mirror mirror on the wall…

Once upon a time there were two beautiful sisters. They lived in a large house in Roscommon but were very, very poor. They were so poor they had to work for a living and, deciding to use their beauty to advantage, took to the stage. Their attractions attracted attention from far and wide and despite their risqué profession they were invited to a prestigious dance in Dublin Castle. All was nearly lost as they had no suitable gowns to wear, but the kindly theatre manager lent them a Lady Macbeth costume and the Juliet dress and, like Cinderella before them, they did go to the ball.

State ball held in the St. Patrick’s Hall of Dublin Castle, 1731 by William van der Hagen

This ball proved a turning point in their lives, launching them into society. Both sisters met and married extremely rich men and lived happily ever after….

…actually that’s not quite true. One sister lived a long prosperous life while the other died at 27 as a result of wearing too much make up.

The two women were the famous Gunning sisters, Elizabeth and Maria. Elizabeth married first the Duke of Hamilton and when he died, the Duke of Argyll. Maria married the Earl of Coventry, who seemed not to appreciate her use of make up. On their honeymoon in Paris he took out his handkerchief and wiped her face at the dinner table. Undeterred, she continued to wear the heavy, white make up fashionable at the time. Sadly these cosmetics contained lead and arsenic, toxic ingredients which caused severe irritation to her skin. In order to disguise her red and raw cheeks, Maria used even more makeup. So much so, that she gave herself lead poisoning and died before even reaching her 30s.

Portrait of Mary Gunning in Turkish costume by Jean-Étienne Liotard

Make up in Maria’s day was obvious. The more ‘painted’ you looked the better. Faces and necks were whitened and cheeks painted with rosy red circles. The whitening powder was made from lead as the recipe below shows:

Steep the lead in the pot of vinegar, and rest it in a bed of [horse] manure for at least three weeks. When the lead finally softens to the point where it can be pounded into a flaky white powder, grind to a fine powder. Mix with water, and let dry in the sun. After the powder is dry, mix with the appropriate amount of perfume and tinting dye.

One of my favourite eighteenth-century beautifying techniques pertains to eyebrows. Like many women today, Georgian women wanted their brows to make a statement. Burnt cork and berry juice were used to darken the brows but if you really wanted to stand out then you can’t beat a, strip of mouse fur glued to your face!

eyebrows made from mouse fur
False eye brows made from mouse fur

To echo Maria’s look see here

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