Historical Body Mods: Makeup, Tattoos, and Corsets
BY B.J. SEDLOCK
Body modification has a long history, and if you need to address it in your novel, here are some historical resources on three types of body mods.
If you use your browser to search for “cosmetics history,” you’ll find lots of .com websites, which you should use with caution (are they written to inform, or are they trying to sell you something?). I’ve selected some less commercial ones here.
This gives an overview of makeup use in America since the 18th century, followed by images of beauty product containers, with dates; click on an image to bring up further information on the object. The article has a nice bibliography. The bar on the right side will direct you to related material, such as skin and hair care products, foot care, and fragrances. AND, there’s also a section on historical feminine hygiene products, a difficult topic to find material on.
The site is run by the European trade association for the cosmetics and personal care industry. Its “History” page offers a general history of cosmetics, with subsections. The one labeled “Decorative Cosmetics” has the most information on makeup history. Click on “view more” for a timeline. Other sections offer historical information on hair, skin, and oral care, plus perfumes.
This is an overview article by Mark Cartwright from the online World History Encyclopedia on the uses of cosmetics in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Byzantium, with several images. It has a bibliography at the end pointing you to print resources on the topic. If you type “cosmetics” in the search box, you’ll pull up a more in-depth article on Egyptian cosmetics and hygiene, also with a print bibliography.
This article is from ChinaDaily, an international newspaper in English on China affairs, an overview of cosmetics as used in Chinese history.
MAKEUP HISTORY BOOKS
Face Paint: The Story of Makeup, by Lisa Eldridge. Abrams Image, 2015. 9781419717963
Eldridge, a makeup artist, arranges her history of makeup by themes, rather than chronologically. Lavish color illustrations and several pages of bibliographical notes will aid further research.
The Artifice of Beauty: A History and Practical Guide to Perfumes and Cosmetics, by Sally Pointer. Sutton Publishing, 2005. 0750938870
“Intended to be as much a source book for others who wish to explore cosmetic use in the past as it is an overview of developments in cosmetic history.”—xvii. Besides a history of European and especially British cosmetic history, the author provides recipes that recreate historical makeup and perfumes.
Perfumes and Cosmetics in the Ancient World, by Michal Dayagi-Mendels. Israel Museum Jerusalem, 1989. 9652780588
This was published as a guide to an exhibit of the same title at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, with photos of artifacts from Israel and nearby countries “from the third Millenium BCE and until the Roman period.”
Fashions in Makeup, From Ancient to Modern Times, by Richard Corson. Universe Books, 1972. 0876631529
“The purpose of this book has been to determine as accurately as possible what men and women used on their faces, how they applied it, and what they looked like as a result.”—preface. It’s a thick volume with an extensive bibliography and index, covering ancient times through 1971.
The Face of the Century: 100 Years of Makeup and Style, by Kate de Castelbajac. Rizzoli, 1995. 0847818950
A survey by decade of makeup in the 20th century, lavishly illustrated.
Cosmetics and Adornment: Ancient and Contemporary Usage, by Max Wykes-Joyce. Philosophical Library, 1961.
“Trace[s] the developments in adornment and cosmetics from the earliest known times to the present day,” i.e., through the mid-20th century. Author covers a wide range of adornment, including hairstyles, stage makeup, and cosmetic surgery. Includes an almost 6-page bibliography with further references.
Painted Faces: A Colourful History of Cosmetics, by Susan Stewart. Amberley, 2017. 9781445653990
The author limits her study to Western cosmetics, especially Britain, France, Italy, and America. A glossary and short bibliography are included.
Classic Beauty: The History of Makeup, 2nd edition, by Gabriela Hernandez. Schiffer Publishing, 2017. 9780764353000
The first few chapters cover makeup in early periods, then three chapters emphasize makeup used on eyes, lips, and the face. The next by-decades section starts with the 1920s and runs through the early 2000s. Beauty product containers are illustrated, along with influential magazine advertisements, and photos of celebrities. Several useful timelines supplement the text.
