Cranleigh Arts Centre
West Surrey Area
Museums & Art Galleries
Deep: the Beastly Art of Beauty; Reality and Ridicule
Report of the lecture given by Amanda Herries MA
June 23rd 2010
have never before attended a DFAS lecture with more laughs, or gasps of horror
to be heard from the audience!
We were first asked to consider the
efforts we all make to look and smell pleasing. We use soaps, shampoos, creams,
powders and perfumes. We choose our clothes carefully and visit the
hairdressers to make ourselves appear, perhaps, more attractive, younger,
fashionable and generally pleasing to the eye. It seems this was always the
case. There is evidence from ancient societies, such as the Egyptians and the
Greeks, showing the use of potions, lotions, makeup and decorative clothing.
There is even more evidence from the 17th and 18th centuries - many portraits
of fashionable people, artefacts and literary evidence. Even Shakespeare refers
to this when Hamlet says to Ophelia "God gives you one face, and you give
yourself another." However, the best evidence comes from the great
cartoonists and satirists of the day, such as Hogarth and Cruickshank, who show,
by exaggeration, how ridiculous we make ourselves when we become "fashion
It seems that red hair was very fashionable in the early 17th
century - no doubt imitating Good Queen Bess - which seems reasonable, until we
hear that hair dyes were concoctions including honey, rhubarb, potassium and
The Puritans discouraged artificial enhancement
but from the middle of the century, for 150 years, fashion became more and more
ridiculous, and indeed positively dangerous.
The use of "patches"
on the face, was the fashion for 150 years. These were made of silk, black
taffeta or red leather and were glued on to, perhaps, cover a scar or pimple.
They could be anything, from a simple star or moon shape, to a silhouette of a
During this time Charles 1st introduced the
wearing of men's wigs (periwigs) no doubt because he was losing his own hair!
They were long and intricately curled. The curls were held in place with lots
of animal fats, and to cover the fat they were heavily powdered with corn
starch or plaster of paris. How heavy they must have been - and how hot and
smelly! Wigs, clothes and human bodies saw very little washing during this
period, but, never mind, you could cover up the stench with lots of strong
perfumes! Women used their own hair, but hairstyles became larger, and taller
as time went on. They were enlarged with pads and pieces, and heavily greased
and powdered, like the men's wigs, and decorated with flowers, fruit or dyed
ostrich feathers. Men could take their wigs off to sleep, but ladies had to
sleep sitting up to preserve the "hair-do" which would last for
several months! Ladies would carry, in their pockets (useful little draw string
bags) a handy little kit of essential items that included a tool with a scoop
for removing ear wax at one end, and a spike at the other end for scratching
their very itchy scalp!
Cosmetics were worse! It was the fashion
to have smooth pale complexions with rouged cheeks and lips. This look was
achieved with creams and pastes made with lead powder, mercury and arsenic! One
fashionable lady, Maria Gunning, died of lead poisoning at 27 years of age.
Clothes for the rich and fashionable were beautiful, heavily embroidered
creations. We can see them in the lovely paintings by Gainsborough, Reynolds
and the like. However, the body shape necessary to wear them was achieved with
extremely tight corsets, whalebone and lacings. Some bits of the body, such as
calves, bottoms, shoulders, busts, were exaggerated with pads, to give a
It wasn't until the 1790's, when there was
drought and famine in England, that sense began to prevail. How can you waste
corn on making hair powder, when people are starving? The government put a tax
of a guinea on hair powder. It became so expensive that only the rich, such as
lawyers and doctors clung on to their wigs.
So, when we raise our eyebrows to some bizarre modern fashion, or
tut tut over people resorting to cosmetic surgery, botox and the like, we will
remember Amanda's fascinating lecture, and know that nothing is new!
archaeologist by training, Amanda Herries worked at the Museum of London for ten
years, specialising in social history and the decorative arts of the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries, and lecturing and writing. In 1988 she went to live in
Tokyo, Japan, with her family. While in Japan, she wrote extensively on Japanese
culture and art collections and she continued lecturing for Japanese audiences,
often appearing on television. In 1995 she returned with her family to Britain,
bringing a Japanese tea-house to feature in a new garden in Scotland. She now
lectures on a number of English and Anglo-Japanese subjects, including gardens.