Beauty trends today don’t hold a candle—and I mean a literal candle—to Victorian standards in terms of weirdness or deadliness. For example, Victorian women wore hoop skirts, or crinolines, that caused thousands to go up in flames by something as simple as knocking over a candle. At least today’s faux bleach eyebrows and zigzag hair parts aren’t nearly as poisonous or detrimental as some of these Victorian beauty trends.
1. The Half-Dead Look – Looking dead was the fashion of the day. Women tried to achieve the consumptive (tuberculosis) look, which included pale skin, watery eyes, and red lips. In order to get pale skin, women consumed arsenic. In order to not die from the poison, the consumer started eating it in small amounts to build up a tolerance, increasing the dosage bit by bit. If the consumer stopped eating the arsenic, they experienced vomiting, stomach pains, and other painful withdrawal symptoms. Arsenic was such a popular method for achieving pale skin, that the arsenic could be taken through arsenic springs, which allowed the body to absorb the poison by bathing in it, or arsenic wafers, which were white, chalk-like bars women chewed on.
2. Poisonous Lotions – Another method used by women to whiten their skin was slathering on lead lotions. Lead lotions also helped fight freckles and blemishes, but while these lotions were advertised as harmless, the side effects were anything but. Women risked suffering from headaches, nausea, muscle atrophy, and paralysis.
3. Belladonna Eye Drops – For those watery eyes, women would put citrus or perfume drops in their eyes. However, the look didn’t last long when those were applied, so some trendy Victorians implemented belladonna drops, a beauty practice that potentially originated in Renaissance Italy. Belladonna means “beautiful woman,” but don’t let that enticing name fool you. Belladonna is also known as deadly nightshade, which was little wonder why blindness was widely reported as a symptom of belladonna drops. Did this stop women from using it, though? Nah. Beauty is pain, and also blinding.
4. Ammonia Lipstick – Makeup in Victorian society was frowned upon by ladies in the higher classes. Makeup was considered a tool of the trade for harlots and prostitutes, and since highborn ladies preferred to have as little association as possible with ladies of the night, they avoided using most forms of makeup. However, there was an exception for those trying to achieve that consumptive, red-lipped look. Women applied red lipstick or lip salve, which of course, had poisons like ammonia as an ingredient.
5. Slather On More Ammonia! – Ammonia was used for more than reddening lips. One beauty pamphlet of the day advised washing the hair in ammonia to stimulate the hair, while also claiming it was useful for removing unwanted hair. Seems a bit contradictory, hmm? But no matter! If the ammonia failed with her hair, it could also be used to wash the skin to clear the complexion and pale the skin while also slowly killing her.
6. Deadly Eyeshadow – Despite the stereotypes surrounding makeup, another beauty tool in the Victorian woman’s arsenal was eye shadow. Victorian fashion called for the woman to draw attention to her eyes, and while “painted ladies,” or prostitutes, might have used copiously thick amounts of eye paint, highborn women used subtler amounts to accentuate their gaze. Eye paints contained mercury, lead tetroxide, and antimony oxide, all of which were poisonous, no matter how much or little the wearer used.
7. Corsets – Oh, the infamous corset. Corsets forced a woman’s body to contort to the desired thin-waisted, hourglass look. Whalebone, which isn’t even bone, but baleen, a material found in the upper jaws of baleen whales, created structure in corsets to achieve that thin waist, some Victorian women claiming to have slimmed their waists down to 17 inches. Still, prolonged wearing of corsets potentially caused a multitude of health problems, such as compressed ribs, misaligned spines, shifting organs in the body, and breathing problems.
8. Combustible Crinolines – When paired with the corset, hoop skirts (also called a crinoline) accentuated a woman’s waist. Women of every social class wore crinolines, which proved difficult, especially for working class women, who had to spend all day walking up and down stairs and near open fires. Women risked tripping on these wide skirts and falling to their deaths on stairways, and in a day when candles and fireplaces were used for lighting and warmth, many poor souls went up in flames. It was estimated that between the 1850s and 1860s, 3,000 women in England died from their crinolines catching fire. In 1864, the New York Times reported that 40,000 women worldwide perished from crinoline-related fires. It’s no wonder the fashion faded in the late 1800s.
5 Deadly and Disgusting Victorian Beauty Trends by Andrea Cefalo
Bad Decisions in History: featuring Belladonna by Meghan Masterson
The dangers of tight lacing: the effects of the corset by Susan Isaac
Did 19th Century Corsets Really Kill Women? by Ross Pomeroy
Killer Clothing Was All the Rage In the 19th Century by Becky Little
The Poisonous Beauty Advice Columns of Victorian England by Natalie Zarrelli
Whale Products in Fashion on Smithsonian Ocean Portal