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Beauty through the ages - The Renaissance

A historical period when real women were idolized

Author: Charlotte Kuchinsky August 5 2007

Botticelli's Young Woman in Mythological Guise

The Renaissance was a cultural movement that began in Florence in the 1400’s, then spread throughout most of Europe, and lasted into the early years of the 16th century. Because the heart of the Renaissance era dealt with an idolization of the art and literature from the ancient civilizations of Rome and Greece, the perception of what was considered beautiful changed.

Body Type

Women of the Renaissance period did not concern themselves with things like a few extra pounds of weight. In fact, just the opposite was true. The ideal beauty of that era was more voluptuous than perhaps any other time in history. Paintings from the Renaissance period often focused on women who would today be considered fat. However, at that time, their figures and forms were considered the height of sexiness.

This is a stark contrast to modern attitudes! Nowadays, unless I literally starve myself to death, I can’t get remotely skinny enough to be ‘attractive’. At five foot eight, barely tipping the scales at 110 pounds, and a US size 7, I am considered overweight, whereas during the Renaissance period natural women were prized for their God-given bodies.

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Hair

The savvy Renaissance beauty was particular about her hair. The upper-class sophisticate sought a high hairline, since a wide and high forehead was an essential trait of beauty during that era. Many women, who were not graced with a naturally high forehead plucked their hairlines in order to get the desired effect.

Blondes were the epitome of beauty during this era and, therefore highly sought after. That forced women with darker locks to come up with a mechanism to lighten the hair. Saffron and onion skin dyes, as well as elements like alum, sulfur, and soda, were commonly used for this purpose.

However, most of these products did not work alone. They required lengthy hours in the hot sun, which served as the heating mechanism that activated the bleach. The process was tricky because women also wanted to keep their skin pale and untouched by the sun. Therefore, they had to sit outside for hours in heavy clothing to protect their skin and hats to protect their faces. The hats, however, had the crowns cut out of them in order to allow in the sun’s rays to work their magic in bleaching the hair.

Unfortunately, these bleaching processes were by no means perfect and often led to some rather unusual shades of hair color, ranging anywhere from platinum blonde to a carrot-top red. Additionally, the bleaching process often severely damaged the hair, leaving it dry, brittle, and prone to easy breakage.

Some women opted to simply hide their hairlines and darker locks under jeweled turbans or caps, which were popular at the time. Others found that the elaborate headdresses of the era allowed them to hide their lack of a high forehead while also accentuating their wealth and station in life. Under their head covering most Renaissance women pulled their hair back tight against the skin and braided it, oftentimes in very elaborate designs.

Those who were essentially happy with their hairlines and the color of their hair sometimes decorated their hair anyway with precious jewels, pearls, ribbons, and hair combs. A few even opted for shimmering veils atop the highly peaked hats that were so popular at the time.

French women, not to be outdone by anyone, and not wishing to conform to the norm, liked to pulverize flowers into a powder form which they mixed with a glue-like substance to use in their hair. Sometimes the powders were plain white but often they were colored in shades of yellow, pink, and blue.

Cosmetics

Cosmetics in the Renaissance Era included powders made from white lead, mercury, and vermilion (derived from cinnabar). Women in this era highly valued pallor. Pale ivory skin was highly desired so women who didn’t have that naturally used white lead powder to achieve it. Cheeks also remained fair but needed to give off a bit of a glow. Mercury was sometimes added to the white lead powder and rubbed into the cheek area in order to achieve the necessary effect. Some Renaissance women also used white lead powder, laced with mercury, to accent their bust lines.

Since high, wide foreheads were prized, women often pumiced that area to hide any evidence of tweezed hairlines and to assure that no lines cracked the serenity of their brow. Eyebrows needed to remain light and airy, so they were often tweezed or even cut to make certain that they were not overly prominent. Eyelashes were short and thin.

Vermilion was commonly used on the lips, which could either be left natural or tinted to full, highly defined, and luscious red color.

Clothing

The clothing of the Renaissance era changed depending upon the social standing of the wearer. Servants and the members of the lower classes typically wore high-waisted garments much like those that we call “empire” today. Bodices were often unstructured but still dipped a bit at the neckline to allow even these women to show their voluptuous curves. Skirts were generally gathered and sleeves were close fitting. The length of the garments were ankle length, rather than fully floor length. The whole structure and design of the garment was aimed at ease of movement in doing the numerous daily chores.

