Paris Tips: 8 Fascinating French Beauty Fads

Vitrine on  rue Caulaincourt (Van Gogh’s former third floor flat is nearby at 54 rue Lepic) Photo by T. Brack

Go gentle into that good night (T. Brack’s archives)

By Theadora Brack

This week I’ve got a strong hankering for some smooth time travel on the rocks. You see, I’ve decided to shake it up with a heady mix of old French fads and beauty secrets. So grab a seat, fasten your seat belt, and prepare for lift-off!

1. Starry, Starry Night

4 ounces sea salt
2 ounces spirits of camphor
2 ounces of ammonia
8 ounces pure alcohol

Can’t sleep? Here’s an ancient French cure for the blues. Dissolve sea salt in one cup of hot water. In a separate bowl, add the camphor, ammonia and alcohol. Add seawater. Mix well and bottle. When needed, rub it on vigorously. And repeat. But don’t drink it!

While living in Arles in 1889, Vincent van Gogh wrote his brother Theo: “I fight this insomnia by a very, very strong dose of camphor in my pillow and mattress, and if ever you can’t sleep, I recommend it to you.” Tip: Don’t try this concoction at home. Use Vicks Vapor-Rub instead. It’s safer—and still legal!

2. Limelight

Swing your DIY beauty bucket! According to dancer Gabrielle Deslys, the best way to cleanse the skin while improving circulation was to travel to the seashore, collect salty beach sand, and then heat it, before scrubbing the skin until it glows.

Back in the day, Mademoiselle Deslys was known for a dance called the “Gaby Glide,” and is credited with having performed the first strip tease on Broadway—while serving as a spy for the French government!

Life is a beach with Tho-Radia

Film buffs: Gaby’s swan-shaped bed had a cameo in Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” flick. She was a star.

3. Shine-on

Get out your Geiger counters! During the roaring “Années Folles,” radioactive produits de beauté were all the rage. In 1932, Dr. Alfred Curie (amazingly, apparently no relation to Madame Curie) launched his own Tho-Radia line of beauty products, made with thorium chloride, and radium bromide. The pricey line included skin cream, cleansing milk, face powder, rouge, lipstick, and toothpaste.

Promising lighter, brighter complexions, advertisements featuring a cool blonde washed in an eerie, bluish light who taunted, “Stay old if you want.” Ouch. Talk about sneer pressure!

Don’t forget the handkerchief!

4. Needle in a haystack

Back in 1912, French “faddies” not only abused caffeine, morphine, and cocaine, but they also experimented with another “freak” of the day: injecting essential oils of roses, violets, and cherry blossoms directly into their skin. A French actress was one of the first to give the injection craze a shot. Hooked, she gushed that 48 hours after the injection, her skin still smelled of a fragrance called “New Mown Hay.”

It was a short-lived fad, however, because cases of blood poisoning soon resulted in several deaths. So just say no. (By the way, the Métro stations in Paris are now scented with an fragrance called “Madeleine” which is intended to smell like the countryside. Spray-on!)

5. That Crazy Witchcraft

Catherine de Medici (wife of King Henri II) generously shared beauty secrets with daughter Marguerite de Valois and the court ladies, affectionately calling them “the flying squadron.” One such tip included taking a linen cloth and dipping it in milk, then adding slices of lemon, slices of orange, a dash of sugar and a dab of alum. Crushed snails were optional.

The queen would apply this to her face, and then sleep with one eye open. You see, her highness was also known to send poisoned gloves as gifts to her enemies, so perhaps it’s best to take this recipe with a grain of salt. Just saying.

6. Trigger-Happy Sister

During one of her post-WWII promotional beauty tours, Denise Miet said that perfume should be worn lavishly, but not so heavily that men rush to open a window.

According to Mademoiselle Miet, fragrances should be worn at the hairline, inside the neckline of a dress, behind both knees, on the elbows, and at the hem of one’s petticoats as well at the temple, wrists, neck, and handkerchief. An unscented hankie is a “wasted opportunity” for more flower power.

Cinq Femmes by D’Orsay (Dandy, Tropée, Milord, Belle, and Mystère)

Coco Chanel had a different strategy when it came to the nozzle. “Where should one use perfume? Wherever one wants to be kissed.” Oh, la la.

