Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Mercredi: The Art of Beauty

Reputedly Venus had a beauty spot, one lovely drop of darkness to highlight her perfect complexion, the imperfection that made her beauty complete.  It was probably in emulation of the goddess that patching was known in Roman times.  Patches first began to appear in England in the late sixteenth century, the fashion reaching its height in the later seventeenth century and remaining popular into the eighteenth.  ~ from the book Beauty and Cosmetics 1550-1950 by Sarah Jane Downing

Historical ideas of beauty are certainly as fascinating as our own and the curious habit of “patching” – applying a piece of fabric or leather to the face with glue – is one of those seemingly odd points of fashion that perhaps we as moderns should pay attention to.  Patching became a habit, one might even say an addiction, for certain fashionable people in the era mentioned above.  Some renowned belles and beaus patched whole sections of their face, neck and décolleté.  In other instances, patches were used to signify political affiliation.  Much like tattoos today, patches had multiple meanings and were not limited on some bodies to one here and there.

Patches began as small lozenges made of black velvet, silk or leather that were glued to the skin of the face.  Occasionally, the patch was a bright scarlet red.  These were used as beauty enhancers on the stark white makeup that was made popular by Elizabeth I of England.  Known as ceruse, the makeup was manufactured from lead and could do damage not only to the skin but the whole body.  Lesions and sores, as well as pimples, warts, moles and other “disfigurements” could be covered with the patches to achieve a seemingly perfect complexion.

As the fad for patching increased, particularly after the Restoration in England, patches themselves grew more and more fanciful in shape and even size.  Along with lozenges, which grew large enough in some instances to cover half of one’s chin, horseshoes, crescent moons, stars and in very extreme cases silhouettes of a coach and four were popular. 

In France, where patches were often shaped like little bees in flight, critics began to call the things mouche meaning fly because they appeared to swarm on fashionable skins.  There is, as usual with French speakers, a bit of an in joke to this dig; mouche a miel. “honey fly”, is the term for bee in French and mouche, like puce (flea) or chou (cabbage) was a term of affection.

Placement of the patches also became a language unto itself.  As Downing points out a patch placed on a dimple in the chin or cheek, popular with dandies, was known as “gallant.”  “Coquette” brought attention to a lovely smile while “passion” appeared at the corner of the eye.  Later, during the reign of England’s Queen Anne and beyond, women patched to show their political opinions.  From the Spectator of 1711:

Politically minded dames used their patches as party symbols: the Whigs patching on the right, and the Tories on the left side of their faces, while those who were neutral, decorated both cheeks.

Certainly not far from modern tattooing or t-shirt designs as fashion that makes a statement goes.

Even Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist who originally decried patching, came around in his entry of November 4, 1660 where he writes, “My wife seemed very pretty today, it being the first time I had given her leave to wear a black patch.”  This response seems to have broken the dam for young Elizabeth Pepys, who the rest of her short life became an avid wearer of patches.  A votre santé mes petite mouches ~

Header: A Lady Fastening Her Garter by Francois Boucher


Timmy! said...

Well, unlike tattoos, at least the patches weren't permanent, Pauline. The lead based make-up on the other hand...

Pauline said...

Absolutely; the whole death/beauty relationship there is just too easy.