Women from the lower castes, including servants, wore caps of some kind. These were typically close caps of durable linen - much like the fabric of their clothing. These covered their hairlines but allowed their hair to flow free down their back.

Underneath the outer garment, Renaissance women almost always wore some kind of an under-dress, which was called a chemise. The skirts of these undergarments tended to be free-flowing but the bodice was often strong, if not formally corseted. The higher the class level of the woman, the more elaborate the undergarment generally was. Those in the wealthiest positions often wore corsets and pantaloons instead of a chemise. Either way, the fabric for the undergarments of the wealthy was generally of a much higher quality fabric. In some instances, undergarments also served as one layer of dress. It was not uncommon for women of this era to wear as many as three to five layers of clothing.

Women of wealth and high social ranking typically wore finer fabrics like silks, brocades, and velvets. Their garments generally featured plenty of accessories which often included elaborate embroidery, expensive laces, precious jewels, and fur trims. Where the clothing of those from poorer ranks was functional, the clothing of the wealthy was anything but. Skirts were often voluminous and ranged in shape from wide to barrel. These were supported with hoops made of wire or wicker held together by tape and ribbons. Necklines were low to show off the curve of the woman’s breast, but were often adorned with ruffles and lace and sometimes had high-standing collars which extended behind the neck. Sleeves were often puffed and frilly, adorned with laces and ribbons.

Colors among the wealthy were very often dark in order to provide the best background to show off their multitude of accessories. Colors also often expressed meanings. For example, green was equated to love, grey to sorrow, yellow to hostility, blue to fidelity, red to nobility, and black to lower status.

A natural look

Women of the Renaissance Era were in many ways more “natural” than the women of today. Cosmetics were not considered a necessity and clothing was varied enough that even the most discerning woman could express her own style. While some women wore corsets, they weren’t necessarily required as they would become in other eras. A woman’s natural form - as given to her by God - was considered to be absolutely perfect. “A little meat on the bones” was a good thing and not something to be hidden.

While no era in time has or likely ever will be perfect for womankind, it is perhaps the Renaissance Era that best celebrated the soft, natural, graceful curves of the feminine physique. What a pity that this attitude has been lost in time.

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Comments

Posted on 06/09/07 09:24 by: jayjay

this is a really informative site thanks a load it rox.
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Posted on 14/09/07 12:54 by: sarah

nice site! but as a student of art and pigments can i query vermillion as a lipstick? it's so poisonous it can kill by being absorbed thru the skin let alone the possibility of swallowing
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Posted on 30/10/08 01:14 by: Kelly

This was a very informative site and saved my butt on a school project. I would have liked to have known what the fashion was for the men of the Renaissance era though.
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Posted on 01/04/09 17:09 by: Aubrey

This is a really good article but you should know that you are not fat!! 110 pounds is way skinny you silly goose!!!
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Posted on 06/04/09 06:44 by: Michelle

Good article, but you are CRAZY for considering yourself overweight at 110 lbs and 5 foot 8. In fact, I would argue that you are extremely underweight.
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Posted on 21/04/09 16:51 by: Amani

Your series of articles have been very helpful in creating the basis and structure for my English paper, so thank you. But to reiterate what many have said. You could be the ideal model size. I am 5'5 130 lbs. You are perfect.
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Posted on 27/04/09 18:42 by: christian

Very good site, but I am 13 and weigh 110 and I'm considered very skinny. Maybe you should trying eating and exercising instead of starving yourself. You lose more weight if you WORK OFF the calories you take in instead of not taking any in, that is a PROVEN fact. But overall good site, and please consider my advice. And to Sarah: if this is true they need to publish this in more beauty magazines and health magazines, because I have never heard that!
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Posted on 29/05/09 07:25 by: Jenn

Omg, thank you so much for putting up this site! This was the only site that helped me for my English project. I was looking for fashion details during the Renaissance period to link to Romeo and Juliet. Gracias! <3
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Posted on 14/09/09 21:24 by: Anon

5'8 @ 110lbs and you're a size 7 and considered overweight? Hold on a second. I weigh the same as you but am 5'4 which puts me only a few pounds away from being considered underweight. I'm a size 2. I think you need to get your scale checked. If you're considered overweight you'd weigh a lot more than 110 lbs.
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Posted on 07/10/09 21:02 by: Ea National Institute of Health

