I am so impressed with this series! I thought it was just going to be, well, lipstick, powder and paint, but the episode on the Georgians was great and so too was this episode on the Victorians. I couldn’t help thinking how some of the Victorian ideas on appearance were still influencing children’s books written in the mid-20th century, which I was reading as a kid in the early 1980s. As Lisa Eldridge pointed out, Victorian ideas on being able to judge someone’s personality based on how they looked verged on the bonkers – but, in Enid Blyton adventure and mystery books, you always know that anyone with a thick neck or “eyes set too closely together” will turn out to be a baddie! And, at the Chalet School, wearing more than the slightest hint of make-up is a sign that you are a Very Bad Girl, and yet you’re supposed to look attractive at all times. As Lisa said, that works OK if you’re naturally stunning, but it really doesn’t for the rest of us! I do not have the nerve to go anywhere without make-up on.
All sorts of other things also made their way into this – from the Contagious Diseases Act, to people having issues with red hair because of Scottish and Irish nationalism, to soldiers being expected to have huge moustaches because it was thought that Indian men with lots of facial hair looked uber-virile and that British men should try to get the same look.
It started with fairly standard stuff about Victorians not being keen on the idea of make-up because it was associated with being on the stage, and also because the later Victorians were obsessed with the idea that cleanliness was next to godliness and thought that a clean face meant a bare face. But it went beyond that, to talk about how it was felt that, if you covered your face with make-up, you might be trying to hide something … like the fact that your face was ravaged by syphilis, and from there it got on to the Contagious Diseases Act, and how women were so frightened of being dragged in for those horrific speculum examinations that they were afraid to wear make-up in case it led to their being mistaken for prostitutes. Very interesting point. And it also talked about the general attitudes towards women, and how a lot of make-up looked as if you were putting yourself out there rather than fading into the background.
There was also some talk about phrenology, which always makes me think of Mr Rochester doing his “feeling your bumps” thing, and the general idea of being able to judge people by their appearance. It didn’t go into eugenics in too much detail, but it did touch on the idea. And it also mentioned the idea of TB being seen as making people look attractive – bright eyes, rosy cheeks, etc – and compared it to the heroin chic idea of the 1990s. It was just fascinating how the programme developed.
There was also some talk about hair. There are still some rules about facial hair in the Armed Services, aren’t there? Anyway, we heard about how, after the Crimean War, soldiers were banned from shaving above their top lips, and this was in force until 1916 … and how this was because Indian men with luxuriant beards and moustaches were thought to look very manly. I have to say that I am not a fan of men having either beards or moustaches, although I know that some people wear them for religious reasons, but each to their own!
And then the issue of red hair. I thought that prejudice against people with red hair was to do with religion, because Judas was supposed to have had red hair, and the Spanish Inquisition associated red hair with being Jewish, but the programme made the point that it was also associated with Scotland and Ireland – and presumably, by extension, with ideas of Irish and Scottish nationalism. If Nicola Sturgeon was watching, she was probably quite chuffed to hear that! Interesting idea. I don’t really know why, but everyone has this image of Jacobites as having bright red hair. You can even buy Jacobite tam o’shanters with a load of false red hair attached, which is utterly ridiculous: the Old Pretender and Bonnie Prince Charlie both wore white powdered wigs, and had brownish hair! Scotland and Ireland do both have far higher percentages of people with red hair than England does, though.
All this from talking about make-up! This series really is good. It’s a shame that there’s only one episode left.