"But the most remarkable thing about her face was the splendour of her complexion. I never have seen one so brilliant, and brilliant is the word, for her skin was so transparent that it bore no umber in the painting. Neither could I render the real effect of it as I wished. I had no colours to paint such freshness, such delicate tints, which were hers alone, and which I had never seen in any other woman." Elizabeth Vigee-la Brun
The above description by Vigee-la Brun of Queen Marie-Antoinette gives us an insight into the appearance of the Reine-Martyr. The deception talks of perfect skin. It was a trait shared by her eldest daughter, Madame Royale.
It was not so with many of the women of the time. Fair skin was sought after in a time when a tan meant low born. There were rules in dress and appearance that the most fashionable ones, who thought they were fashionable, strived for. Marie-Antoinette was the style setter of the last part of the 18th century. Indeed so much has been written about her clothes and their extravagance that when the truth be known that she mended and saved her clothes many are wont not to believe it. The reason for this is simple, it was the woman who wore the clothes and not the clothes that wore the woman. Her skin was perfect therefore she had no need of cosmetics.
To be seen as having this alabaster skin women of the 18th century wore a cosmetic face powder. Below is the receipe to make that 18th century face powder. (This is not a joke.)
several thin plates of lead
a big pot of vinegar
a bed of horse manure
perfume & tinting agent
Steep the lead in the pot of vinegar, and rest it in a bed of manure for at least three weeks. When the lead finally softens to the point where it can pounded into a flaky white powder (chemical reaction between vinegar and lead causes lead to turn white), 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. (Gunn)
But wait there's more...
Rouge was another favorite cosmetic. Its name is derived from the French word for "red." Like the popular white face powder, rouge was created from questionable ingredients, including carmine (a lead-based pigment.) People used rouge with wet bits of wool to daub fashionable red spots on their cheeks --- the general idea was that it made an aesthetically pleasing contrast to one's pale, powdered face.
Rouge was also available as a lipstick for both men and women. Sticks of solid rouge were created by mixing carmine with plaster of Paris. (Gunn)
NOTE: Fortunately we don't do this any more. Lead is easily absorbed by the body and has the side effects of severe head pain, nausea, dizziness, bowel problems, blindness, and, if large enough amounts have been ingested, paralyzsis or even death.
Gunn, Fenja, The Artificial Face London: Trinity Press, 1973
If you are asking why I know about this book, it is because my family and I reenact in the 18th century, and no Madame Brantigny does not use this formulary.