7. True Colors

In 1913, trendy Parisiennes not only fell for Cubism, but they also imitated the works by Picasso and Braque, powdering their faces in mauve, terracotta, yellow, and blue before a night of hobnobbing at the Opéra or the dance halls in Montmartre.

Were the ladies—as the New York Times asserted—imitating “hideous female types conjured up by the diseased minds of unconventional artists?” Or were they simply taking advantage of the harsh glare of the newfangled electrical chandeliers to generate a hauntingly strange concept of beauty?

8. Next spot: Bedlam

Here’s one for the road. Was it the automobile or the start of WWI that inspired the mud splash fad in 1914?  Unlike the 18th century mooches velour in crescent, star, and heart shapes, the mud-colored beauty spots were applied randomly on the face.

Not there to draw attention to facial features or to communicate desire or deviousness, the hipsters looked as if they’d been caught out in the elements without an umbrella or better yet—rolling around in a brand-spanking-new automobile. Or perhaps expressing confusion in a world of uncertainty and chaos was the message? Heck, every now and then, I could use a little jar of mud to call my own.

Clipping Marquise Gloria “Norma Desmond” Swanson, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up!”

N’aimez que Moi, Parfums Caron. 1916. (Love Only Me)


87 thoughts on “Paris Tips: 8 Fascinating French Beauty Fads

  1. I enjoyed the hell out of this post! The photos, puns and similes are a delight just right for a Friday! Just one question, in what form is Camphor illegal? I’ve got a bottle of the essential oil on my shelf right now. (No I didn’t score it in an alley!)


    • Bonjour! Thanks for your super swell words! Here’s a funny Royal Tidbit for you: During the 17th century, Anne of Austria (Louis XIV ‘s mother) used to say, “One would sell one’s soul to the devil for perfume.” In 1630s she possessed one of the largest mirrors in France. It was only eighteen inches high and fifteen inches wide but it was a showstopper! Callers would come from miles away just to catch a glimpse themselves. Back in the day, mirrors were a hot gossip topic!

      (Regarding Camphor, see the toxicology mini-heading at this page: I think the old formula is difficult to find. It’s now made of turpentine. Vincent van Gogh would not have been pleased!)

      Enjoy the weekend!


    • Thank YOU for the swell words!! It was a fun post to create. And yes, I become totally obsessed with the topic. Sadly, I had to cut a few fads. Perhaps I’ll pen a part two. A wonderful excuse to purchase more postcards! Wink. Enjoy the weekend!! T.


  2. I love your blog. It’s not the usual run of the mill stuff. I love Paris too. Your articles bring it to life. thank you. Blessings from Lizzie Joy


    • Merci, Lizzie Joy!! I feel the same way about your photography/travel site. It’s a beauty. Your photography is spectacular. I loved today’s headline: “Pursue Only Those Things That Capture Your Heart.” Parfait! Enjoy the weekend, T.


  3. Whew, what a crazy set of beauty tips! It makes me wonder what we’re using now that in 100 years looks as crazy as radioactive creams and perfume injections does to us. Thanks for sharing!


  4. I always enjoy your well-researched mix of info and craziness but of all the enjoyable quips in this one, my favorite is the oh-so-truism…”fragrance should be worn lavishly, but not so heavily that men rush to open a window.” I’ve had way too many women walk by with perfume so overdone that it nearly knocks me to the floor. Subtly is much more effective (and appreciated not just by the intended recipient but by those anywhere in the near vicinity!!)


    • OH. YES. Both men and women are guilty for showing flower power. Confession: I’ve also been there, I’m afraid. Recently I’ve made the jump to creams. It’s easier on the eyes and nose! T. (And thanks for your sweet-smelling words!!)


    • I know. I know! I’ve recently cut back! T.

      Here’s another classic recipe! Goodness.

      Eau d’ange bain de beauté

      5 ounces eau de rose
      5 ounces eau d’orange
      3 ounces eau de myrtle
      1 drop essence of ambergris
      1 dram oil of violet, rose or verbena
      Combine ingredients and stir into hot bathwater. A dram, by the way, is about a thimble-full.


