Question Time: Historical beauty

Loretta_5_5       From Loretta
      
      As I mentioned last Saturday, I have a book rapidly approaching deadline (it’s four weeks–that’s rapid to me).  This means my limited powers of brilliance need to be focused on the book.  So coming up with an actual idea (and please don’t ask me where I get them) and then turning it into deathless prose is out of the question.
      You asked questions.  The Wenches will answer, in no apparent order…
      
      Susannac asked a bunch I thought would be fun to answer.  I’d love to do all of them, and maybe will get to a few more in the course of the day or one of these days.  But I’m starting with hairy women.
      
      3) Did women in the early 1800s shave their legs, and if not, why are they always smooth when the heroes are exploring their bodies in the throes of passion? Did they shave under their arms or use some kind of deodorant (baking soda?)?

      First, let’s remember that the safety razor is a fairly recent invention, as was stainless steel.  Let’s remember that a nick from shaving could lead to an infection which could lead to death. 
      Not that the risk of death really matters when it comes to beauty.  Are not some of us today injecting a deadly toxin into our faces?
      Second, historical data is tricky territory.  All the Wenches have, at one time or another, come across information that contradicts other information.
      That said…
      So far as I can discover, European women did not shave their legs or underarms.  This seems to be a relatively recent (e.g., 20th C) fashion development.  In fact, in many countries today, women still don’t shave–or, if they do, they are Women of Ill Repute.  However, in some cultures, hairlessness was expected, and women did wax.  The ancient Egyptians, IIRC.  So it’s possible that some woman somewhere in England waxed parts of her body.  But hairless legs and underarms were not the norm, to my knowledge.
      However, it would be good to remember that hairy isn’t necessarily disagreeable to the touch.  Women who’ve never shaved their legs will have softer hair than those who have.  Same goes for women who wax.  There’s none of that scratchy stubble.  In Northern Europe, we’re going to encounter a great many of those fair-haired, fair-skinned women, like one of my friends, whose hair is very fine and very light.  Too, our heroes would be focused on the femininity–a woman’s hairy leg is often silkier and softer than a man’s–and it would not trouble him, since hairless legs and underarms are not the norm for his culture.
      All the same, I don’t refer to the hairy legs and underarms, and most especially not when the hero is exploring the heroine’s body in the throes of passion.  Why not?  Because my readers live in the modern world, and have modern sensibilities, and this is a romantic fantasy, not reality.  I don’t want to jolt readers out of the fantasy.
      For the same reason, I don’t raise issues of venereal disease among those rakes we find so romantic.  I doubt real people would have had sweet breath all the time, either, and I have to wonder about the state of their teeth.  Though our Regency era people probably smelled a little cleaner than their predecessors, this is not a given.  Some may have used lemons or powder under their arms.  Many but not all members of the upper classes would have washed the prime odor zones at least once a day.  Not everyone bathed daily, however, as Beau Brummell did.  The daily bath or shower, again, appears to be a recent development, at least among the European cultures I’ve studied.  Baths, even in most great houses (there are always exceptions–and I have one in LORD OF SCOUNDRELS), involved servants hauling pails and pitchers of water in to fill a tub.  Public baths were not common–as they were in Arab/Muslim countries, like Egypt.  So, unlike the ancient Romans who built those marvelous baths at Bath, the Englishmen and women of the early 1800s didn’t live in a culture of frequent/daily bathing, and for the most part, only the rich could afford the luxury.
      So I’m taking artistic liberties–for the sake of the romantic fantasy–when I keep all my English heroes and heroines clean and fresh-smelling.  Um, except in MR. IMPOSSIBLE–all that sand, heat, and getting stuck in hot little tunnels.  And except for the new book, NOT QUITE A LADY, where sweat is an important plot point.
      And Susannac, to answer one of your other questions, this is the kind of question I’d much rather answer than the ones about where I get my ideas or what my process is.  Thank you!
      

