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“Standards of Beauty” in 18th and Early 19th Century England and America



The ideal of feminine beauty is a specific set of traits that are ingrained in women throughout their lives and from an early age to increase their perceived physical attractiveness. There have been many ideas over time and across diverse cultures of what the feminine beauty ideal is for a woman's body image. How well a woman followed these beauty ideals could influence her social status within society. Although the traits change over time and vary in country and culture, the feminine beauty traits for most of history included, but were not limited to female body shape, facial features, skin tones, height, clothing style, hairstyle, and body weight. In today’s post we are going to look at the ideals of beauty in 18th and early 19th century Anglo-French and American society.


Changing Standards of Beauty

The eighteenth century, in both England and her colonies, was an era of rapid economic and social change. As a result, outward appearances could give expression to a wide range of social and cultural factors relating to class, gender, sexuality, and even political affiliation. Prevailing notions of sociability and ‘politeness’ placed great emphasis on ideals of physical beauty. In an age where disease and disfigurement were commonplace and the working classes had skin darkened and roughened by hard labor and exposure to the weather, a pale, smooth complexion was most desired as a sign of social status. Members of the aristocracy were often criticized for their heavy-handed use of face-paint and the middle-classes were ridiculed for emulating them.

Late 17th Century English Lady
Late 17th Century English Lady

The 18th Century

The perfect 18th century face was an oval with a small straight nose, slightly rosy cheeks and lips and a white complexion, typifying contemporary aesthetic ideals of symmetry, proportion, and coloring. One could easily argue that this was based largely upon the ideals of the late 17th and early 18th century. André Félibien, a French chronicler of the arts and the official court historian to Louis XIV of France, supplied the following classical description of beauty often using Venus as the ideal image:

  • The Head should be well rounded, and incline to small rather than large.

  • The Forehead white, smooth, and open (not with the hair growing down too deep upon it;) neither flat nor prominent, but like the head well rounded; and small in proportion rather than large.

  • The Hair either bright (blonde), black or brown; not thin, but full and waving, and if it falls in moderate curls the better.

  • The Eyes, black, chestnut, or blue; clear, bright, and lively, and large in proportion rather than small.

  • The Eyebrows, well divided, and full rather than thin; semicircular, and broader in the middle than at the ends.

  • The Cheeks should not be wide; should have a degree of plumpness, with the red and white finely blended; and should look firm and soft.

  • The Ear should be small rather than large; well folded, and with an agreeable tinge of red.

  • The Nose should be placed to divide the face into two equal parts; should be of a moderate size, straight, and well-squared, though sometimes a little rising in the nose may give a very graceful look to it.

  • The Mouth should be small; and the lips not of equal thickness: They should be well-turned, small rather than gross; soft, even to the eye; and with a living red in them. A truly pretty mouth is like a rosebud that is beginning to blow.

  • The Teeth should be middle-sized, white, well-ranged, and even.

  • The Chin, of a moderate size; white soft, and agreeably rounded.

  • The Neck should be white, straight, and of a soft, easy, and flexible make, long rather than short; less above, and increasing gently toward the shoulders: The whiteness and delicacy of its skin should be continued, or go on improving, to the bosom.

  • The Skin in general should be white, properly tingled with red; with a clear softness, and a look of thriving health in it.

  • The Shoulders should be white, gently spread, and with a much softer appearance of strength, than in those of men.

  • The Arm should be white, round, firm, and soft and more particularly so from the elbow to the hands.

  • The Hand should unite insensibly with the arm. They should be long and delicate, and even the joints and nervous parts of them should be without either any hardness or dryness.

  • The Fingers should be fine, long, round, and soft; small, and lessening towards the tips of them. The Nails long, rounded at the ends, and pellucid (translucent).

  • The Bosom should be white and charming; and the breasts equal in roundness, whiteness, and firmness; neither too much elevated, nor too much depressed; rising gently, and very distinctly separated.

  • The Sides should be long, and the hips wider than the shoulders…and go down rounding and lessening gradually to the knee.

