Paris Tips: 8 Fascinating French Beauty Fads
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!
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!
Film buffs: Gaby’s swan-shaped bed had a cameo in Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” flick. She was a star.
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!
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.
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!”