My lady! You do look ravishing!

Beauty and Cosmetics: 16th Century verses the 21st century

By Lady Mary Fleming

Today’s standard of what is deemed beautiful is much different than what considered fashionable in Elizabethan times.  Today we have a wide range of cosmetics to create many types of looks, depending on personal preference. Some apply make up to enhance their natural beauty, while others create a totally different persona through the use of colorful eye shadows liners, mascaras, lipsticks and glosses.

In the 16th century snow white skin, red lips and cheeks and blond or red-gold hair were what was considered beautiful.  Alabaster skin was the sign of nobility and wealth, if you were sun tanned it signified that you worked outdoors and were of lower birth.  During these times there was no sunscreen and only the very rich could afford skin creams and skin problems such as the pox were very common. The smooth, pale, unblemished complexion that was so highly sought after was rarely a natural occurrence, so most painted their faces.

The most popular way to whiten the skin was by applying ceruse. This mixture of vinegar and white lead was highly favored by nobility and others who could afford it. There were other methods of whitening the skin. A paste made of alum and tin ash was used and sulpher could be used as well.  Foundations were also made with the base component being either boiled egg white, talc and other white materials.  They also applied uncooked egg white as a glaze to create a smooth shell to hide wrinkles.  Once the perfect whiteness was attained, some completed the look by painting false veins.

Face paint or fucus, came in a variety of reds but vermilion was the preferred material to paint cheeks and stain lips. Woman would also line their eyes with kohl and use drops of belladonna to create to make their eyes look bright and sparkly. Women also plucked their eyebrows at this time, so there is no need to go to faire with caterpillars above your eyes if you normally groom your brows.

I feel make up at faire is a personal choice.  I personally use my modern day make up in the appropriate shade for my skin color. The brand I is Bare Accentuals, which is a mineral powder. It covers imperfections well and gives you a matte look without clogging the pores. In my opinion, it does not feel like I am even wearing makeup. I tend to keep my eye shadows neutral and my eye liner brown.  Since we are photographed many times, I will apply the colors so they are more noticeable.  For my lips I use a lip balm with no color but with sunscreen added.  Throughout the day, I use blotting papers, instead of a compact, to reduce shine.  A compact just applies more makeup and layers of makeup tend to cake up during the day.

Some people prefer to do period makeup.  If that’s the look you are going after, by all means, have at it. But considering the poisonous nature of 16th century cosmetics, I would recommend finding other methods to archive the treasured alabaster skin.


Source: Elizabethan Make-up 101 by Drea Leed (