At 5'8", the ideal weight is between 125 and 164 lbs, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services (http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/). Anything under 125 lbs is underweight. Eat a cracker.
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Posted on 26/01/10 04:22 by: Blackmelody-self confidence issues

You are so not overweight, I'm 5'5 and 148 and I think I'm fat but to some people I'm considered attractive and that scares me. The media shows off skinny people as if they're prizes, making those with sexy meat on their skin feel crappy.
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Posted on 22/04/10 00:53 by: lauren

I had to write a 3-page research paper and this information covers all that I need! If only there were other sites like this!!
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Posted on 06/10/10 16:57 by: LB

I am 5' 3'' and usually weigh about 180 pounds. I have never had trouble finding a boyfriend. I have been married for 12 years and have two children. Voluptuous women are still highly desirable to many. We're doing all right, and we always will do all right. The media presents a very one-sided picture of what is attractive so as to sell diet pills, diet books, makeup, clothes, etc.
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Posted on 22/11/10 17:09 by: Jizzle

The article was informative, however your comment about being overweight made my entire class laugh at you!
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Posted on 05/02/11 00:13 by: Tag

Although words like "prized," etc. are problematic enough when describing people, it is incorrect history to suggest that Renaissance women "were prized for their God-given bodies" because having "a few extra pounds" was only possible for people who had enough money to eat, i.e. the rich. Whereas today, the rich are the ones who are able to hire personal trainers etc.
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Posted on 01/03/11 00:07 by: ted

Dude 110 pounds is NOT overweight.
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Posted on 13/06/11 10:27 by: dan

You can't possibly think that that your 5 8" and 110 lb body would be considered beautiful back in the day, when it's considered to be underweight even in our modern world. I'm sure what you really meant was 5 6" and 210 pounds instead. Typo perhaps?
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Posted on 29/06/11 00:25 by: sigh.

I hope you just made a mistake and meant to say "210" pounds or something like that. Your BMI would be 18.5. A healthy BMI (body mass index based on height and weight) is between around 19 and 25, and you are an 18.5. you are at the absolute lowest end of the "healthy" range and the end of the "underweight" category. you are probably so overweight that you don't even have any sense of what women smaller than a size 14 weigh, because a 5' 8" 110 lb woman would be a size zero, not a size 7. I am 5'4'', 120 lbs, and am a size 2 or 0 depending on the clothing. I'm skinny, and my BMI is 19. which is just above where it should be. Even if you really were 5'8" 110 lbs (which i'm certain you are not), you would be a size zero at most. and if you aren't lying about your height and weight (you're either lying about your height and weight or your size), then it's girls like you that make other girls feel like they have to be a certain size, and get bulimia and anorexia and other eating disorders.
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Posted on 08/01/12 00:52 by: Jason

110lbs and 5'8"? Apparently exaggeration is a problem you have, like most "real" women these days.  Megan Fox weighs 117lbs @ 5'4". And nobody can deny (except my homophobic homo friend) that she is SEXY AS HELL. You should have close to her body at 125-130lbs, assuming you have enough muscle on them bones.

Girls have it easy. Deny your impulse to eat... not that difficult. Guys? We have to eat unprocessed (therefore $500+ a month) food like ravenous wolves and lift enormous amounts of weight year round to get the ideal 195-215lb physique. Which is easily imitated by Brad Pitt on screen weighing a measly 148lbs. He works out for 6 weeks and bam! Perfect body because of retouching and camera angles and lighting. The rest of us? Years of dedication with no promise of success.


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Posted on 06/07/12 22:07 by: Kayla

You are anything but overweight! I don't know where you got that from, but your BMI is about 2.3 points underweight, which is actually extremely significant! Other than that, great article. I totally agree with you. Why can't men look at a curvy woman and find her attractive rather than a skinny, meatless twig?
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Posted on 10/09/13 02:03 by: Cera

I LOVE this website!
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Posted on 21/03/14 16:30 by: Chloe Roberts

110lbs is around 7st, 8lbs! That is a far cry from overwight!
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Posted on 13/07/14 22:07 by: Chelsea gore

Loved reading this article! I have a high forehead which I've hated and hidden since I was a child, but after reading this article I'm actually starting to accept and like it... thank you :)
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