A Man Must Not Embelish Himself like a Woman: The Body and Gender in Renaissance Cosmetics
By Michelle Laughran
Paper given at the 15th Annual Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque Interdisciplinary Symposium (2006)
Introduction: The history of cosmetics and cosmetics’ use has until very recently been largely ignored in European historiography. Understandably, the subject suffers at least in part by the virtue of its very nature, even more ephemeral than that of costume. What’s more, this neglect may also the result of the fact that we dismiss cosmetics as trifling adornments of a body which we feel that we already understand far too well. Indeed, most cultures seem to have developed some kind of cosmetic practice, and it is very tempting to dismiss them all as the human equivalent of evolutionary mating displays, designed to attract attention in order to advertise a particular biological fitness as a mate. While certainly an interesting consideration, this generalization may however mask the many subtleties driving and being represented by the use of cosmetics. Examples like the nineteenth-century fashion of deliberately using cosmetics to create the pale, wan and frankly sickly appearance of consumption (as tuberculosis was romantically fashionable at the time) would seem in fact to undermine such a strictly evolutionary argument.
Indeed, the very definition of what exactly constitutes cosmetic practice has changed over time. Unlike modern cosmetology, which tends to be perceived as an industry that produces merely topical preparations creating illusionary and superficial effects, pre-modern cosmetics’ use was largely believed to have not only an aesthetic function but a medicinal one as well. Greek and Latin, for example, both distinguished between the “healthy” care of the body and the “unhealthy” disguising of it. While not always consistent between the two cultures, much “make-up” as we define it today tended to be considered fradulent (hence “trucco”) deleterious and unwholesome, while “perfumery” instead was often considered therapeutic.
In pre-modern Italy, cosmetics’ ideal backdrop was a pale complexion, apparently untouched by the sun’s rays to give the impression (as did soft and white hands, another long-standing preoccupation of cosmetics’ use) that one had the luxury of avoiding going about outside on any daily labors. In addition, white operated as a blank canvas upon which a physiognomy could be painted: as Boccaccio had ranted, “Who is not aware that smoke-grimed walls, not to speak of women’s faces, become white when whitewash is applied to them, and what is more, become colored according to whatever the painter chooses to put over the white?”