Whatever nature has provided, humankind can improve on. That’s not just the decadent ethos; it’s humanity’s defining drive. So even a fresh-faced young lady, like model Jamie Doney on our cover, undertakes a bit of grooming before a night out. For our faithful re-enactment of Ramon Casas i Carbó’s painting After the Ball (also known as A Decadent Girl), she not only partied like it was 1899; she also primped that way.
True, in the late 1800s the beauty routines of “nice” girls were limited. Painting your face was bad, bad, bad, and coloring your hair—downright wicked. But there were ways to make subtle changes that telegraphed your dewy availability … before, say, you danced till your face flushed pink and your hair tumbled out of its chignon, ruining your polished appearance and making you look, perhaps, ready for a tumble yourself.
So, to start off demurely and work your way louche-ward …
Whatever your social class and sexual goals, your complexion said everything about you. Now we celebrate all shades of hair and skin, but in decadent-era Europe, sun-shielded pallor was highly prized. In fact, whatever your background, your lifestyle was your beauty regimen. You kept yourself well out of the elements—no chapping, no burning, no wrinkling. You wore big hats and long gloves. You carried a parasol. You sat in the shade. And if you ever felt the slightest bit weathered, you scrubbed your face with lemon juice—but carefully; you wouldn’t want to irritate your skin and turn it shudder-red. Heaven help you if you’d been born with freckles. (For the record, we totally heart freckles!)
Very few cosmetics and preparations were available, much less acceptable. Lanolin was fine, if you didn’t mind smelling slightly like a sheep. Various preparations known as “skinfood” (a term recently revived, oddly enough, in high-end products) were available and usually bought on the sly. Some young ladies ingested poisons to reach the ideal: arsenic to whiten the complexion, belladonna to keep the eyes shiny-bright.
Yes, you knew these things were bad for you and potentially lethal. But even the youngest and most tender flesh is already decaying, and pleasure will always be as short-lived as youth, so why not help nature along a bit? You’re only pretty once—unless you have a portrait somewhere that registers all the signs of your sins, leaving your flesh to carry on unblemished. Now we’re going to pause to disagree with the decadent aesthetic: We celebrate beauty at every age, in every complexion and shape … There’s nothing more decadent than seeing beauty absolutely everywhere.
But again, back in 1899: If you were getting set for a ball and perhaps on the hunt for a mate, thus conforming to one standard of beauty, choices were limited. It was acceptable, at least, to use powder. This was made of rice or oatmeal, applied either with a brush or a piece of paper coated with the finest dust. That way you kept your color even, your pores small, and your skin matte. Heaven forbid your nose or forehead should glisten … almost as if you perspired during physical activity!
Your powder had to match your skin tone. Even into the early 1900s, girls who used pink on their cheeks were considered slightly wild. Your means of bringing “bloom” to your looks were perforce simple and perhaps therefore uncomfortable. If you really needed a bit of color in your cheeks, you pinched them. Again, not too hard or you might look like a floozie … You bit your lips throughout the evening and tried not to draw blood. If you had tuberculosis, you had a head start—your cheeks were pink, even red, and your eyes bright with fever. However, there was a clear downside.
So, you lovely, living girl. It’s time to turn your attention to your crowning glory, your hair. When you could get pure rainwater, you saved it up to wash your tresses (not really an advantage in large, polluted cities). You pretty much had the hair color you were born with, though once again a bit of lemon juice might lighten it. Like Laura Ingalls or Marcia Brady, you or your maid brushed it a hundred strokes a night to distribute the oils that kept it glossy and usually braided it before bed. But if you needed it arranged into a coiffure, rag curlers probably got involved, even a curling iron heated on the stove. Every time you cleaned your hairbrush or trimmed your ringlets, you put the harvest into an aptly named hair receiver—a porcelain box with a hole in the top—so that when you needed to get fancy, you could use the wad as the center of a chignon or pompadour. These bundles of old hair were sometimes lovingly called rats.
Once your locks were styled and pinned in place, you certainly wouldn’t want them to slip and reveal your rat. So to keep your ’do done, you used a light solution of the starchy water left when rice grains were boiled. It worked, sort of, but you could expect to retire to a dressing room several times in a night (as Ms. Doney has done) to adjust pins and ornamental combs and to moisten your hands lightly and run them over your locks to revivify the starch without losing the curl.
