Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Steampunk Beauty?

"At one time every lady of means possessed her still-room, where aromatic waters were distilled and various cosmetics compounded."
--Stanley H. Redgrove, The Cream of Beauty (1931)

Steampunk culture entered the mainstream recently with articles in Paper and the New York Times. The Steampunk aesthetic combines Victoriana with elements of fantasy or sci-fi, and a DIY ethic. My idealized vision of beauty is similar.

Our culture emphasizes beauty products. It seems like soon we'll have as many Sephoras as we have Starbucks. Glossy packaging, poetic copywriting promising science and magic-- it's so seductive. And then there are the services. We've outsourced so much of our basic grooming; it's only been about a decade since nail salons have multiplied all over cities and the mani-pedi has become as ubiquitous as happy hour once was.

A Victorian woman took beauty and grooming very seriously. It was her responsibility and a very private ritual. She kept a small journal for her own beauty recipes. They had been passed to her from her mother and grandmother, but she had tweaked them to suit her sensibility. When the season began to change she leafed through her book and headed first to her garden or herb pot. She clipped a few roses or some lavender. She then distilled her own flower water like this, or with a small home still or set the flowers to dry so as to later distill essential oils.

In the meantime she visited the apothecary with her list. There, she was able to buy, in incremental measures, all that she might need. The pharmacist meticulously weighed the powders and wrapped them in paper. Our Victorian lady brought her own glass dropper bottle from home to be filled with glycerin. She tucked this small bottle back into her purse and carried her packages, tied with string. Of course she was not entirely innocent of advertising; she had seen a convincing testimonial in the newspaper about a certain facial soap, an she did succumb to buying a small bar of that. It would be one of very few commercial products ion her vanity.

When her lotion was prepared she took the time to massage it into her skin as he sat her dressing table, She knew that this moment of respite was just as essential to her healthy glow as the lotion itself She finished her routine by uncoiling and brushing her hair one hundred strokes. She uses home-concocted shampoos, tonics and conditioning oils, but her trust lies in her ritual, her routine. She is self-possessed.

She was occasionally guilty of overkill, to wit:

"Make an emulsion of soft white soap, essence of turpentine, tincture of benzoin, essence of rosemary, and essence of Norwegian pine, in equal parts. Add two quarts thereof to the bath water, in which have been previously dissolved, four ounces of bi-carbonate of soda, a quart of spinach juice, and twenty pounds of sea salt. This bath must be taken before going to bed and very hot."
-- The Marquise
de Fontenoy, Eve's Glossary, 1897

And the sci-fi aspect I mentioned above? More on that later.

(That gorgeous bronze still is from coppermoonshinestills.com)