Elizabethan Make-up 101

by Drea Leed

Period Commentary on Make-up | Elizabethan Beauty Recipies

The cosmetics worn by women during the time of Queen Elizabeth differed radically from those we wear today. Not only were the materials used--kohl, ceruse, vermilion, etc--far different, but the look that women tried to achieve was different as well. Standards of beauty change over the centuries. To understand the cosmetics worn by Elizabethan women, it's important to understand the effect they were trying to achieve--that "ideal" of beauty that they wanted to imitate.

One of Shakespeare's most popular sonnets pokes fun at the common metaphors used to describe the ideal beauty:

Even without corroboration from other period sources, one can begin to catch a glimpse of the ideal Elizabethan female: bright eyes, snow-white skin, red cheeks and lips, and fair hair. A fair approximation of this ideal can be found in Lettice Knollys, Countess of Leicester and cousin to Queen Elizabeth herself, who was widely regarded as one of the most beautiful women at court. To the right is a portrait of Lettice, emphasizing the features that the court so admired.

First and foremost was her exceedingly pale skin--a prerequisite for a courtly beauty. The manneristic portraits of the late 16th century all portrayed their female (and male) subjects with alabaster complexions, lacking even the rosy glow that became popular during the next century.

Pale skin was a sign of nobility, wealth, and (for women) delicacy, and was sought after by many. In a time when skin problems and the pox were commonplace, sunscreen unheard of, and skin creams and ointments out of reach for all but the well-off, smooth, unblemished and pale skin was a rarity.

This pale skin could be achieved by a number of means, the most popular being ceruse, a mixture of white lead and vinegar that was favored by the nobility and by those who could afford it. This white foundation was applied to the neck and bosom as well. The first record of this skin-whitener was found in 1519 in Horman's "Vulgaria puerorum", and by the time of Elizabeth's reign was well-established as an essential item for the fashionable woman. Naturally, spreading lead upon one's skin caused a variety of skin problems; some authors of the time warned against it, describing how it made the skin "grey and shrivelled", and suggesting other popular mixtures such a paste of alum and tin ash, sulpher, and a variety of foundations made using boiled egg white, talc, and other white materials as a base. Egg white, uncooked, could also be used to "glaze" the complexion, creating a smooth shell and helping to hide wrinkles.

Once an ideal whiteness was achieved-sometimes complete with false veins traced onto the skin-coloring was applied. Facepaint, generally referred to in period as fucus, came in a variety of reds and was used mainly upon the cheeks and lips. Madder, cochineal, and ochre-based compounds were all used as blush and lip-color, but vermilion (mercuric sulfide) was the most popular choice of the fashionable court lady. Apparently this color could be laid on quite thick; One Elizabethan satirist commented that an artist needed no box of paints to work, but merely a fashionably painted lady standing nearby to use for pigments.

Of course, such heavy and often poisonous make-up caused serious skin damage. Remedies for spots, blemishes, acne and freckles ranged from the application of lemon-juice or rosewater to dubious concoctions of mercury, alum, honey and eggshells. Indeed, washing one's face with mercury was a common period "facial peel" used to make a woman's skin soft and fresh. Ass's milk was another substance favored by the nobility, and mentioned as an ingredient in baths and washes.

Lettice's features also approximate the 16th century standard of beauty--a small, rosy mouth, a straight and narrow nose, and wide-set bright eyes under narrow arched brows were the theoretical "ideal" of the time . Women would use drops of belladona in their eyes to achieve that bright sparkle, and outline them with kohl (powdered antimony) to enhance their size or make them appear more wide set. Plucked eyebrows were de rigeur for a court lady, as was a high brow. A high hairline had been for centuries a sign of the aristocracy--Women would pluck their brow hair back an inch, or even more, to create a fashionably high forehead.

Blonde or red-gold hair such as Lettice's were also eagerly sought after. Dozens of recipies for bleaching hair existed, some of them quite noxious; urine was one substance used. If a woman couldn't achieve the color she wanted, she could wear false hair instead-a very common practice in Elizabethan times. Some women went bald and wore wigs rather than struggle with their own locks. It is no accident that Queen Elizabeth possessed almost all of the traits discussed above-golden-red hair, grey, wide-set eyes, very pale skin and narrow brows--she was a guiding force in late 16th century English fashion, moreso than almost any monarch before or since. Women strove to imitate her curly red hair and coloring.

