During weeks when my adult acne acts up, I sometimes wish I could do as the 17th-century ladies did and cover up my pimples with beauty patches. One of the greatest examples of cosmetics converting facial flaws into a fashion statement, 17th- and 18th-century beauty patches started out as simple snippets of fabric and evolved into symbols of wealth, personality and politics.
By the 18th century, smallpox was a leading cause of death, killing around 400,000 Europeans each year. For those who survived, it usually left scars behind on patients' faces. Additionally, the lead-based face powder women applied liberally in order to achieve the coveted ultra-pale complexion of the day also damaged the skin. Enter beauty patches.
Made from pricey fabrics like silk or velvet and coated in a gum adhesive to hold them in place, beauty patches (known as mouches, or flies, in France) came in a variety of decorative shapes including crescents, hearts and stars. Jane Austen's World even cites beauty patches shaped like a horse-drawn carriage. They also came in lovely tin patch boxes women carried around with them like powder compacts. Patch peddlers even had a catchy rhyme for selling these wares:
Heer patches are of ev'ry cut for pimples and for scarrs
Heer's all the wand'ring planett signs
And some of the fixed starrs.
Already gummed to make them stick
They need no other sky
Nor starrs, for Lilly for to view to tell your fortunes by.
By the early 1700s, beauty patches had become such a cosmetic staple, they were worn more for aesthetic accent than blemish camouflage. For instance, the Pitt Rivers Museum explains how "women pasted them on the face, neck, and breast, according to a newly emerging language of symbolism: a patch above the lip meant coquetry, on a forehead, grandeur, and at the corner of an eye, passion." Some women even strategically placed patches on the right side of their foreheads to denote support for the Whigs, while Tory supporters sported their patches on the left sides of their foreheads.
Nineteenth-century women's faces were bare of beauty patches, but the cover-ups experienced brief comebacks in the 1920s and late 1940s. A 1948 LIFE magazine beauty patch trend piece reports: "The new patches, neither superstitious nor political, are pure vanity -- designed to accent a far complexion and to highlight a woman's most beautiful feature, whether it be her lips, eyes or back."
Though the patches never caught back on with 18th-century fervor, beauty marks took on sex symbol status a few years later with Marilyn Monroe's Hollywood rise.