  • The Knee should be even, and well-rounded. The Legs straight but varied by a proper rounding of the fleshier part of them. The Feet finely turned, white, and little.

Late 18th Century English Woman
Late 18th Century English Woman

A hundred years later in 1787, a Georgian gentleman detailed his idea of beauty. He noted that “everyone will make what alteration his own taste may suggest,” and supplied a thirty-point list:

  • Youth.

  • Stature, neither too high nor too low.

  • Neither too fat nor too lean.

  • Symmetry and proportion of all parts.

  • Long hair, or prettily curled, fine and silky soft.

  • The skin smooth, delicate, and of a fine grain. Lively white and red.

  • A smooth high forehead.

  • The temples are not sunk in.

  • The eyebrows in arcade, like two lines.

  • The eyes blue, their orbits well-fashioned, and turned to sweetness.

  • The nose is long rather than short.

  • The cheeks rounded away in softened profiles and dimpled.

  • A small mouth with an agreeable smile and two lips, pouting, of the coral hue.

  • Teeth, pearly white, even, and well set.

  • The chin is round, plump, and ending with a dimple.

  • The ears are small, and close to the head.

  • A neck of ivory.

  • A breast of alabaster, like two balls of snow, firm, self-sustained, and deliciously distanced.

  • A white hand, plump and long, with fingers tapering and nails of mother-o’-pearl, and oval-formed.

  • A sweet breath.

  • An agreeable voice.

  • A free unaffected air and carriage with a modest gait and deportment.

  • The shape noble, easy, and disengaged.

As we can see, not too much had changed in the period between the early and late 18th centuries.


The Early 19th Century

By the beginning of the 19th century, ideas about feminine beauty had shifted dramatically. While many of the physical traits considered to signify beauty had not changed, because of the political climate of the era romanticism of the ‘natural’ state moved to the forefront of people’s minds. The ideal nineteenth century beauty had pale, almost translucent skin, rosy cheeks, crimson lips, white teeth, and sparkling eyes. She was waspishly thin with elegant collarbones.


However, physical appearance alone was not enough to ensure that one would be seen as beautiful or socially acceptable. By 1800, ancient Greek influence had permeated period beauty ideals. The Book of Health and Beauty notes:


“The Greeks, then, conceived that beauty was necessary to inspire love; but that the power of Venus was fleeting and transitory, unless she was attired and accompanied by the Graces, that is, unless ease and affability, gentleness and spirit, good humor, modesty, ingenuousness and candor engaged the admirers that beauty attracted.”


Grace in all areas had to be entirely natural because any affectation would destroy the effect. To be considered graceful every motion needed to be free from confusion or hurry while, at the same time, being lively and animated. Not only did all the motions of the legs, hands and arms need to be graceful, but the head, neck and even her speech had to display grace as well.

Early 19th Century American Woman
Early 19th Century American Woman

The development of grace required practice, so lessons in deportment began early. Those who were teaching deportment in this period were those who had learned their social graces in the late 18th century, influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment era. One such “teacher,” who wrote a series of essays on the subject, wrote:


“Politeness’ may be defined as a dexterous management of our words and actions, whereby we make other people have better opinion of us and themselves.”


Women began such practice in childhood as they learned to move properly in the long skirts required by fashion and decorum. Small steps that pushed skirts out of the way allowed a woman to appear to glide as she moved. Steps would be made from the knee, rather the hips, because swaying the hips as one walked was thought unseemly. Turns were made with the entire body allowing garments to turn elegantly and gracefully. When sitting, a woman kept her knees spread, rather than crossing her legs, to keep their skirts neat. Arms kept gracefully at one's side, emphasizing the long, elegant column of her classically inspired, empire-waist gown. If she had to cross her arms, it was done at the high waistline, so as not to spoil the line of her gown.


During the Regency/Federal/Jeffersonian era women were expected to be meek, obedient, docile, fragile, and dependent on the men in their lives. She was expected to use correct English and to avoid vulgarity in speech. A woman’s appearance was her crowning glory; therefore, a woman was expected to take care with her dress and hair. The well-bred woman was thought to have a “natural” sense of delicacy and grace which came from her training at an early age. Taste and poise, it was believed, should come naturally to her. It was a serious mark against her breeding to be seen to publicly worry about her looks.