TATTOO HISTORY WEBSITES
The Smithsonian Institution’s magazine from 2007 offers this article by Cate Lineberry on tattoos in ancient history, including two illustrations of tattoos on mummies. Sources are not given, however.
This overview of the topic by Amy Olson in 2010 is from the U.K.’s Wellcome Collection, a museum and library covering health and medical history. There’s a button to click on to view several examples of historical tattoos in the institution’s collection.
This is a guide to accompany a film shown on the PBS TV network in the U.S., on tattooing in Oceania. This particular page gives a history of tattooing in Samoa, Hawaii, New Zealand, and beyond. You can click on the bar on the left to read other pages about the role of tattoos in culture, a gallery of examples, and a glossary.
While this is a .com site, I’m including it because of the amount of material and some cool images. Jacqui Palumbo interviews Dutch tattoo artist and tattoo collector Henk Schiffmacher, and discusses the how museums have become interested in tattooing history.
This page offered by the New York Historical Society from 2017 gives a brief overview on the prominence of New York in the history of tattooing in America. It offers a slideshow of about 10 interesting images.
This page is by the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command discusses the heritage of tattooing among sailors, starting with the British Navy. It has a brief 2-item bibliography, and a list of traditional tattoos and their meanings: a pig and rooster were thought to prevent drowning, a shellback turtle meant the sailor had crossed the Equator, and a cross on the foot was thought to repel sharks.
This U.K. site from the Royal Dockyard at Chatham overlaps the above entry in part, listing the meanings of popular tattoos: an anchor meant a successful Atlantic crossing, “hold fast” on the fingers was to help sailors keep a grip on the rigging, and propeller on a sailor’s bottom would keep him from drowning.
This is a blog post from 2020 by Carolyn Russo of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. She interviews the curator of the Lyle Tuttle collection, a San Francisco artist who “is attributed with bringing tattoo culture into U.S. mainstream society.” Accompanied by a nice collection of images.
This article by Candace Sutton on an Australian news website says that 37% of men and 15% of women convicts arriving in Australia had tattoos. Illustrations and text discuss the hidden meanings behind some of the marks. Some of the images are a little squeamish-inducing, being preserved human skin.
This site is offered by the Museum of New Zealand, and has examples of historical and modern tattoos, plus several YouTube videos on the topic.
TATTOO HISTORY BOOKS
The Tattooing Arts of Tribal Women, by Lars Krutak. Bennet & Bloom/Desert Hearts, 2007. 1898948747
“A preliminary and encyclopedic exploration of the indelible traditions of indigenous women that exposes a previously undocumented world of permanent body art knowledge.”—introduction, p.22. Chapters cover tattooing in Taiwan, Borneo, the Pacific islands, Japan, and societies in all the continents that practiced the art. What a great idea for a novel, an unusual profession for a female central character. Illustrations include Victorian-era photos and drawings of tattoo patterns. An extensive bibliography lists further sources.
Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo, 3rd ed., by Margot Mifflin. powerHouse Books, 2013. 9781576876138
This book explores Western women’s embracement of tattoos, from Victorian times to the present, those who were “rewriting accepted notions of feminine beauty and self-expression.”—p.8. An extensive bibliography provides leads to further research.
The History of Tattooing, by Wilfrid Dyson Hambly. Dover Publications, 2009. 9780486468129
Originally published in 1925 by H.F.&G. Witherby in London, this reprint discusses religious and social beliefs associated with body painting, tattoo by puncture, and scarification among tribal groups worldwide. Includes footnotes and numerous b&w photos and drawings.
100 Years of Tattoos, by David McComb. Laurence King, 2015. 9781780674766
As the title suggests, this book contains numerous examples of tattoos from 1914-2014. There is little text other than captions for the illustrations. The earlier chapters have examples of pre-WWII flash (pre-designed art used as examples or suggestions for a tattoo).
