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 , opined that hair was, as historian Philippe Braunstein notes in A History of Private Life: Revelations of the Medieval World: Paris
… 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.
Italy, meanwhile, the so-called hennin headdress that originated in 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. Burgundy
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