During the 45-year reign of England's Queen Elizabeth I, the monarch's personal appearance determined the criteria of feminine beauty, Elizabethan style. Hallmarks of the ideal Elizabethan beauty were extremely pale skin contrasted by rosy cheeks and red lips, bright eyes, and hair that was red or blonde. Upper-class women of the 16th-century Elizabethan era achieved this look at a price: Ingredients in the cosmetics they most often used were damaging, even fatal. Today it's possible to achieve the appearance Elizabethan makeup sought to create, using safe modern cosmetics.
The High Price of 16th-Century Beauty
The Elizabethan makeup most often used to create a pale or pure white face, neck and bosom was ceruse, a mixture of white lead and vinegar. It was applied in a heavy layer-and it was toxic.
Color for cheeks and lips came from mercuric sulfide (vermilion), which could be laid on thickly, or from other compounds. Mercury, another toxic substance, was also a recommended ingredient in various facial treatments, including a bath to freshen the skin.
Preparations suggested to help Elizabethan women achieve the coveted red or golden hair color included dubious or unhealthful ingredients such as urine. It's no wonder many resorted to fashionably tinted wigs instead.
Court ladies emulated the sparkling eyes so noticeable in contemporary portraits of Elizabeth I not only by outlining their eyes with black kohl, but by using drops of belladonna (deadly nightshade) to dilate their pupils.
An Elizabethan Look Today
Unless preparing for a costume party or portraying an Elizabethan character, the full period look would look very out of place in modern society. But you can achieve a good approximation of Elizabethan beauty with modern products. Start with a layer of sunscreen to help anchor subsequent applications of makeup; allow it to absorb before applying white or very pale liquid foundation. Apply loose white powder with a cosmetic brush. Use dark red lipstick and blusher (applying the blush in an oval on each cheekbone) and accent your eyes with black eyeliner and mascara.