We know the Victorians were extremely innovative in almost every aspect of life, but you really have to see the beauty routines of the time.
We love to romanticize the past. Just take a look at new trends, your wardrobe, or even at your Facebook feed. There’s a 99.9% chance there’s at least one reference to the nineties, to your childhood, or even to an event that happened a few years ago. There’s nothing strange about it. It’s quite common to feel nostalgia for those periods we consider to have been so precious. Moreover, it’s also quite normal to love a historical period so much that we wish we were born in that time.
In my teens, I was obsessed with the Victorian era. For me, it was a time of revolution and discoveries, a glamorous transition to the modern age. The elegant dresses and fancy suits, the refined manners, the balls, castles, and manors, it was all like a fantasy I would’ve loved to had experienced, well, leaving aside the ultra-conservative norms. Anyhow, I used to spend hours wondering how my life would’ve been back then until I realized I would’ve been one of the millions living in deplorable conditions, working at a factory almost all day for a miserable salary. But the only ones to blame are the movies and shows set during that time, since they portray a romanticized century.
But let’s go back to the core of the article: beauty. Just as I realized I wouldn’t have had the luxurious life of the aristocracy, I also found out that even they lived a strange (not to say gross) lifestyle compared to the one we have today. One of the most shocking things for me about the intimate life of Victorians was their hygiene and beauty routines. Seriously, after reading this you’ll change the idea you have of them.
To start with, let’s talk about their hygiene routines. Of course, I’m going to focus on the aristocratic class since, obviously, they were the ones who set and followed these trends. Others didn’t have the time or energy to care about beauty products or the fancy clothes they'd wear at Lord Something’s ball. So, even for the upper classes, the concept of hygiene wasn’t even close to what we understand nowadays.
In her book Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners, Therese Oneill explains that even upper classes would take a formal bath once a month, and by formal I mean soaking themselves in the tub, nothing that meticulous. Women, for instance, would wash with a sponge soaked in water and vinegar during the weeks between baths. Still, even with the baths, their cleaning wasn’t that thorough, since it was forbidden for them to take a bath naked, so you’d had a dirty robe over your body and would try to wash as you could.
Speaking of the great gowns and dresses, let me take the magic away from your mind. Clothes were rarely washed out of fear of messing the delicate and intricate embroidery and ornaments, so they would match them with clean white shirts or camisoles to prove their cleanliness. Moreover, if you were wondering how tiring it would’ve been to go to the bathroom, let me tell you they had a very inventive solution. Their undergarments had a hole on the crotch area, so whenever they wanted to pee or do number two, they would just have to squat over a little bit. They would later clean themselves with some newspaper, tree leaves, or just get creative.
Not to mention that water at the time wasn’t the purest and cleanest thing ever. At the time, in London, for instance, both the streets and the Thames river were filled with animal and human waste, garbage, and other mysterious elements. They were the best medium for bacteria and viruses to grow, which provoked endless diseases, so you can imagine how the living conditions were even for wealthy people. Together with the smell of the streets, their own smell was so strong they had to wear excessive amounts of perfume they could get at stores or do by themselves. Some of the most popular scents at the time were made with wine or other spiritual beverages, vinegar, and flower-scented oils, but there were some that would use whale intestines to make the scent last longer. Pretty, isn’t it?
Let’s talk a bit about beauty products. As you might know, the respectable Victorian lady had to be naturally beautiful, so it wasn’t well seen for them to openly use makeup. However, that didn’t mean they didn’t wear it. Some of them had to be creative and create their own products, because it would be scandalous to be seen buying them. For instance, they would use coal, or even burnt toast mixed with milk to create their own liquid liner, or burn a candle and put a dish on top so that the black burnt part of the plate could be mixed with oil, mercury, or lard to darken their lashes and eyebrows.
Flawless skin was the goal, and to achieve that porcelain white skin they would use lead (yes, lead) to remove all the imperfections, even dying in the attempt. Women with freckles or any other skin mark rinsed their faces with lemon or even carbonic acid, and took sunbathes so that the stains would be burned off. Just as they did dangerous things for beauty’s sake, having the perfect body was essential just as it is today. However, during Victorian times, the standard wasn’t the extreme skin body. On the contrary women who were too slim were seen as sick and not attractive. Here the ideal was looking plump but not fat, so to solve that, women who were a bit overweight for the standard would consume arsenic, cocaine, and even tapeworms. Please don’t try this at home.
Finally, hair was one of the most important things, and women really invested a lot of time and effort in having the perfect hair. So, as a matter of fact, they basically never washed it, since their locks were generally, extremely long. Girls were allowed to have it loose, but the moment they turned fourteen or fifteen, they had to tie it in complicated updos. Having long hair was seen as extremely feminine and seductive, and for that reason, only their husbands could see them with their hair down. Now, to achieve all those elaborate buns and coiffures, they recurred to a wide variety of products and creative tricks. A substance called ballantine was widely used as a sort of sticky gel or spray to fix their hairdos. This gummy solution was often mixed with alcoholic spirits like whiskey, and colored with natural inks to give shine and a nice tone to the hair. Now, to wash it, they would go for aVictorian alternative to dry shampoo that included ammonia (which is highly corrosive when it reacts to water) to kill any probable lice and remove all the dirt accumulated during the day. Those who didn’t trust ammonia that much would make an onion preparation to remove the grease from the hair, and make it strong and shiny.
It wasn’t only a matter of making it look great. There was an underlying reason to use these products. Due to the dangerous products they used in their hair routines, most of them would go bald in some spots or would have a terrible skin condition on their scalps, so they would use the hairs left on their combs to create balls called rats or ratts, which they'd use in their intricate coiffures to cover their scalp and give it more volume. So, now you know how to create your own hairstyling props without spending too much!
Now, after hearing all of these facts, living in the Victorian Era doesn't sound as glamorous or as clean.
Victorians were definitely something else. Take a look at more of their strange habits: