The Painted Lady

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Dressing TableThis weekend, my 15 year-old daughter and I passed another feminine milestone–the acquisition and application of cosmetics. Yep, my baby is now wearing make-up. Although, to be fair, it’s not by her choice. She and her closest friends have avoided this fate for as long as possible. In fact, the ONLY reason she agreed to the lessons this past Sunday evening was because the drill team she joined this year was having a photo shoot on Monday and make-up was a requirement.

As the mother of a teenage daughter, I am secretly counting my lucky stars that my daughter has no interest in the world of beauty products. Our girls grow up far too quickly today in my opinion, so I was happy to support her decision to skip the whole make-up mess. My only concern was teaching her how to do it properly so that when she did dive into those waters, she didn’t come out looking like one of those blue eye shadow disasters. Thankfully, she was content to let me pick out neutral shades to accentual her natural beauty instead of turning her into a painted lady.

“Painted Lady” – Remember the negative connotation such a name would imply back in the Victorian era? Any woman who would paint her face was considered of low moral character. Only actresses and prostitutes would use such ungodly enhancements to lure men down a sinful path.

You might recognize Marilyn Monroe's saloon girl character from the classic western, River of No Return.
You might recognize Marilyn Monroe’s saloon girl character from the classic western, River of No Return.

In the American West, the working girls at the saloons had this dubious distinction, dipping into the rouge pot to add a “youthful glow” to their cheeks or applied to lips to stain them an enticing red. Kohl would be used to darken the lashes or could be drawn on with a tiny brush like eyeliner. Powders and creams were used to help achieve a pale complexion.

However, it wasn’t only the “bad girls” who painted themselves. Wealthy women who had time and money on their hands often dabbled in the cosmetic arts as well, only they kept their tricks severely secret for if anyone found out they were using “paint” they would be ostracized. So they found ways to enhance their beauty in subtle ways, avoiding the painted lady look. They applied lemon juice to their skin to help fade freckles and promote the pale complexion that was so in fashion. In the evening, if they dared, they might even use a touch of rice powder. Beet juice could be used to add a touch of color to their cheek and lips, though many just tortured themselves with painful pinches to bring the blood to the surface. Instead of painting on kohl around their eyes, these women would add a touch of wax to their lashes the dust them with soot. Can you imagine having soot in your eyes all evening long? Yuck!

Gibson Girl
Gibson Girl

It wasn’t until the turn of the century with forces like the Gibson Girl, World War I, and the motion picture industry that the pendulum started to swing back the other way, opening the door for cosmetics. The Gibson Girl became the famous pin-up model that men idealized and women strove to imitate. World War I saw so many men overseas that the women at home entered the workplace, earning independence and their own discretionary income. New improvements in Hollywood by Max Factor created natural-looking cosmetics that  could be worn in off the movie set and still look beautiful, not like theater grease paint. Soon the female populace at large demanded access to these items as well, and the American cosmetic market was born.

So what do you think?

  • Are you glad we have cosmetics? Or do you wish the hassle was unnecessary?
  • If you lived back in the 1800’s, would you have been tempted to sneak a little beauty aid here or there?
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For those who love to smile as they read, bestselling author Karen Witemeyer offers warmhearted historical romance with a flair for humor, feisty heroines, and swoon-worthy Texas heroes. Karen is a firm believer in the power of happy endings. . . and ice cream. She is an avid cross-stitcher, and makes her home in Abilene, TX with her husband and three children. Learn more about Karen and her books at:

31 thoughts on “The Painted Lady”

  1. The only time I have ever used makeup was when I had to for dramas. I have never seen the point of makeup; God made you the way you are for a reason. I’m sure I would feel the same way in the 1800s, too. 🙂

  2. Your post made me smile and brought back memories of my daughter’s teens. From what I’ve read, most young women in the 1800s did little tricks to enhance their looks and I’m sure I would have done so, too. Yep, it’s a hassle, but I always feel better when I put on my face.

  3. I heard a great talk from a woman who said that her boss once told her she needed to wear makeup because, “that’s what women these do!” It’s an interesting feminine conundrum!

  4. I can still hear my father rant about those painted ladies and hussies. My mother never wore make-up. I tried to wear make-up in my teens when I started to notice boys in a new light.I was such a tom-boy for way too long.I had an allergic reaction to whatever I tried and that ended my painted lady stint. Being a tom-boy was much easier for me. 🙂

  5. I hate make up but I wear it, not much though. My 12 year old daughter has no clue about make up and I hope to keep it that way for many more years!

  6. Hi, Faith. It sounds like you and my daughter would really hit it off. She sees no need for make-up either, and I am happy that she has the self-confidence to live that out.

    I almost always go without make-up on Saturdays, even out in public, but I usually wear make-up to work and church.

  7. Margaret – I’m pretty sure I would, too. Maybe not “paint” but I would definitely want some kind of cream or lotion for my hands and face. With all the manual work those ladies did, their hands would take the brunt of it.

  8. Sherri – Poor man. So swayed by society and not even sure why. LOL. I can remember when it was scandalous to wear a dress without pantyhose. No decent woman would be caught without them. Now, you can rarely even find them on the shelves any more. Slips, too. Crazy how things change over the years, isn’t it?

  9. Hi, Rosie. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I have a bit of a tomboy spirit deep down. It’s why on Saturdays I hang out in jeans and a sweatshirt and no make-up. Getting all made up is a hassle I like to take a break from when I can.

  10. Hi, Susan. I didn’t even bring the idea up to my daughter until she entered high school, and even then I was content to let her decide on the timing. I knew the vast majority of her peers had been wearing make-up since junior high, but she didn’t feel the need to jump on the bandwagon, and I didn’t mind that a bit. Even now that she has gotten a taste of it, she still goes to school without it every day, only putting it on when it’s required.

  11. I was one of those girls who didn’t use makeup until I was in my late teens. My mom was a master at cosmetics and she taught me well. She also said to never go out in public without makeup because you never know who you might run into (like a future husband.. lol…). When I entered the working world, I only wore makeup for work. The older I get, the less likely I am to wear it. Number one — it’s such a hassle to get “the right look”; number two — I feel like it’s time wasted; number three — the stuff is just way too expensive! However, I do keep my nails done! 😉

  12. Diana – Your mom’s rule reminds me of the one about always wearing clean underwear because you might get in an accident. As if someone laying in the emergency room is going to be thinking about their undies at a time like that. LOL. I only wear make-up to work and church, and sometimes not even then, if I’m running late. And while I keep my nails clean and filed, I almost never paint them. Too much effort. And I’m too cheap to pay for a manicure.

  13. Karen, I love your post. I can just see the ladies back when making uo their faces. I have never been one to wear much makeup, my “paint” has always been minimal.

  14. I’d consider myself minimalist when it comes to makeup- foundation, eyeliner sometimes, mascara always. I do appreciate having an even skin tone and how the mascara brightens my eyes. I think some women go way overboard with the eye makeup and it covers their natural beauty instead of enhancing it.

  15. Good for you, Melanie!

    Heidi – I couldn’t agree more about some women going way too over-the-top with cosmetics. That was my biggest concern with my daughter. Even if she doesn’t want to wear it, I wanted to make sure that she knew HOW to apply it in a flattering, natural way should she ever change her mind.

  16. Love this post! Very interesting. I would’ve hated to be so limited back then. I look HORRIBLE without makeup. It’s not a pretty sight. Even as gross as it sounds, I might’ve been one who put soot on my eyelashes. I remember when I was a teenager. I bought some false eyelashes. Yep, I did. I shudder now to think of what I must’ve looked like. And what was worse, I snuck around because my mama wouldn’t let me wear mascara. Shame on me.

  17. Linda – I hear you! My daughter and I were both blessed with dark eyelashes, and I really think that makes a huge difference when it comes to going without make-up. There is a co-worker of mine who rarely wears make-up to work and she is still so beautiful. Dark hair, dark eyelashes, lovely complexion. Of course she’s also only in her second decade. Those of us carrying a few more miles don’t always fare as well.

  18. I wish I didn’t need to wear makeup. I see some ladies who don’t wear any and they look so pretty. But, with my bad skin, I have to cover it up. If I lived in the 1800s, I probably wouldn’t worry about it since most women didn’t wear it.

  19. Janine – Sometime I long for those simpler days where beauty was judged on a much more modest scale. Then I recall the horrible overbite and crooked teeth I had before braces. Ick! I think I’m glad I live in a modern age.

  20. Great info, Karen! I can’t imagine the soot, either. Yikes, my eyes itch just at the thought. I did wear false eyelashes when Hubs and I were dating LOL. I appreciate a touch of cosmetics. I don’t wear much, prefer lip balm to bright lipstick, and I do think I look a tad better when I do. (I’m not aging well LOL.) I love this post! Thanks.

  21. Aging is hard on us all, Tanya. You are certainly not the only one. I would love to see you working those false eyelashes one of these days, though. Ha! I’m sure batting those babies helped you win your man. 🙂

  22. So what do you think?
    •Are you glad we have cosmetics? Yes
    •Or do you wish the hassle was unnecessary? Yes
    •If you lived back in the 1800?s, would you have been tempted to sneak a little beauty aid here or there? Yes

    I may be contradicting myself. 🙂
    I think I have little beady eyes without some mascara and eye liner. So I use it and then……… little beady eyes are accentuated with black crap.

