Well, ladies and gents!
Women have always been doomed to withhold a certain position in society: slaves to fashion, cosseted and striving to please men, whatever the cost. Just like today’s women attempting plastic surgery or wearing really high heels to look good, Victorian women also took extravagant efforts for the sake of fashion.
But sometimes, when it came to looking pretty, some ladies would really go the extra mile! And Machiavelli’s famous saying, The end justifies the means, could go a little bit too far… or close to death!
Although technologically advanced, the British society of the Victorian era was characterized by great rigor in the morals first expressed by Queen Victoria herself, a model for every respectable woman of the time.
The model dictated the lady of the house to be a loving mother, a fashionable lady, and always well-mannered. Creating and maintaining this image, however, entailed many risks for women.
Well, keep reading, hun! 🙂
Even though the official timeline of Regency Era is from 1811 to 1820, the regency style in fashion really began around 1795.
The typical Victorian silhouette demanded a very slim waist, which was possible only with the use of a corset. Thanks to the industrialization and production of garments, corsets were accessible to all walks of life.
The corset pressed the sides and the chest which in turn, pushed the internal organs. The immediate problem, of course, was that movement was limited and breathing was difficult.
Many girls started wearing corsets at a very early age, even as infants, when their bodies had not yet been formed, resulting in a completely deformed skeleton. Corsets on children were often used as training tools to prepare them for the corsets they would wear in adult life. A child’s corset was less intense and usually given its shape by the rough material sewn in cords rather than the baleen or steel rods they would wear as grown-ups. When they were confirmed at the age of 15, and thus able to get married, they got their first real corset. This was a shoulder corset or a girl's pair of stays.
And if you think that pregnant women could escape the stylistic norm, well… think again! Women wore corsets throughout pregnancy, often causing miscarriages or giving birth to malformed babies and, of course, developing uterine prolapse.
This situation was doubly tragic for women of the time, as their value was calculated on how many children they would give birth to and how many of them would be able to spend their childhood healthy (and there were many more traps in the Victorian home to prevent this…).
The corset guaranteed the delicate waist and toned bodice, but for the effect of the hourglass silhouette to be complete, the pelvis and the entire skirt should be highlighted as well.
To do this, women put a crinoline through their dress, a wooden or metal construction that created the characteristic umbrella shape.
But women were taking this trend too seriously. In their effort to get more and more diameter in their dresses, which made navigating the space difficult and dangerous, they usually put themselves in danger.
There were several incidents where women were pushed, dropped or dragged by carriage wheels because of the crinoline. But the biggest problem was the hundreds, maybe even thousands, of women over the decades who were burned alive because their skirts caught fire.
Additionally, the dresses and the coats were so long that they literally dusted the streets of Victorian megacities, bringing home dirt and disease.
The bad balance given by crinoline would finish with the right shoes of course!
The industrial-produced shoes of the time did not have right and left. In order to reduce the cost and time of production, factories produced same-shaped shoes for both feet! Their shape was straight and flat making them uncomfortable and unstable.
To complete the image of Victorian beauty we can not miss skincare.
The use of obvious makeup and toiletries was considered immoral. It was, of course, a common secret that all women used cosmetics, often hiding them in bottles with other labels, to be passed on as medicines, for example.
There were two dominant trends in the makeup of the time: the Natural (The English Rose look) and the… Kardashian! (the too painted).
The painted look was not for everyone. It was chosen by women who were so rich that they did not care about social conformities and gossip, or by women of a more ‘unconventional’ way of life.
But if you chose it, it became part of yourself and you could never go back to the natural look for two reasons: because everyone knew you were a painted lady and due to the fact your skin was so damaged by the use of paint that you couldn’t show it anymore without it.
Women used poster colors to cover the natural tone of the skin on the head, neck, and hands and achieved the color of a living dead. These paints, however, contained a highly corrosive lead, so each time a larger amount of paint was needed to cover the damage the previous layer had made.
They washed their face with ammonia to make it softer… Many women dropped Atropa Belladonna in their eyes to have dilated eye pupils to transmit innocence and be considered more attractive. However, Belladonna has alkaloids that caused severe toxicity as well as death, which the ladies of course knew.
Number One Source of Poisoning
But the trademarked and number one source of poisoning of the time was arsenic.
Did Victorian people know that arsenic is poisonous? Yes! Did they still use it, literally everywhere, as a pigment and as a beauty product? Yes! Even when it was clearly associated with multiple deaths.
In order to achieve a natural whitish complexion, many women wore arsenic-containing powders resulting in them consuming a small amount of it daily. Their body tolerated higher concentrations of arsenic while the skin gradually became whitish.
The problems with this were two: first, they gradually became addicted to it and if they discontinued its use they would eventually die. Second, if they accidentally got more than they should, acute toxicity and death would occur once again (and the higher dose was an easy thing in an arsenic-filled home).
Without seeking it, the girls of the time, trying to emulate the literary, romantic aspect of philanthropy with the practices they followed, were driven near death.
One can’t help but wonder how harmful our habits and tendencies are to our health today, considering them to be normal or even healthy.
Thank you for reading this article of mine and write below your replies so that I can see them!
And please let me know your thoughts—did you enjoy the topic?
If there is anything else you’d be interested in reading about the Regency Era, feel free to let me know…
…and who knows? Maybe you will read about it soon!
Written by Olivia Bennet