Saturday, 26 July 2014

Rouge à la Mode!

The rose-red circles on a pale face is one of the best known features of the cosmetics of the 18th century. It was used to highlight the whiteness (really white) of the skin.

Sadly, for a fashion-conscious woman of Versailles, rouge was often made from toxic materials; for example the nuance "vermilion" was contained mercury while "creuse" had lead in it. Therefore, it was not uncommon for women to suffer from skin problems and in the worst cases it could even lead to death. Still, by 1781 it was estimated that French women went through 2.000.000 pots of rouge every year!

The rouge were in powder-form and arrived in decorative boxes - the lady would apply it to her face with the use of wet wool or more commonly a brush. She would normally make actual circles or streaks on her cheeks that would reach the lower eye-lashes. It was common to apply one layer of a darker colour first, then a slightly lighter tone on top of that.
The ladies at Versailles were among the few who could afford rouge made from cochineal insects (carmine) from as far away as South America! Some rouges were even scented with a flowery note. As the demand for rouge rose so did the supply which meant that soon rouge could be quite cheap. To keep the prestige of the trend the noble ladies ordered their rouge in ornate boxes which were sometimes worth more than the actual rouge.

18th century rouge box with brush

The court at Versailles was renowned - and notorious - for the fashionable red circles which were imposed on every new princess arriving from abroad including Marie Leszczynska and Marie Antoinette. The latter wrote to her mother of her daily rutine:

"I apply my rouge and wash my hands in front of the whole world!" 

Actually, the court of France was the only one that really engaged in the usage of rouge on a larger scale which resulted in many a comment from foreign visitors. The Scotsman Tobias Smollett was very much against it exclaiming: "this horrible mask destroys all distinction of features."
Even gentlemen used rouge though on a lesser scale than their ladies.

Billedresultat for 18th century rouge
Madame de Pompadour applying
rouge with a delicate brush

There was quite a lot of symbolism connected with the usage of rouge. First of all, it was to indicate health (believe it or not) as well as modesty - or even sexual arousal! Then there was the symbol for those who cared to think twice about it: the flow of blood to the cheeks could be seen as a reference to the blood of the nobility, that is to say a higher class.
It was a trend for the young and beautiful. The Comtesse de Genlis stopped using rouge when she turned 30 years old because she knew that "old women" who wore rouge were talked ill of.

Madame Adélaîde
During the 18th century the trend spread from the aristocracy to the rising middle-class and bourgeoisie in France. With the French revolution rouge almost disappeared from the toilette of high-strung ladies because it was associated too much with the nobility and extravagance. Those bourgeois-women who wanted to follow the trend but did not have the purse to follow it used more natural sources which were far better for the health. These materials were safflowers, sandalwood and safran; they would also prefer a pinker tone to the deep scarlet of the nobility.

There were different types of rouge:

  • In powder-form where the powder could be mixed with grease or the more exclusive rose water in order to make it easier to apply with a brush.
  • Then there was au crépon where a piece of cloth or handkerchief was dyed with for example carmine which would be made moistened and dabbed onto the face.
  • Finally, there was liquid rouge which would be based on vinegar and would leave a longer-lasting colour

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