Saturday, November 09, 2013

Movies and the 18th century

Late 19th century masquearde costume. More
pictures can be seen in an old blog post of mine, but
I'm sorry to say that the original source is lost.
Do an image seek on “18th century makeup” and you will get all sorts of pictures, but as often as not you will see a makeup tat consist of a very white face, rouge in small spots on the cheeks, eyebrows that have been painted over and re-painted much above the natural ones and a rouse-bud mouth painted smaller than it actually is. Quite often there are green and blue eyeshade, a painted on patch and to top it off, a shiny white wig. From a historical point of view, almost everything is wrong with this makeup. The white face: True, white makeup was used in the 18th century, but modern white makeup is pigmented with Titanium oxide, which actually cover up more than the original lead white. The modern makeup is too white! There are lead substitute available here, which is a mix of pigments to mimic actual lead white. The eyebrows: There are absolutely no suggestions that eyebrows were placed anywhere lese than on their natural place. Neither were they thin lines, but rather groomed but natural in shape. There is evidence of false eyebrows, but nothing that indicates that they were place anywhere else than on the natural place. Eye shadows in any colour were not used in the 18th century. The mouth: A small mouth was considered beautiful, but it was never painted smaller. The small patch of rouge isn’t wrong, though, sometimes rouge were placed like that, but patches were not painted on, they were made of fabric.

Generic 18th century wig that has nothing to
do with the actual 18th entury.
But even if the makeup is not especially accurate it still signals 18th century to us and that is its purpose. This is a stage makeup, which explains why it is so exaggerated- it is made to be visible and easily recognizable from a distance. It is a symbolic 18th century look and I thought it could be fun to see how the 18th century have been portrayed by photos and movies sine the 19th century.

The white wigs which are so synonymous with the 18th century are, more or less, a 19th century invention. Of course white wig were available in the 18th century, but the most common thing seem to have been to use a wig in a more natural colour. Women, usually, wore their own hair with fake braids and hair loops, if necessary and both sexes powdered their hair. But even if the powder was stark white, the effect on hair is a bit different. Only white or very blond hair becomes white, other hair colours get various shades of grey. But in Victorian masquerades and plays white wigs were used, a faster and less messy way to get the desired Rococo hair.


The white wig was picked up by the movie industry, but, as it photographed better, shiny wigs were chosen, rather the opposite of the dull powdered look that had been fashionable in the 18th century.
 Early movies demanded a rather un-natural and heavily made up look to come through on the white screen and part of that was heavily painted eyes. (As a happy coincidence I found a link through The Gibson Girl's Guide to Glamor that explores just this subject, read it here.) If the pale face corresponded well with historical facts, they were rather due to looking good rather than trying for an accurate look.
Theda Bara playing the Vamp, I mean Madame du Barry in 1917. Not much 18th century, very much Theda Bara.
Ziegfeld girl, Marion Benda c. 1920’s
Rudolph Valentino and, I think, Bebe Daniels in Monsieur Beaucaire, 1924
Betty Compson - c. 1920s
 This masquearde outfit is actually more accurate than the movie and dance ones above.
Marjorie Post Hutton, as Marie Antoinette, c. 1926
In fact, throughout decades of movie making and even today, makeup and hair in period movies have varied between more or less accurate, most usually less. Up until the 1960’s or so, an actor or actress had a set look that had to remain the same regardless of where, and when, a movie took place. Rita Hayworth’s trademark, for example, was her long, red hair and when she appeared in short, blond hair in The Lady from Shanghai, the audience was not pleased. Makeup was therefore always perfectly modern and hair styled so it looked modern from the front, but somewhat more period at the back
Stunning Merle Oberon in The Scarlet Pimpernel from 1934, probably the main reason, along with Singin's In the Rain, that I fell in love with the 18th century. Her makeup is her standard Hollywood heroine look and the hair too sleek and flat for an early 1790's look. 
Leslie Howard's hair is pure 1930's apart from a few curls at the temples that are slicked down in his face.


Marion Davies in Hearts Divided, 1936
Marie Antoinette from 1938, a beautiful movie, but not especially accurate when it comes to hair and makeup. Tyrone Power's slicked back hair in perfectly contemporary, but with an added pigtail at the back to give a period air. Norma Shearer's hair looks a bit better then, but borrow style elements from the 1930's.


Many of the wigs were re-used for other movies, like Du Barry Was A Lady from 194. Lucille Ball wear her trademark makeup and why this wig is pink I don't know. Perhaps it was an atempt to mimic coloured hair powder.

The 1950's do the 1920's do the 18th century. 
Jean Hagen in Singin's In the Rain, 1952
 Du Barry again, in a hairstyle that would have worked perfectly for a 1950's party too.

Martine Carol in Madame du Barry, 1954
Apart from the token que, hairstyles on both Albert Finney and Susannah York looks more contemporary than anything else.

