This story was originally published on March 11, 2016. Besides being one of the most misunderstood females in history, doomed French Queen Marie Antoinette is also an object of fascination to everyone from historians to fashion designers (See: Karl Lagerfeld's Queen Marie-inspired 2013 cruise collection, held at Versailles). So, when I was looking for the next famous face to tackle for my historical beauty routines experiment, it's no surprise that many of you voted for Marie Antoinette.
Because I am a benevolent beauty editor, I accepted your challenge. For seven days, I committed myself to the most lavish 18th-century beauty routine — or as close as I could come to it. But before I could do so, I needed to know what the hell that was.
I turned to Melanie Clegg, author of Marie Antoinette: Intimate History, and the woman behind the preeminent Antoinette blog, Madame Guillotine. Clegg notes that the majority of the fashion and beauty history we have of Antoinette comes from the memoirs of her ladies-in-waiting, Madame de la Tour du Pin and Madame Campan.
According to Clegg, the royal grooming routine was extensive. Just as she spent exorbitant amounts of livres on her wardrobe, so too did her majesty pile on the fancy beauty rituals. That, says Clegg, is a reflection of the traditions of the time and was not necessarily proof of Antoinette's rumored vanity.
"Women were expected to look good in order to ‘decorate’ their surroundings and please people who saw them," says Clegg. She notes that Louis XV, the grandfather of Marie Antoinette’s husband, was "appalled when he heard about her poor grooming while she was still a princess in Austria and insisted that French hairdressers and clothes be sent to her along with a French dentist to straighten her teeth and encourage her to brush them more often."
This so-called court decoration consisted of an elaborate skin-care regimen, the original three-step system: cleansing, toning, and moisturizing. Clegg says the Queen would wash her face with Eau Cosmetique de Pigeon — according to The Toilette of Health, Beauty, and Fashion, this contained fruit juice, floral essences, "the crumb of three French rolls," borax, and eight pigeons, stewed and fermented for 17 days. There is no way in hell that is happening, in case you were getting your hopes up.
This was followed by toning waters and whitening products (the paler the skin, the richer and more important the person — I'd have been supreme queen master of the universe in that case — and a coating of white paste, for good measure. Scented face powder, eye kohl, brow pomade, and plenty of rouge were all applied to complete the routine.
Sounds pretty posh, no? Read on to find out how my crash course in royal beauty turned out.
Day 1Excited to start this one off — at least this time, I'm working with more than just a bar of charcoal and a straight razor. I strived to use as many products from French brands as I could in an attempt to be authentic and pay homage to Marie's heritage. I lay out my assortment of primping products lovingly on my vanity (read: tiny bathroom sink) and get to work. First off: a shower. Antoinette was hot on baths (probably because there was no running water in 18th-century Paris), but I live in Brooklyn and my bathtub has probably been used for everything from making gin to washing small livestock. I'll need a gallon of bleach and some courage before I work my way up to that one. So, shower it is.
When bathing, Clegg says that Marie used a muslin pads filled with rice bran and herbs. I grab Eve Lom's Muslin Cloths and Plant Brooklyn's Rice & Clean Gentle Face Cleanser and get to sloughing. I concentrate my scrubbing on my face, since one little jar is going to go really quickly if I use it all over. The combo is fab — it exfoliates without roughing up your skin, so it's soft, not traumatized. However, the glass container does not make it very shower-friendly. I manage to dump a teaspoon or so of powder in my hand and immediately start mixing it up with water and smearing it on my face with the cloth. I'm surprised by the feel of it on my skin — it's not gritty or harsh, just a powdery, gentle buff. So far, so good.
Post-scrub, a bar of scented soap was used to tidy up. I pick up Pacifica's Spanish Amber Natural Soap. I'm not a fan of bar soaps — they're slippery little suckers and I can never figure out where to put them post-wash so they don't get gross. I start sudsing, drop the bar within five seconds and then persist to drop the bar enough times that my husband gives me a "you okay in there?" No, I am definitely not okay. You will not defeat me, soap. Manage to get sudsed up and am really enjoying the scent of the soap — it's warm and a tad spicy. It also has itty-bitty scrubby fragments that give me another round of light exfoliation. My skin is squeaky clean and ready for hydration.
