1770: What lies under your wife’s make-up?

In the Georgian period, many well-to-do men became paranoid about women using make-up to embellish (or even conceal) their natural features. There were several apocryphal stories of men marrying statuesque and ravishing beauties, only to discover something much less appealing on the wedding night.

One account comes from a letter-writer to The Spectator in 1711:

“No man was as enamoured as I was of her fair forehead, neck and arms, as well as the bright jet [black] of her hair… but to my great astonishment I find they were all the effect of art. Her skin is so tarnished with this practice that when she first wakes in the morning, she scarce seems young enough to be the mother of [the woman] I carried to bed the night before. I shall take the liberty to part with her at the first opportunity, unless her father will make her portion [dowry] suitable to her real, not her assumed countenance.”

These reports have given rise to one of the enduring historical myths of the period: the so-called Hoops and Heels Act. According to this story, the following bill was raised in the House of Commons in 1770 to prevent women from using costume and cosmetics to lure and entrap unsuspecting husbands:

“Be it resolved that all women of whatever age, rank, profession or degree, whether virgin maids or widows, that after the passing of this Act impose upon and betray into matrimony any of His Majesty’s male subjects, by scents, paints, cosmetics, washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes or bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the laws now in force against witchcraft, sorcery and such like misdemeanours… and that the marriage, upon conviction, shall stand null and void.”

A great number of historical texts claim this bill was raised in parliament and either voted down or passed into law. But the reality is that no evidence of it can be found in Hansard or other records of parliamentary debate and voting.

Source: The Spectator, April 17th 1771. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

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