  23. I really see nothing wrong with makeup and am glad to have it. I don’t wear it very often, but appreciate it for special occasions. On most days when I was working, I wore eyebrow pencil and mascara and not much else. Since my hair has turned salt and pepper, my eyebrows have turned almost translucent. If I go anywhere, I put eyebrow pencil on. I think one looks a bit odd without eyebrows.

    It is certainly nice to have the wide variety of makeup available to us. We can be as muted as we like and a bit wild if the mood strikes. There are times, Halloween for example, when it is nice to be able to enhance your looks appropriately. At least it won’t be assumed we are a painted lady, in the old sense, if our makeup is a bit overdone, just incapable of putting it on correctly.

  24. Great comments, Patricia. I agree that overall I am thankful to have cosmetics as an option. It just feels strange to dress up for church or a nice evening and not wear make-up. In fact, that’s the one area where I have actually encouraged my daughter a little bit. I’ve told her that I think it’s great if she doesn’t want to mess with the hassle of make-up on school mornings, but when she dresses up, she might consider it. We’ll have to see if that ever kicks in or not.

  25. My mother was the epitome of understated cosmetics. She wore it in high school and then taught me how to apply it when I got to that point. I used to never go out of the house without my “face” on. I rarely use it now. I stay home so much since I retired that I don’t have the need. I used to do the heavy eye make up that was popular in the ’70’s & ’80’s for dress up occasions. I got to the point that I didn’t use mascara when I was in high school and collage because I sweated so bad it would run and I would have more than raccoon eyes. My best friend asked me one time what kind of mascara I used and when I replied “What mascara?” she said, “I hate you.” When I worked I always put on foundation, blush, and powder but applied it so that it looked close to natural. Am I glad we have cosmetics? Yes. I’m getting older and want to camouflage my imperfections. Do I wish it wasn’t necessary? Yes, I hate taking the time to put it on.If I lived in the 1800’s I would definitely sneak some type of enhancement for special times. For working at home or on a farm, no way. Let me do my work and whatever happens, happens. Great post.

  26. I like your perspective, Connie. I never wear make up at home if I don’t have plans to go out. Unfortunately, with work, I wear it more often than not. But I do feel slightly more self-confident when I’m wearing it, knowing I’m looking my best.

  27. Make-up! The bane of my existence as a teen, young woman, and adult. My mother taught me well how to apply them because she sold Avon Cosmetics and was a former beautician. Lucky me . . . except I hated them and I was allergic. These days I use the hypo-allergenic type for photo shoots, etc. Otherwise, I don’t wear it. Maybe because my Dad made a few too many wisecracks about “painted ladies” as did my dear departed hubby. He preferred the natural me. Am I happy we have them, yes. They’re just not for me, but then I was born with a natural ‘tan’, navy blue eyes, and smooth complexion . . . hair–straight mahogany brown. Now its silver and permed to give my aging locks body. I did wear makeup at ACFW because I was told too and because I did a photo shoot. Can’t imagine wearing ‘soot’– eeks. Great post and site! BTW,Karen, my bestest friend called last night to tell me she absolutely loves “Stealing the Preacher.” She’s a former teacher, librarian, and farmer’s wife. She’s also a fussy reader who only gives praise where it is due.

  28. How ironic, Cass, that you actually heard the “painted lady” charge from the men in your life. My husband has often commented that he likes my appearance just as well without make-up as with. I love him so much for that. It is so freeing to know that he sees me and loves me for who I am and not just the outer shell I dress up.

    Thank you so much for passing on the comments from your friend about Crockett and Joanna’s story. It put a smile on my face and lifted my spirits. Have a blessed week!

  29. I’m the ‘painted’ lady of Nicaragua! I still wear makeup with a matching visor (I made) and croc flops, in our mission work. The translators started calling me Melodiva and it’s sort of stuck. Ladies are always asking me why my skin is so pretty and that they want to learn to do it. Well, first, it’s called foundation…hides the nasty red cheeks of mine. Second, they can’t afford food, cook over fire and use an outhouse so I doubt foundation would be affordable. Oh, at the Maxi Pali (think Wal Mart Superstore on a very mini scale), Maybeline products start at $15.00!

  30. Melody – Loved your international perspective. Isn’t it fascinating how women of all cultures long for beauty? Maybe someday you can have a missions outreach where all the ladies get a “spa” day. You could get friends from home to send you cheaper cosmetics from the states to cut down on cost. Then there could be a whole tribe of painted ladies in Nicaragua! 🙂

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