The significance of these matters could not be underestimated, a young woman’s social standing, and her prospects for the future depended on her reputation, for once her reputation was tarnished, nothing could bring it back. For her, the utmost care to all aspects of deportment was needed since, although these patterns of deportment might appear awkward and restrictive, they safeguarded against misunderstanding and embarrassment.

Here are a few general deportment guidelines for the well-bred woman:

  • She walked upright, stood, and moved with grace and ease. She kept an elegance of manners and deportment and so was never awkward in either manner or behavior. She could respond to any social situation with calm assurance. She always spoke, sat, and moved with elegance and propriety.

  • She was never pretentious or ostentatious. She behaved with courteous dignity to acquaintance and stranger alike but kept at arm's length any who presumed too great a familiarity.

  • She controlled her features, her physical body, and her speech when in company. Overt displays of emotion were considered ill-bred. Laughter was to be moderated in polite company.

  • Vulgarity was unacceptable in any form and was continually guarded against. Indiscretions, liaisons, and outrageous behavior were forgivable, but vulgarity never was. Icy politeness was her best weapon in putting vulgar individuals in their place.

  • For her to be thought 'fast' or to show a lack of proper conduct was the worst possible social stigma. For this reason, she did not engage in any activity that might give rise to gossip. For example, whether married or single, she did not call at a man's lodging.

  • Appropriate subjects for polite conversation include current events, describing a novel or play, telling of some recent experience, discussing poetry, music, love, or friendship. Subjects of an intimate nature such as childbirth should be avoided in polite conversation as well as puns, long arguments, gossip, and the subjects of religion and politics (although it is questionable whether gossip was truly avoided between close acquaintances). She was never to refer to any of those male activities about which a lady should feign ignorance.

  • When introduced to a gentleman she must not give her hand, but merely curtsey or acknowledge the person with a nod of the head. The curtsy, or other acknowledgement, was executed according to the status and relationship of the person encountered and with consideration of the circumstance.

These standards, whether from the 17th, 18th, or early 19th centuries are, to many of us living in the 21st century, problematic at best. They have many problems from today's perspective, ranging from a preference for "white" skin, to that they created an unrealistic image that society set for women to live up to. They often changed throughout the years and women were expected to change themselves to fit the image if they want to be perceived as “pretty” or “beautiful.” Today, we realize that the changing definition of beauty and the standards set by society and the media can be toxic and harmful to women.


The Norfolk Towne Assembly is publishing this article not because we agree with the ideas of women needing to meet “standards of beauty” but, because if we are to understand and portray the 18th and early 19th centuries accurately then we must have knowledge of the “standards of beauty” that were considered “normal” in that period.


Thank you for joining us for today’s post exploring “standards of beauty” in 18th and early 19th century England and America. Hopefully, this article has given you some understanding of the expectations that society of that period placed on women. Please join us again in two weeks for our next post where we will return to our occasional series on the practice of Living History with a look at the relationship of Historical Dramas on TV and Cinema to the practice of Living History.


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Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.


References

Bell, J. (1787). The Dictionary of Love. London: British Library.


Craig, W. (1811). The Female Instructor; or, Young Woman's Companion. Liverpool: Nuttall, Fisher, and Dixon.


Distinction, A Lady of. (1811). The Mirror of the Graces; or, The English Lady's Costume. London: B. Crosby and Son.


Gisborne, T. (1801). An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex. London: A. Strahan.


Hay, W. (1771). Fugitive Pieces on Various Subjects. London: J. Dodsley.


Walton, G. (2014, August 25). Ideas of Female Beauty in the 1700 and 1800s. Retrieved from Geri Walton; Unique histories from the 18th and 19th centuries: https://www.geriwalton.com/ideas-of-female-beauty-in-1700-and-1800s/


Z., A. (1812, April 30). On Elegance in Conversation. The Belfast Monthly Magazine, 8(45), pp. 260-262.




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