Renaissance Cosmetic ‘Secrets’ in the Age of Home-Beauty: Continuity and Change

Claire Litt //

Over the last year the beauty stars of Youtube and Instagram have come face-to-face (or face to mirror, rather) with one of the more superficial spin-off crises caused by the pandemic: the inaccessibility of cosmetic treatments due to the closure of beauty salons. At first glance, it’s a crisis that is literally skin-deep. Of course, it is also a part of a real economic crisis. In addition to salon staff layoffs, the closure of beauty salons has become an obstacle for social media stars whose platforms largely relied upon documenting their beauty treatments for content. In reaction to this content crisis, beauty bloggers and vloggers have pivoted their platforms to adapt to the realities of daily pandemic life and are often times now found championing a new regime of DIY at-home beauty treatments. These days beauty YouTubers can be found in the kitchen, where they equip themselves with some modern variation on a mortar and pestle and extol the under-appreciated virtues of a variety of common kitchen ingredients.

     The trend in women’s DIY at-home beauty is a byproduct of the two most influential phenomena of the modern day  – the internet and the pandemic. Yet, its underlying tenets, whereby women make and disseminate their beauty ‘secrets,’ have a resonance of the historical subculture of women’s domestic alchemy that was central to the intertwined development of women’s health and beauty practices in medieval and early modern Europe. The comparison of early modern sources that ‘marketed’ beauty regimes, such as published books and pamphlets, to the pandemic-era beauty influencers on social media reveals a surprising continuity in the ‘secretive’ language of women’s cosmetics but also stark changes in the ways that beauty and health have been historically interlinked.

     In the past as now, the language of ‘secrets’ has pervaded beauty culture. Vogue’s somewhat oxymoronic YouTube playlist of ‘Beauty Secrets’ is only one example of the term’s idiosyncratic connotation. Beauty secrets are evidently not intended to be “kept from public knowledge” (OED, “Secret”). Rather, the secretive language around cosmetic culture strikes closer to the meaning conveyed by the title of the early modern recipe book I Secreti De La Signora Isabella Cortese,  or The Secrets of the Lady Isabella Cortese (Ray, 46). ‘Secrets’ referred to insights gleamed from a trial-and-error process of home experimentation. Nature, not people, kept a ‘secret’ of the virtues of its herbs and stones, which were found out and disseminated through the efforts of domestic alchemists like Isabella. 

     A secondary way in which cosmetic recipes were ‘secretive’ has to do with the double standard of western female beauty standards. At the end of Isabella’s  recipe for “Lead White Water for the Face” she promised “[…] nessun potrà conoscere che habbi messo il belletto”, or  “nobody can know that you have put on makeup” (Cortese, 142). This idea, that women should engage in a subtle artifice to enhance their natural beauty, can be found as far back as in The Art of Love by the second-century Roman poet Ovid. Ovid gave permission to women to engage in cosmetic practices, even recommending that women fill in sparse areas of their eyebrows and cover blemishes on their cheeks. He warned, however “Let not your lover discover the boxes exposed upon the table; art, by its concealment only, gives aid to beauty.” (Ovid, 1022; Karim-Cooper, 17). His implication was that a woman’s lover preferred to live under the illusion that she was a natural beauty — while never suffer to see a blemish on her face. Women’s application of cosmetics continued to require extreme discretion in the early modern period, when prescriptive texts that set standards for women’s looks, such as Agnolo Firenzuola’s On the Beauty of Women, clashed with prescriptive literature that encouraged women to behave with propriety and exhibit modesty. The 16th-century Italian diplomat Baldassare Castiglione, in his guide to becoming the ideal courtier, at one point touched upon the qualities of an ideal noblewoman. In describing her, he wrote “How much more pleasing than all others is one […] who is plainly seen to have nothing on her face” (Castiglione, 54). Caught in this impossible double standard, women had no choice but to be secretive of their beauty habits — and so it is not surprising that a key selling point of Isabella’s cosmetics was that they were undetectable.

     Today’s beauty culture makes reference to the historical double standards for women’s beauty but also, with post-modernist sensibility, plays on the knowledge that everyone is in on the ‘secret’ that women use cosmetics. During the covid-19 pandemic, however, the previously ironic selfie hashtag #wokeuplikethis used by beauty bloggers and their millennial followers has taken on a refreshingly truthful ring. The hashtag was once a half-joking admission of the exorbitant amount of time and effort that went into obtaining the beauty standards associated with social media. Now, tagged below a picture of a millennial in sweat pants and a mask, #wokeuplikethis might just be the simple truth.

     The covert undertone of renaissance beauty culture was furthered by the associations drawn between beauty and individuals’ overall well-being and moral integrity, and the mysterious alchemical process that produced remedies for both health and beauty problems. The popular medical discourse supported the idea that ‘outer’ looks reflected inner health. In a time before machines could divine the inner workings of the body, the skin and hair belied what lay within. The underlying tenet of Galenic theory, that moderation was the key to health, meant that looking awful implied not only that someone was unwell but that they were also unrestrained in their lifestyle habits. Just as beauty was an approximate tool by which to measure health, “beautifying physics” shared a similarly close relationship with healthcare practices (Snook, 12). The porous line between medicine and makeup is demonstrated by Isabella Cortese’s inclusion of household products and medicinal remedies alongside cosmetic recipes. The distinction between making makeup and making-up medicines was blurred; both were the result of similar processes that involved dehydrating, grinding, cooking and otherwise working with natural materials to obtain either their useful affects on the body’s functions or effects on its appearance.

Needless to say, beauty is no longer considered a veritable measure of physical health – and the concoction of cosmetic substances by housebound social media beauty icons is limited, thankfully, to face masks comprised of bananas and other relatively innocuous ingredients. However, some beauty icons on social media today continue to link women’s beauty routines to ideas of health to argue for the ongoing need for beautification during the pandemic. The idea is that, at home during quarantine, women should continue to engage in cosmetic practices not to impress others but rather to reaffirm for themselves their own value, and that this affirmative self-care is good for women’s overall sense of wellbeing. Others, meanwhile, suggest a philosophy of makeup for makeup’s sake – and beauty for beauty’s.

Works Cited:

Cortese, Isabella. 2018. I Secreti De La Signora Isabella Cortese, 1565. London: Forgotten Books.

Green, Monica. The Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine. University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc, 2011.

Karim-Cooper, Farah. Cosmetics in Shakespearean and Renaissance drama. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), 17. 

Ovid. Ars Amatoria, or The Art Of Love. Translated by Henry T. Riley. 1885. The Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org.

Ray, M. Daughters of Alchemy: Women and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Harvard University Press, 2015.

Snook, Edith. ““The Beautifying Part of Physic”: Women’s Cosmetic Practices in Early Modern England.” Journal of Women’s History 20, no. 3 (2008): 10-33. doi:10.1353/jowh.0.0032.

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