Reformation’s insistence on cleanliness threatened to undermine women’s use of cosmetics. Lead-based face creams could darken the skin, it was noted, and make-up could run and dirty the collar. Epidemics of syphilis and smallpox, however, caused women to rely on thick face paint to cover repulsive pustules and lesions. By the eighteenth century, one gesture at camouflaging pockmarked skin was the use of “beauty spots”: small black patches of leather or silk, adhered with gum Arabic or gelatin. There evolved an intricate language of patches, some placements advertising a woman as sexually available; others, as demure. Gold, silver, or ivory patch boxes were popular gifts from a lover.

Ribeiro sees the Enlightenment as a period in which people were particularly concerned with natural beauty and women’s social empowerment. Yet despite philosophical tracts warning women against vanity, affluent French and English women engaged in long hours at their toilette. An opulent, mid-eighteenth century “casket of cosmetics” from England, pictured in detail, included about a dozen containers and vials in Rococo style: fashioned of gilded silver, with porcelain insets decorated with roses, the containers’ lids opened to reveal mirrors and a small clock. Glass and china bottles were meant for scent and creams; and a manicure set and various brushes and paint scrapers completed the set. Ribeiro speculates that this particular casket was commissioned by royalty; but the cosmetic toilette was a staple on the dressing tables of all upper class women. Although women were aware of the health risks of lead-based paints—loss of teeth and hair, and fatal lead poisoning—they persisted in using these products; they put on wigs and false teeth to compensate for their effects.  The practice of variolation (the deliberate infection with smallpox in the hope of causing a mild case and immunity) decreased the incidence of smallpox (and its effects on women’s faces) early in the century but did not reduce the demand for face paint. By the end of the century, Ribeiro tells us, a widespread “cult of youth,” inspired in part by the French Revolution, “established a permanent gap between the appearance of young and old, which lasted well into the twentieth century.” Corsets that lifted the breasts, rouges that reddened the cheeks and lips, and special washes to remove wrinkles became sought-after accoutrements. Cartoons satirized women’s futile efforts at dissimulation, but did not, Ribeiro says, discourage them from using cosmetics.

Ribeiro identifies the Modern period as the century from 1830 to before the World War II—certainly a period of profound social, material, and political change for western women. The common availability of soap and shampoo by the mid-nineteenth century afforded women some control over their appearance without the use of cosmetics. But as in earlier periods, women received contradictory messages about the desirability of enhancing or masking their features with make-up. Some advice manuals insisted that make-up was a form of deceit; but a proliferation of fashion magazines overtly aimed to create a strong consumer demand for cosmetics manufactured by such firms as Guerlain, founded in Paris 1828, and Rimmel, founded in London in 1820. Advertisements for these companies featured the empresses and princesses who used their products. Newly established department stores offered a plethora of commercial cosmetics; drug stores and chemists, such as Boots in England, added cosmetics to their products. After the turn of the century, women such as Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden joined the ranks of cosmetics manufacturers, making items relatively affordable to ordinary women. They also hired women workers.

Ribeiro’s examination of early twentieth-century use of cosmetics seems more cursory than that of the Enlightenment and Renaissance, clearly her areas of expertise. To discuss the enormous changes in women’s lives after the World War I, she focuses on the shipping heiress and iconoclast Nancy Cunard, the image, Ribeiro writes, “of an imperious and hieratic beauty.” She also includes discussions of Michael Arlen’s scandalous novel The Green Hat (1924) and the influence of such film stars as Greta Garbo, with a glance at Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford. By the end of the World War II, Ribeiro asserts, make-up was entrenched as the essential signifier of femininity; it was no longer associated with deceit, with disguising the real woman. . . .Most of all beauty was regarded as something achieved by cosmetics, by science, rather than inherited; it was a commodity, no longer elitist but democratized.

All women could be painted women. The idea that women would do well to abandon make-up, as some feminists have argued, seems to Ribeiro to deny “the validity of the everyday experience of millions of women.”

Ribeiro is suspicious of, and sometimes dismissive of, current feminist scholarship that tends to privilege theory, such as gender criticism or structuralism, over historical contextualization. To assertions that the cosmetics industry, largely controlled by men, manipulates women’s self-image, for example, Ribeiro replies that women are not forced to use make-up. Women, she adds, did not in the past and do not presently see themselves as victims of male-fabricated judgments of appearance, for they themselves are involved in establishing the ideals of beauty; women choose their clothes and their make-up, not with men in mind, but themselves.

This conclusion contradicts much evidence throughout the book, which quotes male poets, writers of advice manuals, and philosophers who extol one or another image of the ideal beauty—images that few women could fulfill, even with the aid of cosmetics. To critics who assert that women, as the focus of the male gaze, necessarily become “objects, either decorative or sexual,” Ribeiro replies that women “can appreciate and enjoy their own beauty (and the clothes they wear) without reference to male (or female) judgments, and without any suggestion that their worth is bound up only in appearance.”

Besides her antipathy to feminist criticism, she rarely considers questions of class. Her focus is on elite woman, and those courtesans and prostitutes whose profession it was to serve wealthy men’s sexual desires and fantasies. She acknowledges that the time-consuming, and often expensive, routines of applying cosmetics was an “important part of the elaborate toilette of elite women, but suggests that for “those lower down the social scale, it gave an opportunity for what today one might call ‘me-time,’ respite from the cares and duties of a household.” She does not take into account the self-image of servants, confronted daily with the make-up ritual of women they served, nor the poor, nor women moving aggressively into the workplace in the 1920s and 1930s. They are missing from Ribeiro’s consideration of beauty.

In short, Ribeiro celebrates the use of cosmetics, underscoring the persistent idea that women have a social obligation to present a beautiful visage to the world. In her introduction, she directs our attention to Lady Diana Spencer, who was young, shy, and not particularly good looking when she married Prince Charles: her nose was too big, according to Ribeiro, and her mouth awkwardly turned up. “Yet over the years,” Ribeiro writes, “through experience, deportment, a sense of fashion, a love affair with the camera and most of all—I argue—the cultivation of the cosmetic arts (and skilled hairdressing), she became a beauty.” Admitting that her beauty was “the archetype admired and sanctioned by white western culture,” still Ribeiro sees Diana’s transformation as positive and self-affirming. The surface, she implies, reflected the inner life. Some readers may resist this kind of interpretation; and yet to dismiss Ribeiro’s thorough and captivating history of cosmetics would be a great loss to scholarship.

Linda Simon is professor of English at Skidmore College and the author of biographies and nonfiction, including Genuine Reality: A Life of William James and Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety from the Telegraph to the X-Ray, both published by Harcourt. Her cultural biography, Coco Chanel, was published by Reaktion Books in 2011.

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