One of the most surprising--and appalling--aspects of 16th century make-up was the poisonous nature of many of the cosmetics. If an authenticity-bent re-enactor was truly interested in recreating a "period" make-up job, she could be taking her life into her own hands. In addition, the blatant artificiality of period makeup would look ludicrous to modern eyes. Most Elizabethan re-enactors interested in adding period make-up to their ensemble settle for a modern "interpretation" of the period look-a pale foundation with a light dusting of white powder for the face, black or grey eyeliner to take the place of kohl, and matte red lipstick of an ochre or brick color. A light application of blush, placed in an oval along the cheekbone rather than underneath, is enough unless one is playing a courtesan; if you choose, you may either pluck or draw in high, arched eyebrows to complete the look. Achieving the high plucked brow requires serious stage makeup or serious pain.

Of course, all this is for the court lady. The lower and middle classes didn't have the time or resources to devote to serious makeup; young merchant's wives were somewhat notorious for their fancy dress and fashionable makeup, but otherwise you needn't bother.

As for the hair, tightly curling the front portion and arranging it into rolls on either side of the head is a very Elizabethan practice. False hair was commonly used as well, and is sometimes easier to manage than one's own locks.

Period Commentary on Make-up

"Shee reads over her face every morning, and sometime blots out pale, and writes red. Shee thinks she is faire, though many times her opinion goes alone...she is hid away all but her face, and that is hangd about with toyes and devices, like the signe of a taverne, to draw strangers. "
Thomas Overbury,A Humerous Day's Mirth

"How base is her shape, which must borrow complexion from the shop? How can she weepe for her sinnes...when her teares will make furrowes in her face?"

Richard Brathwait, The English Gentlewoman

"I would wish to know...which ladie had her owne face to lie with her a-nights, & which not; who put off her teeth with their clothes in court, who their haire, who their complexion; and in which boxe they put it."

Ben Jonson, Cynthia's Revels

"Do you know Doctor Plaster-face? by this curd, he is the most exquisite in forging of veins, spright'ning of eyes, dyeing of hair, sleeking of skins, blushing of cheeks, surphling of breasts, blanching and bleaching of teeth, that ever made an old lady gracious by torchlight".

Ben Marston, The Malcontent.

"[Women] whyte theyr face, necke and pappis with cerusse."

William Horman, Vulgaria Puerorum, 1519

"The Ceruse or white lead which women use to better their complexion, is made of lead and vinegar; which mixture is naturally a great drier; and is used by chirurgions to drie up moiste sores. So that those women who use it about their faces, doe quickly become withered and gray headed, because this dowth so mightely drie up the naturall moysture of their flesh."

Giovanni Lomazzo, A Tracte Containing the Artes of Curious Paintinge, Carvinge and Buildinge

"The ceruse or white Lead, wherewith women use to paint themselves was, without doubt, brought in use by the divell, the capitall enemie of nature, therwith to transforme humane creatures, of fair, making them ugly, enormious and abominable....a man might easily cut off a curd or cheese-cake from either of their cheeks."

Thomas Tuke,A treatise against Painting and Tincturing of Men and Women

"...when vermillion hath laid so deepe a colour on an impudent skinne,...it cannot blush with sense of her own shame."

Richard Brathwait, The English Gentlewoman

"Of scaling or Plume-alume. This alume is a kind of stone, which seemeth as if it were made of tow; and is so hot and drie by nature, that if you make the weeke of a candle therewith, it is thought it will burne continually without going out: With this some use to rubbe the skinne off their face, to make it seeme red, by reason of the inflammation it procureth, but questionless it hath divers inconveniences, and therfore to be avoided...Rocke alume doth likewise hurt the face, in so much as it is a very pearcing and drying minerall, and is used in strong water for the dissolving of mettals...one droppe thereof being put upon the skinne, burneth, shriveleth, and parcheth it, with divers other inconveniences, as loosing the teeth, etc."