  5. When I saw the title of this post I un-plugged my 1932 Marcel wave curler, peeled off the leaches under my eyes and took off my Crisco filled opera gloves so I could really get every yummy tidbit and tip out of your fabulous post. What a thrill… okay I am off to Blacks of Fifth Ave. and then my appointment at Sidney’s… despite the fact that I overheard the bitchy esthetician at Sidney’s say about me just last week. “Who does that old gasoline truck think he is fooling…he is sixty if he is a day!” …. Well like Mom used to say as she plucked her eyebrows. “Lanier honey, Beauty knows no pain.” In other words Theadora…I loved your post!


    • Oh, I love you and your mother. Yes, beauty knows no pain. I’ll have to start using that line. I also love Marcel. In fact, I have a mad penchant for collecting the little wands. At the last minute, I cut a short nod to his fabulous wave.

      Here’s the scoop: 1922 marked the 50th anniversary of the invention of the Marcel Wave. During the week long festivities at Coney Island, inventor Marcel de France was asked about his inspiration. His mother inspired his invention! “With my curling irons, I experimented on the top of her hair, seeking to repeat the natural wave on the top of her hair.” Three weeks later he visited his mother. The waves were still there. “Then I knew that I had indeed made a discovery.” His secret? “Simply a knack in the turn of the wrist and a series of movements of the irons that make the wave lasting.”



      • You are amazing! Thanks for the info on Marcel de France. Beauty knows no pain.
        Hugs from
        Lanier de San Francisco


  6. Hi lovely T – we are about to embark on our Paris trip and, thanks to your fab’ post, I reckon I am going to return looking more youthful than when I departed…!


      • Ah, thanks!! I’m working now on a story (a nod!) about the French pharmacy. Is there a beauty glitch or hiccup that can’t be fixed at the French pharmacy? I don’t think so! Enjoy the weekend! T.


      • Look forward to it. I am just going through photos of our visit to Paris in 2007 – oh how I long to go back! New Zealand is so far away, but hopefully we return in Spring 2014 – I have much unfinished business!


    • Yes. YES. T. (By the way, don’t visit without shopping at the pharmacies. You won’t regret it. Each time I enter a French pharmacy, the squeaky clean, powdered scent of the savon (soap) transports me back to my two grandmothers’ row houses in Baltimore. The shelves are typically stocked with a wide array of exquisitely packaged, plant-based soaps, shampoos, conditioners, lotions, crèmes, and cosmetics. Heaven!!)


    • YES. Here are a few of my favorite Lanvin names: Mon Péché (My Sin, 1925), Scandal
 (1933), Rumeur (1934), and Prétexte 
(1937). Sassy, eh? Oh, la la.


    • Thanks, Pam!! What do you think is going to be on our list? T. (I loved, loved your painted cats post. Thank goodness for Photoshop. For the love of sharp claws, I was wondering how they created the portraits!)


    • Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end. As Lanier’s mother used to say as she plucked her eyebrows, “Beauty knows no pain.” I’d like to try the “Cubism” visage! T. (Enjoy the weekend, sir!)


  7. Wonderful and entertaining as always, T. Wow injecting perfumes….glad we got a little better with that. Now the sand scrub thing, I guess we’re still ascribing to that tradition. Loved it! Thank you!!


  8. Wow–I learn something new every time. Tho-Radia! It is distracting enough to see the glow of cell phones when people are texting during a movie or theater performance, but just imagine if the people themselves were glowing! Weird!


    • Thanks, Martino!! A few years ago, I bought a Tho-Radia powder box and lipstick at a vide-grenier (yard sale) in Paris for a few euros a pop. I guess they wanted to get rid of them! Perhaps I’ll take a photograph and add them to the post. Enjoy the week! T.


  9. Still laughing about the insomnia treatment! I honestly think you have the material for a terribly interesting book on your hands: a detailed history of French beauty cures.

    By the by, injecting fragrance sounds like something a certain overexposed reality family in North America would promote.


    • Thanks, Krista!! Here’s another favorite beauty tip from Provence. I recently met a woman who soaks her legs in rosé wine once a week. Supposedly it cuts down on varicose veins. “Cleopatra got it all wrong,” she told me. She buys her Cote de Ventoux by the box! I’ll try it and report back with my findings!

