Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Price of Beauty

In an essay entitled, "A Lady of Fashion", historian Herbert Asbury looked at the price of keeping couture in the decade following the American Civil War. He detailed the usually painful trends in garment construction and cosmetics, and the price thereof.

"The butterfly of the eighteen-sixties and the early eighteen-seventies staggered forth under the burden of an infinite variety of beautifying apparatus constructed of steel, iron, wire, cotton, wood horsehair, and wool, all attached to her person by straps, tape, and mucilage."

The exaggerated hourglass figure was a must-have for dames of postbellum New York: a small, rounded head, full chest, tiny waist, voluminous skirt, and diminutive feet. The dentist of the day went far above simple teeth-whitening when it came to cosmetic procedures, and would regularly "provide plump filling them out with hard composition pads running upward along each side of the mouth. These were called 'plumpers,' and some were so large as to give the appearance of mumps. They often shifted position, so that a woman wearing them was apt to speak in a sort of whispering mumble."

False calves, cotton or wool padding for the arms, foot wrapping, and pads for "sharp and angular knees" all contributed to the desired effect. Wigs, false curls, and "ratting" were popular, and once the hair was piled, knotted, or braided into place, it was topped with powder, flour, glitter, or gold dust. The "widow's peak" was so vogue that women clipped or shaved their head around the hairstyle.

While tattooing was still improper, it was all the rage to paint the palms of a woman's hands in a vivid color, either solidly or with shapes or patterns, and to delicately trace the veins on the back of the hand with blue ink. Women painted their eyes with India ink and dropped or rubbed Belladonna to dilate their pupils. Not surprisingly, most society women eventually went blind.

The crème de la crème in New York didn't just paint their faces, they had the makeup set with a plastic enamel. Shops advertised the ability to keep the face and bosom enameled for up to a year (this cost $1000, almost $15,000 now), but there are no records to indicate that any woman had this done. Arsenic and white lead were the bases to these skin enamels, and if properly applied it did not interfere with muscle movement. "It was eventually abandoned because the flashier branches of society carried it to ludicrous extremes."

In The Women of New York, George Ellington gives us a very long, very detailed price list of what it took per annum to keep a fashionable woman in New York: approximately $20,000 a year. That's $300,000 of our US dollars. Can you imagine? If you want to check out Mr. Ellington's views of New York's women (and the infamous price list), you can read The Women of New York online.

reference: Herbert Asbury, "A Lady of Fashion", All Around the Town, 1929


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