Giovanni Lomazzo, A Tracte Containing the Artes of Curious Paintinge, Carvinge and Buildinge

"You should have rub'd your face with whites of egges, you rascall; till your browes had shone like our sooty brothers here, as sleeke as a hornbook; or ha' steept your lips in wine, till you made 'hem so plump, that Juno might have beene jealous of 'hem."


"Some I have heard of, that have beene so fine,
to wash and bathe themselves in milke or wine,
else with whites of egges, their faces garnish,
which makes the looke like visors, or new varnish.
Good bread, and oatmeale hath bin spilt like trash,
My Lady Polecat's dainty hands to wash."

John Taylor

"[Sabina] usually bathed herself in the milke of five hundred Asses, to preserve her beauty."

Thomas Nashe

" This arte [of beautification] consisteth of a twoofold method; either by way of a preparation and abstertion, of some natural or adventitious imperfections of the skinne, which is done with fomentations, waters, ointments, plaisters, and other matters, which I meane not to prescribe; or by a more grosse illiture and laying on of material colours."

Giovanni Lomazzo, A Tracte Containing the Artes of Curious Paintinge, Carvinge and Buildinge

Elizabethan Beauty Reciepts

Warning: several of the recipies mentioned below are harmful to the skin & health; some are poisonous. They are listed here for research purposes only. Experiment at your own risk!

"For the Freckles which one getteth by the heat of the Sun: Take a little Allom beaten small, temper amonst it a well brayed white of an egg, put it on a milde fire, stirring it always about that it wax not hard, and when it casteth up the scum, then it is enough, wherewith anoint the Freckles the space of three dayes: if you will defend your self that you get no Freckles on the face, then anoint your face with the whites of eggs."

Christopher Wirzung,General practise of Physicke, 1654.

"Ginimony likewise burnt, and pulverized, to be mingled with the juice of Lymmons, sublimate Mercury, and two spoonefuls of the flowers of Brimstone, a most excellent receite to cure the flushing in the face."

Westward Ho

"[against spots], the Whites of two eggs mixed well with rose-water, plantain juice, and dock juice. Followed by the application of the following: 8 ounces of vinegar and rose-water, one ounce of brimstone, one quarter of an ounce of alum--boiled softly until one-third has evaporated."

Christopher Wirzung,General practise of Physicke, 1654.

Recipes taken from Ruscelli:

"To make a redde colour for the face. Take red sandall finely stamped, and strong Vinegar twice distilled, then put into it as much sandal as you wil, and let it boile faire and softely, and put to it also a little rock alume stamped, and you shal have a very perfect red."

Giovanni Ruscelli (Alessio), The secretes of reverende maister Alexis of Piemount, 1568

"Take twelve ounces of Nutmegs, mace, ginger, grains, cloves, of each half an ounce, rubarb one ounce, bevercod, spikenard, of each half an ounce, oyl of Bay two ounces, leave the spices unbeaten, pour to it four quarts of wine, cover it close, and let it stand so the space of four weeks, afterwards pour away the wine, pownd all the spices to pap, and put it again to the forsaid wine, let it stand well stopped three dayes, stir it well about: then distill it in hot water without seething, and preserve it well...this water doth take away all spots of the face and of the body."

Christopher Wirzung,General practise of Physicke, 1654.

"To make the hair yellow as golde. Take the rine or scrapings of Rubarbe, and stiepe it in white wine, or in cleere lie; and after you have washed your head with it, you shall weatte your hairs with a Spoonge or some other cloth, and let them drie by the fire, or in the sunne; after this weatte them and drie them againe."

Giovanni Ruscelli (Alessio), The secretes of reverende maister Alexis of Piemount, 1568

For chapped hands: "Melt three ounces of fresh butter and three ounces of suet of hart, and, and cut four or five apples into it; add siz ounces of white wine and boil until the apples are soft; add half a dram each of cinnamon, camphor, cloves, and nutmegs, two ounces of rose-water, and boil again until the rose-water is evaporated; finally, strain through a cloth."

Christopher Wirzung,General practise of Physicke, 1654.