Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Mercredi: The Art of Beauty

The Western lexicon of beauty has, to one degree or another, usually included young women with high foreheads and light hair.  This “fairytale princess” archetype truly came into her own in the late Medieval and early Renaissance periods, when women went to extremes to remove and bleach their hair to fit the ideal.  The looks achieved differed depending on the area of Europe, but the two most readily recognizable to us as moderns came from the areas we now know as France and Italy.

In both regions, methods of hair removal were the same and, to some degree, just as shockingly painful as they are today.  Women carefully plucked and tweezed hair from every area of the face, including the nose, eyebrows, hairline and neck.  Although these were the most readily identifiable areas of hair removal, no part of the body was spared. 

The goal was to achieve a glowing, smooth finish to the skin and hair got in the way more often than not.  Medical papers of the era, coming out of the newly authoritative Universities built in large cities like Rome and Paris, opined that hair was, as historian Philippe Braunstein notes in A History of Private Life: Revelations of the Medieval World:

… the condensation of crude vapors and that excess feminine moisture which did not flow naturally was transformed into moss that should be trimmed.

This theory explained why post-menopausal women grew more hair on certain areas of their bodies, their “natural flow” having been stopped up.  It also sent any woman who had the time running for rags soaking in hot pitch and lime-based depilatories to yank out all that unruly “moss”.

On the face, tweezers were generally the favored hair remover but those who wanted to go the extra mile for beauty might have heated needles inserted into hair follicles to destroy the roots.  Curiously, Geoffroy De La Tour Landry turned this treatment around and made it a torture inflicted on vain women in Hell.  In his eponymous Book of 1371 he writes:

In every hole that [the sinner’s] hair hath been plucked out, the devil thrusteth a burning needle into [her] brain.

Take that, vanity.

The resulting effect, of a perfectly oval face lacking much in the way of eyebrows and with a forehead so high that not a hair can be detected under the elaborate, dark headdress, has been termed “the pious egg.”  As witnessed in the painting at the header, only the very hint of golden hair is seen and that because the sitter is an unmarried girl.  The effect is completed by a loop of black velvet which accentuates the paleness of the forehead.

In Italy, meanwhile, the so-called hennin headdress that originated in Burgundy was eschewed for complicated hairdos that mimicked Classical curls and braids.  The hair was bleached in the sun at every opportunity, using lemon juice and even watered down lye to encourage the hair to a brassy, yellow sheen.  A good example of this, split ends and all, can be found in Alesso Baldovinetti’s 1465 Portrait of a Lady in Yellow.  The forehead, right down to the black velvet loop, matches the northern girl’s, but the rest of the style has a more Mediterranean flair.

Of course fashions change but then too they do seem to stay the same…  A votre santé ~

Header: Portrait of a Girl by Petrus Christus c 1450 via Wikimedia

6 comments:

Timmy! said...

You know how I feel about my own hair, Pauline, but some of those do seem a bit extreme... No more so than some of the things people do today to try and look "beautiful", though.

Pauline said...

I think that's the point, at least for me; the more things change, the more they stay the same.

KWillow said...

Just imagine what they would have done if they'd thought of the Hot Wax treatment.

Pauline said...

Good point, K. Although it might have been just a tad more pleasant than the hot pitch...

Ana said...

I have always wondered how they did it - thanks for explaining it :) !

Pauline said...

Thank you, Ana. Probably a little TMI for most folks but for history geeks like us, that stuff is gold!