Marie loved to slather herself in almond oil, so post-shower, I find myself spraying L'Occitane's Almond Supple Skin Oil on my damp body. My skin sucks it right up, leaving no slick residue behind. I shrug into my cozy bathrobe and put on my purloined hotel slippers (don't act like you don't steal the slippers they give you at hotels) and proceed to languidly lounge about my apartment and pretend my schnoodle is a lady in waiting. Immediately fire schnoodle lady-in-waiting for insubordination and failure to do anything except give me bitchy side-eye.
At night, gloves coated in wax, almond oil, and rosewater were worn to soften hands. Calluses were not very queenly, after all. I pick up Bliss' gel-lined Glamour Gloves — a total misnomer because these giant, bulky turquoise mitts are in no way glamorous. I spritz Chanetecaille's Rosewater Spray and the L'Occitane oil inside, slip on the gloves and hop into bed. The next morning, my hands are silky smooth and scale-free — a moisturizer miracle in the dry heat of my clanky radiator-tortured apartment.
Day 2Clegg enlightens me that the reason scented floral soap were de rigeur was plain and simple: Versailles smelled like ass. "The courtiers did everything they could to keep the smell at bay," she says. "Marie Antoinette’s rooms were scented with a profusion of fresh flowers, melted pastilles, potpourri, oils, and perfumed sachets." And even though Marie's was a frequent bather (very unusual for the time), there were still some less-than-queenly odors to disguise. Which is probably why she had perfumers on call — her receipts from the time gave us a clear idea of what she liked and just how much she was spending on the smelly stuff.
The scents she preferred were orange blossom, lemon, rose, lavender, and violet in her rooms, says Clegg. An apartment full of flowers isn't really realistic, so I place Nest Reed Diffusers in Orange Blossom and Cedar Leaf & Lavender in my living room and bedroom, respectively.
For her personal fragrances, her majesty regularly applied orange flower water. She favored two types of perfumes: fresh eaus of violet, rose, and jonquil and more complex aromas of vanilla, musk, lavender, iris, jasmine, cinnamon, cloves, and coriander.
After careful consideration, I choose Frederic Malle's Carnal Flower and Musc Ravageur. I start with Carnal Flower and start spritzing — 10 sprays later, I am thoroughly perfumed, nauseous from the fragrance, and sorry for the co-workers who have to inhale the air near me. At least it's a really pretty perfume.
Day 3Her skin care was extensive and heavily reliant on liquids — that gross pigeon cleanser, toner, floral water, and whitening creams. I switch out the bird stew for a micellar water from Dior. I'm not a huge fan of micellar waters — I don't feel like they take all my makeup off. This one does a pretty decent job. It takes three soaked cotton pads but it gets almost all my foundation off.
Caudalie's Moisturizing Toner and Shea Terra Organics' Moroccan Orange Blossom Water are up next. The toner is lovely, hydrating my skin as it tightens my pores. The orange flower water is also pretty great — I sweep it on with a cotton ball and marvel at how kitten-fur soft the combo has made my complexion. For brightening, I pat By Terry Cellularose Brightening CC Lumi-Serum on at night. Got to keep that rose theme going, after all.
Day 4Now for the makeup. "Like stage actresses, women at this time wanted to make sure that their features were visible in candlelit rooms and that they glittered and stood out as much as possible," says Clegg, "so they would have been a lot more heavy handed with their cosmetics, applying more rouge and kohl and darkening their eyebrows." That's going to be fun under fluorescent office lights.
To achieve that paler-than-pale effect, I take a foundation that's a shade lighter than my usual (Charlotte Tilbury Magic Foundation in 2) and mix it with NARS Illuminator in Copacabana to create a frosted-porcelain effect. Sorry kids, but there is no amount of money that would make me smear the white paint Marie favored on my face and go out into the world — I'm not a mime. I rim my eyes with a kohl pencil from Lancôme and then smack myself for not putting an eyeshadow primer on first. The moisturizer has made my skin slick and I now have black smudges in my crease. I use my finger to smudge it as much as possible. Lesson learned for tomorrow.
Now, for the blush — the part I've been dreading. All of the portraits of Marie show her with very prominent circles of blush adorning her cheeks. I pull out Yves Saint Laurent Baby Doll Kiss & Blush in Pink Hedoniste and have to give myself a two-minute pep talk to work up the resolve to just do it already. I smile big, smear it on my cheeks and rub it in in a circular motion. Instead of looking like a creepy porcelain doll, as I expected, I'm now have a pastel-pink sunburn going on, because I blended the blush too close to the center of my face.
