A historical period when real women were idolized
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.
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.
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 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.
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.