27 thoughts on “Question Time: Historical beauty”

  1. I thought the advent of shaving the legs had a lot to do with the raising hemline and wearing silk, later nylon stockings.
    I’m one of those who have never shaved and my leg hair is relatively unnoticeable–even with my reading glasses. 😉 (I know, more than you wanted to know…)

    Reply
  2. I thought the advent of shaving the legs had a lot to do with the raising hemline and wearing silk, later nylon stockings.
    I’m one of those who have never shaved and my leg hair is relatively unnoticeable–even with my reading glasses. 😉 (I know, more than you wanted to know…)

    Reply
  3. I thought the advent of shaving the legs had a lot to do with the raising hemline and wearing silk, later nylon stockings.
    I’m one of those who have never shaved and my leg hair is relatively unnoticeable–even with my reading glasses. 😉 (I know, more than you wanted to know…)

    Reply
  4. When I was about 10 years old, I remember eavesdropping on a late night conversation between my mother, her mother (my grandmother) and my Great Aunt. Gathered around mugs of hot coffee, my grandmother was giggling about the time when she and her sister stole their father’s flat razor and shaved their legs and underarms in preparation for a rendezvous at a speak easy hidden somewhere in town. They laughed over the flapper hair styles, sinfully short hemlines and long strands of beads that were to hang flat against one’s chest.

    Reply
  5. When I was about 10 years old, I remember eavesdropping on a late night conversation between my mother, her mother (my grandmother) and my Great Aunt. Gathered around mugs of hot coffee, my grandmother was giggling about the time when she and her sister stole their father’s flat razor and shaved their legs and underarms in preparation for a rendezvous at a speak easy hidden somewhere in town. They laughed over the flapper hair styles, sinfully short hemlines and long strands of beads that were to hang flat against one’s chest.

    Reply
  6. When I was about 10 years old, I remember eavesdropping on a late night conversation between my mother, her mother (my grandmother) and my Great Aunt. Gathered around mugs of hot coffee, my grandmother was giggling about the time when she and her sister stole their father’s flat razor and shaved their legs and underarms in preparation for a rendezvous at a speak easy hidden somewhere in town. They laughed over the flapper hair styles, sinfully short hemlines and long strands of beads that were to hang flat against one’s chest.

    Reply
  7. I am sure Loretta will already know this, but I thought I would provide an ‘ouch’ moment for the rest of you.
    In the Roman period, many women removed their pubic hair. Although perfectly serviceable razors were available (and were used by men for shaving their faces), body-hair was removed by plucking with tweezers.

    Reply
  8. I am sure Loretta will already know this, but I thought I would provide an ‘ouch’ moment for the rest of you.
    In the Roman period, many women removed their pubic hair. Although perfectly serviceable razors were available (and were used by men for shaving their faces), body-hair was removed by plucking with tweezers.

    Reply
  9. I am sure Loretta will already know this, but I thought I would provide an ‘ouch’ moment for the rest of you.
    In the Roman period, many women removed their pubic hair. Although perfectly serviceable razors were available (and were used by men for shaving their faces), body-hair was removed by plucking with tweezers.

    Reply
  10. One of my favorite anecdotes from our era is about a volunteer for the forlorn hope at Badajoz who made a point of washing in the river on the day of the battle, because he wanted to have a clean skin if he was killed or wounded. I figure that’s the Regency equivalent of wearing clean underwear in case you get into a car accident. 🙂
    In general, I don’t discuss hygiene one way or the other in my stories–if a house had unusually fancy modern plumbing, I might show a character luxuriating in it, or conversely if I thrust my characters into circumstances where they don’t have the opportunity to wash or change clothes, I might have them reflect on how unpleasant it was. But most of the time it just isn’t relevant to the story.
    However, when I had two characters have sex for the first time four days after fleeing into the Spanish hinterland, in July, with no clothes beyond the ones on their backs, I made a point of supplying them with a bar of soap and a convenient stream and wrote a shared bath into the foreplay. My critique partners thanked me.

