Beauty History: Cosmetics in the Edwardian Era

The Edwardian Era in the UK is the period that corresponds to the brief reign of Queen Victoria’s son, King Edward VII, from 1901 to 1910. However, some historians extend this period, also known as Gilded Age or Belle Epoque, to 1919 because this era of opulence and social changes, mass produced abundance and new revolutionary inventions, luxury and wealth was brought to an end by the First World War.

Cosmetics, magazines and makeup counters

Cosmetics, which were frowned upon in the Victorian era (but still very used, only in a very natural manner), become very popular. Even back then women felt the pressure to look younger than their real age and now, thanks to industrialization and mass publishing, more women had access not only to mass produced cosmetics but also to magazines giving beauty advice and tips on how to take care of their skin, hair and beauty.

Cosmetics could be easily bought at beauty salons but women were ashamed to admit they needed help to look pretty so, when visiting such shops, they would often use the back door! This started to change in 1909 when Gordon Selfridge in Oxford Street, London, began to place cosmetics on open counters, encouraging women to try cosmetics before buying them. Imagine how shocking this must have seemed to the older generations of the time! But beauty counters like we know them today were born and very soon, other shops followed suit.

The Edwardian ideal of beauty and how to achieve it with makeup

But what was the ideal of beauty women aspired to in the Edwardian Era? Well, pale skin was still in (although after the First World War, tanned skin will soon become popular), but blonde hair was out. The Edwardian beauty was a brunette with a pale complexion and rosy cheeks. To whiten their faces, Edwardian women used enamel, a white face paint made with white lead (which we now know is toxic). Rice powder or pearl powder could be applied on top of the skin as well.

To get that healthy rosy flush on the cheeks, rouge was applied, while the lips were stained with geranium and poppy petals. Instead, eye makeup wasn’t that common. Burnt matchsticks were sometimes used to darken the eyelids but it was eyebrows that were the main focus for Edwardian women and eyebrow pencils were very popular. So were belladonna drops, which would dilate pupils and brighten the eyes. Tinted powders and creams could be used on the nails as some sort of nail polish. The nails were then buffed shiny.


Just like women today, Edwadian ladies wanted to keep the wrinkles at bay for as long as possible. At the time wrinkles were thought to be caused by a lack of oil in the body, which would damage skin tissue. To fight wrinkles, a diet rich in vegetables, fruits and plenty of water was recommended. In addition, using olive oil in salads and drinking rich milk and cream were said to help too. But that wasn’t the only concern women at the time had. For those that wanted birthmarks, scars, superfluous hair and moles removed, this could be done by a beautician with the help of an electric needle (electrolysis). And if you just needed to remove excess shine from your face, you could use papier poudre, which were available in books of colored paper for that purpose. Concoctions and creams with Cocoa Butter, Coconut Oil, Almond Oil, Lanolin, Petrolatum, Witch Hazel and Glycerin were also used to take care of skin.


Perfumes changed a lot in this period as well. While in the past fragrances were made with natural ingredients and essential oils, their supplies started to become scarcer and scarcer because of the exploitation of resources in colonized countries. These natural ingredients were thus substituted with synthetic ones, with some perfumes containing both types of ingredients. In any case, synthetic perfumes weren’t as complex and rich as natural ones were, but they were cheaper.


In previous centuries, hair (just like the rest of the body, eww) wasn’t washed often. This too is something that changed in the Edwardian Era when women started to take better care of their locks. Shampoos started to appear around this time and brillantine was applied to give hair shine. Henna, spread with a small toothbrush throughout hair (which would then be wrapped up in a hot towel for at least 15 minutes) was used to dye hair in beautiful copper shades. Sulfate of iron was used to darken hair but if you wanted to bleach it instead you would opt for dioxogen and ammonia. And to prevent grey hair, which was though to be caused by dryness, concoctions of glycerin, oil, rum and oil of bergamot was applied on the locks.

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  1. Eleanor says

    Wow, really interesting. While not a beauty program, the BBC has an interesting series called the Edwardian Farm, where 2 archeologists and a historian are living that way for a year. It is really interesting to see how they did some of these things, like making lyme from granite in a huge kiln, early combustion engine, etc. Though it does have a little about beauty. I have found it interesting to see how they had to make things themselves (like lyme) that we take for granted today. Since I am in the states, I watch it on Utube.

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Eleaor, I knew they were doing a series about life in an Edwardian Farm, but I wasn’t aware it was already on youtube. Thanks for letting me know, I’ll go watch it now. I love programmes like that, it’s so interesting to see how people lived in the past.

  2. Mylanqolia says

    Thanks for this very informative article. I’m very interested in this period as I’m a fan of Sarah Bernhardt. :-)

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Mylanqolia, you’re welcome. I love Sarah Bernhardt too and I think she lived in a fascinating historical period. :)

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Makeup Morsels, I’m glad you enjoy this type of posts. It’s fascinating to know how people lived in the past. This is an era of great changes and lots of things we take for granted now started back then.

  3. says

    My blog has some posts about Edwardian beauty that the interested might like to look at:

    It’s interesting that they understood bathing quite well by this time but discouraged hair washing. It was advised that oily hair should be washed about every two weeks, and no one seemed to imagine that hair rightly out to ever be washed more than once per week!
    Gibson Girl´s last blog post ..The Merry Widow HatMy Profile

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Gibson Girl, thanks for the links. I’m very interested in both beauty and history and I’ve just bookmarked your blog. :)

      And that’s weird indeed. I have oily hair and couldn’t imagine washing them every two weeks only!

  4. Jenny says

    I have been looking for some hair and make up ideas, I am doing a play with this era…and I cannot believe what women went through for their make up. The things that they put on their faces that are now very!!
    I really enjoyed reading everything that was on your website…Thank You!!

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Jenny, you’re welcome. I’m glad you liked it. And I agree. It’s incredible what women are willing to do for beauty, isn’t it?

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