I apply the same hue to my lips, touch up my brows with L'Oréal's Brow Stylist Designer Eyebrow Pencil followed by Glossier's Boy Brow (Clegg says sticks of pomade were used to coat Marie's eyebrows and eyelashes). Then, I grab the most Marie Antoinette-ish item on this whole list: Guerlain's Meteorites Illuminating Pearls Carousel Light-Revealing Pearls of Powder. This limited-edition scented powder (out in May, but for a similar effect, you can grab the line's permanent powders, here) comes in a vintage-inspired pink metal case with tiny color-correcting "pearls" of powder. The resulting effect is a fresh, illuminating, airbrushed finish to your complexion. I felt very queenly delicately dusting it on my face. A quick spritz of the Rosewater Spray (this chick really loved her flower waters) and my face was finished.
Day 5Aaaaand I cheated. Don't judge me, it was for a really good reason. Interviewing Gwyneth Paltrow with giant blush spots while sitting directly across from her her easygoing, natural beauty was not high on my list of life experiences. I did adhere to the skin-care routine. (I'm finding that easy — even enjoyable — to do every day.)
Day 6Alright, back to the grind. Saturday finds me en route to Paris (how fitting) for another celebrity interview. The life of a beauty editor, right? I skip the makeup for my six-hour plane journey, but pack my micellar and rose spray in my carry-on so I can keep my skin fresh and hydrated. Upon arriving to the hotel, I unpack my makeup and begin my routine. By this time, I've mastered my blush placement (smaller dots of blush, smaller circular motions, and putting the product closer to my cheekbones rather than the true apples of my cheeks) and have perfected kohl liner longevity. (Thanks, Urban Decay Eyeshadow Primer Potion!)
Day 7My hotel room has a swimming-pool sized bathtub, so I figure this is the perfect time to attempt Marie's bath routine. Clegg says Marie would sit on a pad filled with sweet almonds, pine nuts, linseed, marshmallow root, and lily bulb. My version involves a folded up towel (sorry, housekeeping) filled with an entire bag of Mistral's Almond Milk Bath Salt. I take out the muslin cloths and a bran body wash (The Body Shop Japan Adzuki Bean & Rice Bran Shower Gel) and start scrubbing. An hour later, I reluctantly drag myself out of the tub, rub in my almond oil, and slip on my comfy robe and soon-to-be-stolen slippers.
One week of decadent grooming has taught me that it's no wonder Marie Antoinette was considered to be so vain. Clegg says that she definitely wasn't unusual or excessive in her grooming habits — quite a few royals were actually more extreme than the Queen of France. "She has some pretty stiff competition from several other women in French history," notes Clegg. "Most notably, Diane de Poitiers, the influential mistress of Henri II, a remarkable woman who was completely obsessed with maintaining her youthful good looks." In addition to being credited as the inventor of jogging and practicing strange rituals like peeling an onion near her eyes to make them more luminous, she was also known to have been a regular imbiber of a tonic that contained real gold that she believed would promote a more youthful appearance. "When her body was recently exhumed, it was found to have high levels of gold in her hair and it’s thought that this rather extreme beauty treatment may even have killed her," says Clegg. Hopefully, all that Goldschläger I downed in college didn't do anything more than just make me question my life choices.
While the makeup was an experiment that I most definitely will not be continuing, it did teach me how healthy a touch of blush can make you look. The bar soap, I’m conflicted on — I love the way it makes my skin smell and feel, but my butterfingers make it an exercise in futility. Listen, we all have our struggles.
If I could get past the thought of my bathtub's history, I might be able to attempt baths, but they won't ever compare to my fancy French tub. The skin care, on the other hand, I am definitely keeping up. I love how soft the lightweight waters make my skin look and feel. The orange flower water, in particular, is fab — it diminishes any redness instantly (suck on that, acne scars) and improves my complexion's clarity bit by bit as I use it regularly. However, I might need to substitute a proper cleanser in for the micellar water on days I'm wearing heavy makeup.
The big lesson I learned from this round of beauty history was that though her routine may have seemed excessive for the time, it pales in comparison to the grooming habits many of us practice today. Looking at you, 10-step Korean skin routine and YouTube Kardashian tutorials. Also, it reminded me how much I really, really, really miss baths.
Alright friends, you tell me: Which famous lady's beauty routine should I jack next?