A Whiter Shade of Pale

The collection here includes an interesting array of makeup from the mid- twentieth century including Rimmel face powder with a plastic cover that you would pierce to open.

Rimmel's face powder from the 1920's

 Nowadays there are all sorts of variations of foundation including ones with clever minerals, ones that adjusts to your skin tone and ones that are so long lasting it’s difficult to take it off. But even with all these innovations the Rimmel powder in the collection does not look all that different from my 2011 Rimmel powder.

 Our modern foundations can be traced to the first three decades of the 1900’s and the need for make-up which could be used on the ever increasing movie sets. Max Factor’s ‘Pan-Cake’ revolutionised foundation, changing the nature of how make-up was used, once just greasepaint for actors, now an everyday, every weather accessory. Whilst Max Factor may have been the midwife of modern foundation, the desire to alter our complexion and hide our facial blemishes has been around much longer. The Greeks and Romans, men and women, would apply chalks and lead to their faces. In the middle ages women would bleed themselves and apply an arsenic powder. The Elizabethans concocted a white lead paint and brushed egg whites on their faces to look shinier. In the Victorian period, women would eat chalk and drink iodine in the hope that the colour would drain from their face.

 I thought I would try my hand at becoming a makeup artist for the day and have a go at applying some of the methods used in history, almost all of which are designed to make skin look paler – at odds with the modern desire to have tanned, darker complexions. Foundation sounds to have been pretty dangerous, people died from ingesting arsenic, lead and mercury through their skin. So I thought best not to try these recipes on my willing model’s face, instead opting for the chalk and egg look.

Egg on your face - Elizabethan style

 And the conclusion of this experiment… unsurprisingly chalk does make your complexion lighter in a very unnatural, mime type way and egg whites do make you ultra shiny before hardening and giving you exaggerated wrinkles. I am reliably informed that the egg whites also leave your skin feeling nourished and soft, but the chalk strips your skin of any moisture. Our twenty-first century love of looking natural by faking it up means I don’t think either will be modelled by Cheryl Cole any time soon.


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Blackburn Museum can be found in Blackburn, Lancashire. It houses objects documenting Blackburn's industrial past as well as a world class collection of Fine Art, Japanese prints, Icons, Numismatics and Manuscripts. Come and visit us to find out more.

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