    Reply
  11. One of my favorite anecdotes from our era is about a volunteer for the forlorn hope at Badajoz who made a point of washing in the river on the day of the battle, because he wanted to have a clean skin if he was killed or wounded. I figure that’s the Regency equivalent of wearing clean underwear in case you get into a car accident. 🙂
    In general, I don’t discuss hygiene one way or the other in my stories–if a house had unusually fancy modern plumbing, I might show a character luxuriating in it, or conversely if I thrust my characters into circumstances where they don’t have the opportunity to wash or change clothes, I might have them reflect on how unpleasant it was. But most of the time it just isn’t relevant to the story.
    However, when I had two characters have sex for the first time four days after fleeing into the Spanish hinterland, in July, with no clothes beyond the ones on their backs, I made a point of supplying them with a bar of soap and a convenient stream and wrote a shared bath into the foreplay. My critique partners thanked me.

    Reply
  12. One of my favorite anecdotes from our era is about a volunteer for the forlorn hope at Badajoz who made a point of washing in the river on the day of the battle, because he wanted to have a clean skin if he was killed or wounded. I figure that’s the Regency equivalent of wearing clean underwear in case you get into a car accident. 🙂
    In general, I don’t discuss hygiene one way or the other in my stories–if a house had unusually fancy modern plumbing, I might show a character luxuriating in it, or conversely if I thrust my characters into circumstances where they don’t have the opportunity to wash or change clothes, I might have them reflect on how unpleasant it was. But most of the time it just isn’t relevant to the story.
    However, when I had two characters have sex for the first time four days after fleeing into the Spanish hinterland, in July, with no clothes beyond the ones on their backs, I made a point of supplying them with a bar of soap and a convenient stream and wrote a shared bath into the foreplay. My critique partners thanked me.

    Reply
  13. While the other Wenches are preparing responses to more questions over the next few days, I wanted to comment on this one, because the question is one I hear all the time.
    For me, it’s a given that historical characters have hairy legs, PMS, and bathroom urges. I don’t think it’s necessary to insert these reality checks in a novel unless it is vital to the plot. I’m reading for enjoyment, not to be distracted by such mundane reminders of the less glamorous side of our heroes’ and heroines’ lives. I often enjoy novels where the characters never go to the bathroom or have stinky pits. (g)

    Reply
  14. While the other Wenches are preparing responses to more questions over the next few days, I wanted to comment on this one, because the question is one I hear all the time.
    For me, it’s a given that historical characters have hairy legs, PMS, and bathroom urges. I don’t think it’s necessary to insert these reality checks in a novel unless it is vital to the plot. I’m reading for enjoyment, not to be distracted by such mundane reminders of the less glamorous side of our heroes’ and heroines’ lives. I often enjoy novels where the characters never go to the bathroom or have stinky pits. (g)

    Reply
  15. While the other Wenches are preparing responses to more questions over the next few days, I wanted to comment on this one, because the question is one I hear all the time.
    For me, it’s a given that historical characters have hairy legs, PMS, and bathroom urges. I don’t think it’s necessary to insert these reality checks in a novel unless it is vital to the plot. I’m reading for enjoyment, not to be distracted by such mundane reminders of the less glamorous side of our heroes’ and heroines’ lives. I often enjoy novels where the characters never go to the bathroom or have stinky pits. (g)

    Reply
  16. Thank you, Loretta! I enjoyed your response.
    I don’t expect authors to include a lot of the gritty details in romances. But it seems some of them would be reasonable plot devices at least occasionally, and it wouldn’t have to be in a gross way. Since we know so much about the Regency period – or at least the romance version of it – it’s also interesting to me to know other details about their daily lives.

    Reply
  17. Thank you, Loretta! I enjoyed your response.
    I don’t expect authors to include a lot of the gritty details in romances. But it seems some of them would be reasonable plot devices at least occasionally, and it wouldn’t have to be in a gross way. Since we know so much about the Regency period – or at least the romance version of it – it’s also interesting to me to know other details about their daily lives.

    Reply
  18. Thank you, Loretta! I enjoyed your response.
    I don’t expect authors to include a lot of the gritty details in romances. But it seems some of them would be reasonable plot devices at least occasionally, and it wouldn’t have to be in a gross way. Since we know so much about the Regency period – or at least the romance version of it – it’s also interesting to me to know other details about their daily lives.