The style sported on our cover, also associated with the American Gibson Girl, can be achieved even if you haven’t been building your own personal rat, but you’ll need fairly long hair to do it. See Nikki Verdecchia’s tutorial on page 20 to achieve this perfection for yourself—if only for a moment. Once you’ve mastered that look, you can try variations with rolls and puffs around the face and neck—even go a little crazy with multiple rats.
With or without the rice water combed in lightly for hold, flyaways and flop-downs will start happening right away. All this is perfectly normal. You’ll notice that neither Casas’s model nor ours remains perfectly coiffed—this is how you look after the ball. And, frankly, during it; maybe even before, unless you are very skilled in hair arts.
If only there were a respectable way to enhance your eyelashes! You would never dream of trying a cake of that newfangled black stuff that made them darker and thicker. You scraped it up on a moist brush or stick, then carefully applied the goo to your lashes … where it probably caked up again. Or you might try using the char on the end of a matchstick—but no, your parents inevitably noticed, and so did other girls and chaperones and who knew who else, as it flaked off and made your eyes look ghoulishly haunted. In a way, that was also a decadent look … It worked well onstage, at least, and on the dark corners where some girls did a brisk business in seduction.
Wouldn’t it be a relief to let go of inhibition, to shop for the forbidden potions and creams and everything else that made staying nubile so conveniently easy? Weren’t all these “natural” paths to beauty really a bigger sham than the cosmetics that stage actresses, dancers, prostitutes, and other demimondaines applied with abandon?
Yes, a lady of the night might henna her hair, stain her lips with cochineal (a red dye made from ground-up beetles), and powder herself pink all over. The great actress Sarah Bernhardt daringly plied her lips with carmine in public, but she was French (id est, naughty by birth). Privately, women sometimes concocted a tinted lip salve by adding that cochineal powder to a bit of beeswax, castor oil, or tallow, but lip rouge wouldn’t be fully accepted until the 1920s.
Perfume was both necessary and somewhat stigmatized. After all, Mary Magdalene was represented by a jar of perfume, the scent of which was there to cover up the aroma of her various forbidden activities. If you were planning to dance all night and still keep body odor to a minimum, your best option was perfume and lots of it (but not too much, lest billows of scent make people wonder what you were trying to hide). Bergamot, made from oranges, was an especially popular deodorant, splashed from a bottle and applied liberally under the arms.
Fortunately, advances in chemistry made stabilizing and standardizing perfumes much easier by the end of the 19th century—which, some historians will claim, meant that advertising was created to persuade people that their perfectly ordinary secretions were a miasmic problem to be combated with new products now available at any drugstore. Nope: Even back in Chaucer’s day, there were complaints about body odor.
But on the whole, by 1910, cosmetics, and primping in general, were becoming more accepted and expected. Or (flip side) maybe we were all getting decadent. So we became colorful, beautiful, shiny in the right places and matte in others. We looked and smelled terrific. Beauty should appeal to every one of the senses, after all, and cast a spell that makes all flaws invisible, all sights, sounds, and smells pleasing. As to touch and taste—that might come later, After the Ball.
Speaking of that magical time when you’d worn yourself out with dancing: How you approached a sofa said everything about who you were. If you flung yourself horizontal, perhaps still
in your dark outer garments, well, you were a wild girl indeed. A proper young lady would never let anyone see her in such a position, lest she appear to be issuing an invitation—lest she become, in a word, decadent. Like, say, a loose-moraled model on the cover of Pèl & Ploma, a literary and artistic magazine sponsored by a bar, for which Casas created an early version of this composition. The book in her hand may be a copy of that magazine or of one of the scandalous French novels that always came in yellow covers. Then again, it might be a dance card filled with her partners’ names. Who are we to question our girl’s morals or her reading matter?
We submit that there could be perhaps no self-portrait so attractive, in this day and age, as one in which the subject (that’s you) lies down on their own sofa, with their hair however they like it, lipstick or powder or no, holding a copy of Enchanted Living in one languid hand. We are all caught up in the great dance of life; why not take a moment to read—and to admire yourself in these pages?
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the decadents, it is this: You are your own art.