Tom Jones, 1963
Barry Lyndon from 1975, introducing a new standard in period hair- the wigs are beautiful! The makeup is properly pale, but the rouge is placed after the fashion of the 1970's and there are too much eye-makeup.

Marisa Berenson
The past 40 years, or so, more effort has been made to make accurate hair and makeup and nowadays the hairstyling usually look quite good. Makeups are more of a hit and miss. The rather un-natural look of the 18th century with white skin, red cheeks and no eye-makeup doesn’t fit well into modern aesthetics and movie makeup usually go a more neutral makeup route with pale skin and very discreet eye makeup. Because another reason for not going for historical accuracy is to not alienate the audience.  A too period correct look may look odd or even ugly to the modern eye. For example, when The Scarlet Pimpernel was made into a TV-series in 1999, lady Blakeney, played by Elizabeth McGovern had a pretty correct period makeup and plenty of reviewers noted that Marguerite wasn’t beautiful enough and looked clumsily made up and that even though McGovern is pretty gorgeous in herself. The hair wasn't especially exiting, though, on either sex.

Richard E. Grant, Elizabeth McGovern and Martin Shaw
 Jane Seymour with rather good hair and a pure early 1980's makeup.

The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1982
 The wigs in Amadeus, 1984, are just plain crazy.

Tom Hulce
Dangerous Liasions, 1988, is probably one of the best costume movies ever, and the hair is really good. The makeup tend toward neautral/pretty accurate, but the rouge is usually placed after contemporary fashion.
Glenn Close, John Malcovich and Michelle Pfeiffer
 My favourite hairmovie, however, is the mini-series Aristocrats from 1999. Spanning most of the 18th century, hairstyles change accordingly. The picture here shows the three actresses who plays Lady Emily Lennox at different stages of her life.

Geraldine Sommerville, Hayley Griffiths and Siân Phillips
If you find the subject interesting, I really recommned Hollywood and History, Costume Design In Film by Edward Maeder, Alicia Annas, Satch Lavalley and Elois Jensen                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              


  1. Costume dramas are important when it comes to inspire me. I definitely fell in love with late 18th century when I saw The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982) and it's still a film where I know most of the lines by heart.

    1. Absolutely! I love costume movies, but I also think that it is important to remember that they also reflect the time tehy were made in. :)

  2. Thank you for your interesting and informative post.

    What you've said about makeup in movies depicting the 18th century is as interesting as what you've said about 18th century makeup. If you don't have a copy, I recommend that you read a book called Hollywood and History, which explores in some detail how historical costumes have been distorted in "costume dramas".

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

      Oh yes, it is a great book- I recommend it by the end of the post. :) I would like a new edition updated with newer movies.

  3. I think Lucille Ball's pink wig was meant to imitate powdered red hair (she was so famously a redhead.)

    As to the wigs in Amadeus, I have a costume book that discusses that style of wig, called the Hedgehog. It came into fashion around the 1780s.

    And thanks for the link back!

    1. (Though I will add, since Amadeus is guilty of using synthetic white wigs instead of powder, I do think a hedgehog formally styled with grease and pomade wouldn't have looked that soft and fuzzy.) The book that talks about the hedgehog is R. Turner Wilcox's "Mode in Costume" copyright 1942. It says the style was also called a Brutus.

    2. As far as I know the male hedgehog style had much shorter hair on the top of the head- Amadeus wigs looks more like ye ordianrie 1980's pop singer to me. Like Limahl. But in a way that fits very well with the story, so arguable the wigs reflects more about Mozarts persona and not the actual fashion. Forman's movie's are genrerally quite nonchalant about period correctness when it comes to costumes and hair.

    3. I'm not sure, I think all the wigs in that movie's are borrowed from Marie Antoinette. She is wear ing otehr ones that are the plain white variety and she also wears her normal, red hair in the movie. But even so, it may still have been powdered red hair that was the goal, even if it was made for Marie Antoinette. Where it wouldn't have shown, as it was in black-and-white, but evidently they spent a lot of time matching a blue garment to Norma Shearer's blue eyes in that movies, so why not. :)

      My pleasure. :)

    4. I suspect, if nothing else, the costumer for Amadeus used Wilcox's book as a reference. It's an old book from back when it was difficult to reproduce photos or paintings, so everything is re-drawn, and the hedgehog/Brutus wigs look more like the ones from Amadeus than what usually turns up when you Google "hedgehog wig."

  4. Thanks for this post - I didn't know all of them! I've clearly gone off the deep end as I love the early ones...

    Seeing the progression like this really makes certain things pop, like the 80s makeup in Dangerous Liasons!

    1. I must confess for loving those too... One of these days I must do a meta 18th century costume with a shiny white wig!

      I remember when I saw Dangerous Lisions when it came that I thought everything was so authentic. 25 years later the makeup doesn't quite seems so anymore... ;)


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