      T. (And I like the beauty book idea. Food for thought!)


  10. I wonder what future humans will think of our irradiated meat, formaldehyde hair treatments, lead in lipsticks (still!) and chemical facial peels. But, that Van Gogh treatment I might have to try. Legally of course.


    • OH. Yes. Back in the day, I tried to “erase” my freckles with lemon juice, but they didn’t go anywhere. Stuck like glue, they’re still with me, thank goodness. I now embrace them (on most days!) Enjoy the Van Gogh treatment! T.


    • Sleeping with one eye open. YES, that’s exactly how my cat sleeps!! T. (And thanks! I also love the vitrine painting. The shop is located in the 18th arrondissement, Métro Abbesses or Place Blanche.)


  11. This may be my favorite post of yours! Very informative and fascinating tidbits of information, all mixed in with your imitable style and photos..Keep ’em coming!


    • h, thank you, Paul. What fabulous, fabulous words. I feel the same way about your photography! T. (It was a fun post to create. Dancer Gaby was a character. There’s even a “Gaby des Lys” Cocktail. It’s made of gin, orgeat and absinthe, and served on ice. OH, la la!)


      • Theadora, I love this post! Speaking of Gaby Deslys…I was wondering where you found the info here (on sand!)? I just bought a booklet (that originally came with her make-up line, at the time), and she only talks about the make-up. I was wondering if you found this in an old magazine? I am working on an article, and book eventually, about her, and am interested in this more obscure information. I have a biography about her, which is really great, but doesn’t get into some of these more interesting things.


  12. I loved this post! I love reading about beauty fads! It’s amazing the crazy things women have done all in the name of beauty, like injecting themselves with fragrance?! Wow. Talk about crazy!


  13. What a clever post! I can’t help but chuckle reading most French women’s magazines. My favorite was a recent ‘chewing diet’. But these thoroughly trump them all.

    Love the blog!


  14. It has been several days since reading your blog oh Marvelous Theadora. . Days filled with mixing potions and lotions. Rushing off to scoop up sea sand and shells. Fortunately the ocean is a short drive away. Then to the apothecary for salves and little brown bottles of mysterious substances. I whirled, and twirled, and tossed test tubes and Bunsen burners in the air, I mixed and fixed. If sniffed. I fanned the air. I rubbed magic into my skin. Dabbed it every where I would like to be kissed – for some reason a great deal of it on my feet. I gave myself mud packs. I even filled a tub with powdered milk, lit scented candles and languished in the bath. I counted the mirrors in my house. Eleven! Every mirror said “tu es aussi belle que”. Merci Good Husband for writing on all the mirrors. I still look exactly the same, but I feel wonderful. Virginia


  15. Oh mais madamoiselle!..Vous utilisez les mots et les paroles commes si vous lancez des petales de roses! J’adore! But of all your clever, and may I say, madame, also cheeky puns & fun..its your little ”oh lala’s” (of which I treasure the one replied in comment to me personally) that float coquettishly! I know, I know, overusing that word will remove its smile, but it is so much part of your writing…un GRAND merci!!


  16. Pingback: Radio Active Beauty… | The Wit Continuum

  17. Nice post … Interesting illustrations. One day I hope to make it to France. My step-daughter spent six weeks in France with a group she studied with. Her minor was in French and they spent three weeks in Paris and three weeks in the country. Keep up the excellent work.


    • Thanks for your thoughtful words, Frank! Yes, add Paris to the list. I think you’d enjoy rummaging through the boxes and boxes of photographs at the Paris flea markets and brocantes. And speaking of treasures, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying your father’s photography. I just spotted the cute photo of Brenda Lee. Charming!! Theadora


  18. Interesting and amusing post – today’s version of these treatments has evolved into Botox, chemical peelings, mud and algae wraps, oxygen facial, etc. Everything old is new again 🙂


    • I know. I know! What will they laugh at tomorrow? I shudder to think! Theadora (By the way, I loved your recent post about the Versailles-inspired decorating of the RER-C commuter trains. Great photographs! I love this idea! Brilliant.)


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