Ancient Ink: The Archaeology of Tattooing, edited by Lars Krutak and Aaron Deter-Wolf. University of Washington Press, 2017. 9780295742823
This is a collection of essays on the history of tattooing among ancient peoples via archaeological evidence, such as excavated tools or mummies. One slightly macabre chapter explains how someone can have a tattoo preserved after their death. The book includes a very extensive bibliography for further research.
Rachel Kaufman in the Smithsonian Magazine points out the errors regarding women’s undergarments as depicted in the Bridgerton Netflix drama.
This information is found on a Doncaster (U.K.) site supporting three local museums. The page gives an overview of corsets in the UK in the period stated, with images showing examples from different periods.
Johanna Goldberg offers an article on the New York Academy of Medicine blog discussing whether corsets harmed 19th century women as much as is currently believed. Included are interesting x-rays of a corseted figure and illustrations from period catalogs. It ends with a nice list of 13 different references you can use for further research.
Jessica Knapp writes on the Canada’s History website on the fashion cycles of the corset in history and particularly in Canada.
Tammy Kiter of the New York Historical Society wrote this blog post about items in the New York Historical Society’s collection on corset-wearing. One letter excerpt from a woman in 1900 reports ordering a “doctor’s corset… Wore it two days and was nearly killed.” The post includes examples of corset advertisements.
The Symington corset firm presented its corset collection to the Leicestershire (U.K.) County Council’s Museums Service in 1980. (Also see Foundations of Fashion book listed below.) This site presents 154 images from the Museums’ collection of corsets. Click on a thumbnail image to view descriptions and dates.
Corsets: A Visual History, by R.L. Shep. R.L. Shep, 1993. 0914046209
This is a visual survey of historical corsets as seen through advertisements, department store catalogs, and corset company catalogs, 1870-1930. The introduction discusses the harm corsets caused or did not cause to women’s bodies, but there is little text otherwise except what was in the original ads. Not all the ads pictured have attribution, but all are dated.
Corsets: Historic Patterns and Techniques, by Jill Salen. Batsford, 2008. 9781906388010
The author is a freelance costumer, having made costumes for opera companies. The book is aimed at costume makers, offering patterns for sewing corsets. Salen provides color photographs of corsets from museums and dates them, along with her patterns to recreate them. While a historical novelist may not have to make a corset as part of their research, this book provides period examples in color which are useful for descriptions.
Whalebone to See-Through: A History of Body Packaging, by Michael Colmer. A.S. Barnes, 1980. 0498025098
Colmer provides brief chapters on ancient and medieval corsets, but most of the book concentrates on the 19-20th centuries. There is some text, but the bulk of the book is illustrations, photographs and advertisements.
The Corset: A Cultural History, by Valerie Steele. Yale University Press, 2001. 0300099533
The author challenges popular notions about corsets, that not all of them were torturously restricting, and that period drawings of wasp-waisted women were exaggerated and did not reflect real life. Steele also has a section on men’s corsets from the Regency era. Chapter three is about medical consequences of corsets, and later chapters discuss a corset as an erotic item, and the modern Madonna-era corset as a “muscular” accessory. The author includes extensive bibliographical notes for further study.
Support and Seduction: The History of Corsets and Bras, by Beatrice Fontanel. H.N. Abrams, 1997. 0810940868
Fontanel starts with ancient times and covers through the late 20th century in her history of foundation garments. A rather shocking photo is one of an uncomfortable-looking iron corset from the 15th century, “worn only by women with physical deformities.” The majority of the illustrations are vintage photos and reproductions of artwork and advertisements. A one-page bibliography is included.
Foundations of Fashion: The Symington Collection, Corsetry from 1856 to the Present Day, by Christopher Page. Leicestershire Museums, 1981. 0850220890
The author worked for W.H. Symington and Co. of Market Harborough (U.K.) for over 50 years, and created the Symington Museum of Corsetry. He gives a history of the company from 1830 to 1980, with many photographs of the company’s products, including the “liberty bodice” designed for young children. See also the website “Symington Fashion Collection” listed above, for related material.
About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Lead Librarian and Coordinator of Metadata and Archives at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.