Writing her Travels Into Spain in 1679, French author Marie-Cathérine le Jumel de Barneville, known as Madame d’Aulnoy, recorded her less than flattering impressions of the complexions of Spanish women: “I have never seen boiled crayfish of a more beautiful color.”

The effect of redness that startled Madame d’Aulnoy was produced by rouge (blush) applied in staggering quantities. Elsewhere, Madame d’Aulnoy recounts how a Spanish lady “took a cup full of rouge, & with a big paintbrush, she put it on not only her cheeks, her chin, under her nose, under her eyebrows and around her ears, but she also be daubed the inside of her hands, her fingers, & her shoulders.”

A makeup brush with a silver gilt handle

A makeup brush with a silver gilt handle from the late 17th century

National Museums Scotland/Bridgeman/ACI

Madame d’Aulnoy was looking back on her experiences of living in Spain in the 1670s, the final years of what historians traditionally called Spain’s edad de oro, or golden age. Beginning with Spain’s rise as a European superpower and its colonization of swaths of Central and South America from 1492, the golden age waned as Spain’s economic problems worsened in the late 1600s. While it lasted, many aspects of Spanish culture, including literature and theater, were lavishly celebrated. Travelers’ accounts note how the country’s great wealth and power were reflected in women’s appearances. Richard Wynn, a politician who accompanied Prince Charles I of England on a trip to Spain in 1623, wrote that “of all these women, I dare take my oath, there was not one unpainted; so visibly that you would think they rather wore vizards [masks], than their own faces.”

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Extreme makeovers

According to cultural historian Amanda Wunder, author of the book Spanish Fashion in the Age of Velázquez (Yale University Press), in terms of fashion and beauty, “Spain was going in a different direction” than the rest of the European continent. Whereas the French and English leaned toward natural complexions, Spanish beauty was all about being the fanciest and most elaborately made up, she explained.

The Spanish court set the standard for the rest of society. By then, the wealthy were much more visible in public than they had been in the Middle Ages. Nobility and royalty appeared regularly at the theater or hung their likenesses in portraits in public spaces during festivals. The ideas of beauty they projected spread down through the different levels of society.

Some products used in cosmetics caused headaches and damaged skin and eyesight.

“Everyone was putting on layers of makeup, from the queen downward. This was a cross-class phenomenon,” explained Wunder.

To achieve the sought-after appearance in Spain’s golden age, ladies would put themselves through a long and complex grooming process. They even had a special room set aside for the purpose, a kind of boudoir, known in Spanish as a tocador. The term was originally used to designate the cap that men and women wore to bed, but it later came to refer to the room itself. The tocador was where ladies would dress and take care of their hair and makeup. It was here that ladies kept their skin and hair treatments, makeup, and beauty paraphernalia. The box used to store this beauty kit was also called a tocador. Some of these boxes were beautifully crafted. Inside, cosmetics were kept in pots and bottles, and in the center was a small mirror. Depending on a lady’s wealth, the mirrors might come in lavish frames of Indian ebony, stained wood, or even silver.

A 17th-century tocador with tortoise shell details

In the Spanish Golden Age, the tocador became fashionable. These luxurious wooden boxes for storing jewelry and cosmetics were often inlaid with silver or gold leaf and divided into compartments. They usually had a mirror on the lid.

Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas

Beyond the pale

In 17th-century Spain and beyond, the ideal of feminine beauty was blonde hair and a deathly pallor. In Spain, it was a relatively common practice for women to bleach their faces. Solimán, a cosmetic made from mercury preparations, was used for this purpose. Its chemical composition could do lasting damage to the skin. Meanwhile, bleaches diluted to varying strengths were used to lighten hair.

As Madame d’Aulnoy had so memorably observed, the staple in the Spanish tocador at the time was rouge. Known in Spanish as color de granada (pomegranate color), it was sold wrapped in sheets of paper that were kept in small cups called salserillas. Having made their faces very pale, women then painted their lips and cheeks with this rouge and darkened their eyebrows with a mix of alcohol and black minerals. To keep their hands white and soft, they would apply a paste made from almonds, mustard, and honey.

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Among other chemicals used in products, sulfur was perhaps the most widespread. Some of these components were harmful. Women occasionally whitened their faces with bismuth oxychloride (sometimes known as Spanish white), a skin and eye irritant; or they used lead precipitates, which are toxic.

A painting of an ornately dressed woman wearing a red gown and hat on horseback, with cherubs above holding a crown

French-born Marie Luise D’Orleans is depicted in a baroque 1679 portrait by Francisco Rizi. The flourishes of red and white on her dress are echoed in the pallor and rouge of her makeup. The niece of Louis XIV, Marie Luise was about to be crowned queen of Spain through her marriage to Spanish king Charles II.

Reproduced with permission of the municipality of Toledo, Spain

The composition of rouge has changed over the centuries, but in Spain’s golden age, it was often made from charred sulfur, mercury, lead, minium (a lead compound), and other substances. These preparations could cause headaches, permanently alter the skin, and damage eyesight because of their toxicity, dangerous effects that were noted at the time. Commentators saw other toxic effects in beauty products.

To the mainly male writers of the period, makeup was tantamount to deceit. A literary trope of the time was to reproach a woman who artificially embellished herself; when the time came for her to be seen without adornments, her lover would be disappointed.

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Brazen face

The moralist Juan de Zabaleta, in his book El Día de Fiesta por la Mañana y por la Tarde, published in 1654, attacked the use of cosmetics on religious grounds. He set the action in the tocador of a lady getting ready on the morning of a holiday: “She places at her right hand side the box of beauty medicines and begins to improve her face with them. This woman does not consider that, if God wanted her to be as she paints herself, He would have painted her first. God gave her the face that suited her and she takes on the face that does not suit her.” Zabaleta’s work is part of a history of misogynist literature that condemns women’s beauty rituals as tampering with God’s creation.

Some women agreed that such rituals were fatuous, but for very different reasons: María de Zayas, a golden age Spanish writer, today considered a protofeminist, viewed the social pressures on women to apply makeup as a means to prevent them from emancipating themselves. In a novel from the 1630s, she has one of her characters say that if women applied themselves “to training with weapons and studying the sciences, instead of growing their hair and shading their faces, they could already have surpassed men in many things.”

As Spain’s imperial fortunes waned in the late 1600s and the golden age ended, the heavy use of makeup in Spain also diminished. With the French Revolution in 1789, a more natural look swept through Europe, and elaborate wigs and makeup were shunned.

Attitudes toward makeup, however, are often cyclical. Safer zinc oxide-based powders later replaced toxic lead-based recipes, and makeup’s usage rebounded in Europe. Then, in the mid-1800s, heavy makeup fell out of fashion, associated with actresses and prostitutes. Facial artifice came back to the forefront with the advent of theatrical cosmetics and became widely commercialized in Europe and North America in the 1920s. Since then, its use in the context of femininity and feminism has been as heatedly discussed as it was in the golden age of Spain.


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