Weird and wonderful beauty history: Consumptive Chic Victorians (1837- 1901).

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The Victorians were an eccentric bunch to be sure, some of their leisure activities included unwrapping mummies, taking pictures with dead relatives and taking some arsenic, so it is not that hard to believe that their beauty practices and inspiration were err. . . . weird. One of the main sources of inspiration, the Instagram model if you will, for the young ladies of England was looking sick, yep you heard me right ladies liked to look like they were ill with Consumption aka Tuberculosis!

During the 18th Century an infectious lung disease, then called Consumption, ravaged the population of England both the rich and poor, old and young were affected and it had a massive impact on the population. Death really was everywhere and due to the poor sanitation and, sometimes, questionable medical practices very few people made a full recovery. Because seeing sick people was literally part of everyday life it eventually became associated with the feminine beauty ideal and even ladies who weren’t ill used cosmetics to appear less healthy. In this blog post I am going to discuss what symptoms  of Consumption ladies liked to mimic and what cosmetics they used. While Victorians did use makeup it is worth mentioning that is was a bit of a taboo and these products were only used lightly to avoid a scandal.

1. Looking pale AF – Malaise.

So back in the day being pasty pale was considered the thick booty of today, this was in part due to the consumptive chic movement but it was also a bit of a status symbol, because it meant that you stayed indoors and didn’t have to do hard labour out in the fields (or whatever) to earn your keep.

To maintain a very pale facade ladies often reached for a bleaching agents like lemon juice and ammonia (they were low key obsessed with ammonia) and then applied a thin dusting of a Zinc based powder as well as staying out of the sun. If a young lady was feeling particularly extra she might take a bit of ARSENIC while doctors mostly advised against this, it was very easy to get your hands on and even encouraged by some ladies journals at the time.

2. Flushed cheeks – Fever.

Having super red cheeks was very in vogue, not only because it makes you look youthful but also because it was associated with the low grade fever that often goes hand in hand with Consumption. To mimic this desirable flush women reached for beet juice or powdered dried beets. This is actually a method that still gets used today as many natural makeup brands use beet extract in their products.


3. Red lips – Coughed up blood (gnarly, I know).

Probably the most known symptom of Consumption is the coughing up of blood, which often caused a light reddish tint to the lips. Mercury sulphide was used on the lips (often on the cheeks too) to help create the Victorian equivalent of the perfect your-lips-but-better lipstick shade. Incidentally mercury sulphide is poisonous when inhaled so it did more than just help you look sick.

4. Being skinny – Undernourishment associated with loss of appetite.  

Being thin was all the rage and ladies went on crazy diets like only eating strained soups for days on end or even resorting to taking harmful substances like cocaine, arsenic and even tape worms!!!

5. Dilated pupils – Fever.

The Victorians liked their woman to look wide eyed and slightly out of it . . . almost like a delirium caused by fever. To get this oh so desirable look ladies used eyedrops made from the poisonous plant Belladonna aka Deadly Nightshade. Using this concoction often lead to rashes and even blindness.


I hope you enjoyed this post delving into the beauty practices of the Victorian era. Let me know what other historical eras you would like me to discuss in future posts.

Have a beautiful day!


Disclaimer: This blog post is for educational purposes only and should not be tried at home. Obviously. 





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