Regency Depilation: A Prickly Problem

 

Since yet another of the joys and indignities of aging is a prickly new growth forest of hairs decorating my chin and upper lip, I’ve been looking around for solutions.

Naturally, my research led me back through history to my spiritual home, the Regency Era.

Image courtesy PhotoPin.com, http://tinyurl.com/al8lc83

Image courtesy PhotoPin.com, http://tinyurl.com/al8lc83

We think of Regency Era beauty as a look of simplicity and naturalness. The style had its roots in the French revolution of 1789 as a reaction against the artificiality of the bewigged and face patched aristocracy.

So were Eleanor Dashwood and Emma Woodhouse above these petty concerns?

Perhaps any ‘natural’ but excess facial hair didn’t bother Austen or her heroines?

Hah. Beauty manuals and periodicals of the time express the fixation on having a ‘brilliant’ or ‘blooming’ complexion. In other words, the purity of the feminine face was key. In Jane Austen’s Emma, Mrs. Weston describes Emma as having, ‘regular features, open countenance, with a complexion! oh! what a bloom of full health…’1

In Persuasion, we can tell Anne Elliot is in love by the recovered bloom of her complexion. Her father notices, ‘her skin, her complexion, greatly improved: clearer, fresher.’2

It is hardly a leap to guess that a bristly mustache or wiry chin hairs would be inconsistent with the fresh blooming look.

Even in the preceding Georgian period of white lead face paint, facial hair was not appreciated. It was said that the Duke of Newcastle paid exorbitant sums to have his wife’s facial hair permanently removed. In 1755 the acerbic Horace Walpole, speaking of the Duke’s retirement from government affairs,

imagines the Duke will now ‘let his beard grow as long as his Duchess’s.’3

Hair removal is divided between epilation and depilation. Both methods date as least as far back as the Pharaohs of Egypt. 4

Depilation is the removal of the hair above the surface of the skin. The most common historic methods were shaving or cutting, but also included chemical depilatories.5

The safety razor was first described by Jean Jacques Perret, a French barber, in 1770 as using a metal guard along one edge of the blade to keep the blade from slicing the skin.6

I do not find any period references to women such as Austen heroines using a razor, either straight or safety, on their faces. Even if Perret’s invention was readily available,I cannot see Mr. Darcy enjoying the feel of stubble on Elizabeth’s upper lip.

Chemical depilatories were common.

A mixture of cat feces and vinegar, with or without pounded eggshells, is cited in numerous sources from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries as both a hair remover, and a hair growth inhibiter.7

These irritant (and irritating) methods do not accord with the genteel way of life we associate with tonnish Regency women.

A less objectionable formula published in Lemery’s Curiosa Arcana of 1711 calls for, ‘the shells of 52 eggs, beat them small and distill them with a good fire.’ Then, with the water, ‘Anoint yourself where you would have the Hair off.’ Strong vinegar and even quick-lime are also recommended.8

The other class of hair removal is epilation. Epilation means the removal of the entire hair from the follicle. Historic methods included waxing or sugaring, threading or plucking and their use appears to reach back to the dawn of history.9

Based on the simplicity of epilation and ready access to its methods, it seems more likely that Austen, and her heroines, would have used one or more of these treatments for unwanted hair growth.

Tweezers, for example, are a truly ancient tool and replicate the plucking gesture of the fingertips with greater precision. For brows these would have been the obvious and simple solution.

For larger areas such as lip and chin furring, sugaring or waxing would be more efficient. These are related methods, in that a sticky paste is spread onto the skin. When the paste is pulled away, it brings the hair with it. It is thought that sugaring, which can also use molasses or honey as the adhering agent, was a refinement of waxing. The sugaring formula can be used at room or body temperature hence the danger of skin burns was eliminated. 10

Demonstrating how easily a sugaring formula can be created at home is this recipe:

2 cups of sugar, 1/4 cup of water, 1/4 cup of lemon juice. Combine the ingredients and bring to a boil, then allow to cool in an airtight container.11

There is an intriguing potential connection between Jane Austen and our final method.

The ancient practice of threading, khite’ in Arabic or ‘fatlah’ is thought to have originated in India. A cat’s cradle of cotton thread is twisted and rolled to grip and remove unwanted hair. In the hands of an experienced practitioner, it is very precise and quick.12, 13

India was the birthplace of Jane Austen’s favorite cousin, and later sister-in-law, Eliza Hancock de Feuillide.

The daughter of Austen’s Aunt Philadelphia, Eliza was rumored to have been the natural daughter of Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of India.

After marrying a French aristocrat who was guillotined in the French Revolution, Eliza married Jane’s brother Henry. 14

Jane and Eliza were very close during Eliza’s years in England. Eliza died in 1813 with Jane at her bedside.15

Eliza’s paternity has been much debated, but she did name her only son Hastings and received a legacy in Warren Hastings’s will. The Austen family felt not only admiration but kinship for Warren Hastings and Jane sent him a copy of Pride and Prejudice. 16

Is it so farfetched to imagine that cosmopolitan Eliza, the world traveler and sophisticate, might have learned of khite, threading, through her Indian experience and later passed on this beauty technique to cousin Jane?

Austen’s inquiring mind, curiosity and powers of observation all predispose her to be an early adopter of new ideas and techniques. As does her reputation for attractiveness. Her brother Henry spoke of her complexion as being, ‘of the finest texture.’ Her nephew James Austen-Leigh remembered, ‘her whole appearance expressive of health and animation. In complexion she was a clear brunette with a rich colour…’17

As for me? Of course I followed my Regency muse.

The simplicity brought tears to my eyes. As did the effect of having dozens of hairs yanked out of their sockets at the same time. But—it was quick, and no redness, no worry about reused product or unsterilized equipment.

All I had to do was lean back in the chair, let Tammy work her magic, and dream of Regency elegance.

Tammy of Queen's Nails, Turlock CA demonstrating threading. Photo by the author.

Tammy of Queen’s Nails, Turlock CA demonstrating threading. Photo by the author.

Notes:

1 Austen, Jane. Emma. London, John Murray.1815 (dated 1816).

2 Austen, Jane. Persuasion. London, John Murray. 1817 (dated 1818).

3,7,8 http://depilatories.com/shop/history-hair-removal-3

4, 5, 9 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Depilation

6 http://www.ehow.com/about_5038278_history-safety-razor.html

10, 11 http://www.ehow.com/way_5761126_homemade-hair-removal-cream.html#ixzz2HX0azuNX

12 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Threading_(epilation)

13 http://hairremoval.about.com/od/threading/a/threading101.htm

14, 15  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eliza_Hancock

16 http://www.janeausten.co.uk/warren-hastings-first-governor-of-india/

17 http://austenised.blogspot.com/2010/09/what-did-jane-austen-look-like.html

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