Beauty and Etiquette in the seventeenth and eighteenth century


Modern technology has made our lives incredibly convenient and easy, but one wonders if modern day women have perhaps lost a little of their elegance and etiquette that was once so fundamental to the world of high society in the eighteenth century. Now it seems like only Royals practice what well-bred ladies of the past once did, and even some modern Royals have relaxed in the area of deportment. While we may no longer be living in the seventeenth and eighteenth century and many of the rules are considered archaic, a woman certainly is more beautiful to those around her when she is well-mannered, graceful and charming. Here are some codes of behavioural conduct that were once considered marks of a true lady:

Thomas Gainsborough, Mrs Richard Sheridan, 1785


Straight posture

As opposed to: Slouching, sitting with legs wide open, rounded backs

Formal introductions

In social situations, it was considered proper etiquette for a lady only to be introduced to other guests by the hostess or her companion.  If one behaved with too much familiarity towards someone newly introduced into his social circle, it was considered improper conduct.

As opposed to: Directly approaching a stranger and casually introducing yourself or making disrespectful, inappropriate remarks to someone you have just met.


Chesterfield’s 1796  Principles of Politeness and of Knowing the World states, “No one is at liberty to act in all respects as he pleases, but is bound by the laws of good manners to behave with decorum”

As opposed to: Haughtiness, pride, arrogance, boastfulness

Being quiet and polite

As opposed to: Being loud, brash and swearing

Respect and manners

The eighteenth century was considered the “age of politeness”

George Washington, who compiled a list of  Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation said, “Every action done in company, ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.”

As opposed to: Being tactless and disrespectful to those around you


  • Ladies never served themselves from the buffet line. She informed her dinner partner of her wishes and he brought her plate to her. Ward, Harrietta Oxnard Sensible Etiquette of the Best Society. Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1878 stated, “The mouth should always be kept closed in eating, both eating and drinking should be noiseless.”

As opposed to: Chewing with your mouth open, talking with your mouth full of food, picking teeth in public




Linley sisters


Women did not go out in public without some kind of hairdo. Hair was never left natural and loose., but pinned with extensions, wigs or styled. They wore a lot of beautifully designed hats. In fact, hair itself was a kind of accessory, almost like a necklace or jewels. They even decorated their hair with lace or fresh flowers. Sometimes their hairdos could take a full day to complete!

There are not many records regarding how they cleansed their hair – it is assumed they either used regular soap or simply water. Apparently they did not wash their hair too often- sometimes these hairdos lasted a few months! When they had fresh flowers in their hair there were often insects in them, and women were allowed to scratch their heads with a long stick (as they were also subject to lice)!


Sir Henry Beaumont in Crito in A Dialogue on Beauty (1752) describes the perfect beauty:  “The forehead should be white, smooth and open. The skin in general should be white, properly tinged with red with apparent softness and a look of thriving health in it. The cheeks should not be wide; should have a degree of plumpness, with the red and white finely blended together. The eyebrows, well divided, rather full than thin, semi-circular broader in the middle than at the ends. The mouth should be small, and the lips not of equal thickness. A truly pretty mouth is like a rose-bud that is beginning to grow…”

The best these ladies could do for foundation (and the fashion was very pale skin) was white lead powder mixed with egg white (no wonder women were often ill!) Blusher was a mixture of lead paste and carmine, but women wore this discreetly as it was frowned upon and associate with prostitution. Lips were tinted with food colourings. Eyebrows were plucked very thin, and sometimes mouse skin was glued on.  Various patterned patches were worn on the face to conceal (scars from smallpox) or draw attention to features.

How times have changed!

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