    Reply
  19. Great explanation, Loretta.It’s true about northern coloring. I’ve wondered if the American obsession with women’s body hair is because there are many people from darker skinned/haired people, which is a different situation. Some of the ancient peoples known to have removed hair in some way were alse darker.
    Underarm hair — and pubic hair — holds smell, which is one reason people like to remove it, but there are so many studies on body smells and their powerful effects on sexual attraction, hormone production etc, that we have to wonder what hairlessness, very frequent bathing and lots of deodorant are doing.
    And there is the thing about Napoleon writing to Josephine that he’d be home in a few days and she shouldn’t bathe.
    Both says she normally did, and that he liked her aroma.
    And in the end I have to wonder, if it’s so hygienic for women to shave under their arms, why don’t men do it?
    Jo

    Reply
  20. Great explanation, Loretta.It’s true about northern coloring. I’ve wondered if the American obsession with women’s body hair is because there are many people from darker skinned/haired people, which is a different situation. Some of the ancient peoples known to have removed hair in some way were alse darker.
    Underarm hair — and pubic hair — holds smell, which is one reason people like to remove it, but there are so many studies on body smells and their powerful effects on sexual attraction, hormone production etc, that we have to wonder what hairlessness, very frequent bathing and lots of deodorant are doing.
    And there is the thing about Napoleon writing to Josephine that he’d be home in a few days and she shouldn’t bathe.
    Both says she normally did, and that he liked her aroma.
    And in the end I have to wonder, if it’s so hygienic for women to shave under their arms, why don’t men do it?
    Jo

    Reply
  21. Great explanation, Loretta.It’s true about northern coloring. I’ve wondered if the American obsession with women’s body hair is because there are many people from darker skinned/haired people, which is a different situation. Some of the ancient peoples known to have removed hair in some way were alse darker.
    Underarm hair — and pubic hair — holds smell, which is one reason people like to remove it, but there are so many studies on body smells and their powerful effects on sexual attraction, hormone production etc, that we have to wonder what hairlessness, very frequent bathing and lots of deodorant are doing.
    And there is the thing about Napoleon writing to Josephine that he’d be home in a few days and she shouldn’t bathe.
    Both says she normally did, and that he liked her aroma.
    And in the end I have to wonder, if it’s so hygienic for women to shave under their arms, why don’t men do it?
    Jo

    Reply
  22. I take a bath every September and January, whether I need it or not.
    Another thing the reader doesn’t need to know: the ancient Egyptians used crocodile dung as a contraceptive. (And you thought the “little foil packet” references were obnoxious!)
    Historical note: My father was born in 1907. When his older sister, as a teenager, bobbed her hair, their father threw her out of the house!
    (Of course, it was an Orthodox Jewish immigrant family from Russia, so not very with-it in the era of flappers.)

    Reply
  23. I take a bath every September and January, whether I need it or not.
    Another thing the reader doesn’t need to know: the ancient Egyptians used crocodile dung as a contraceptive. (And you thought the “little foil packet” references were obnoxious!)
    Historical note: My father was born in 1907. When his older sister, as a teenager, bobbed her hair, their father threw her out of the house!
    (Of course, it was an Orthodox Jewish immigrant family from Russia, so not very with-it in the era of flappers.)

    Reply
  24. I take a bath every September and January, whether I need it or not.
    Another thing the reader doesn’t need to know: the ancient Egyptians used crocodile dung as a contraceptive. (And you thought the “little foil packet” references were obnoxious!)
    Historical note: My father was born in 1907. When his older sister, as a teenager, bobbed her hair, their father threw her out of the house!
    (Of course, it was an Orthodox Jewish immigrant family from Russia, so not very with-it in the era of flappers.)

    Reply
  25. Not to mention that regular baths still weren’t an issue at the turn of the century–even in aristocratic households! One research book I own about Edwardian ladies shares the fact that the scent of sweat was considered an arousing fragrance. Go figure!

    Reply
  26. Not to mention that regular baths still weren’t an issue at the turn of the century–even in aristocratic households! One research book I own about Edwardian ladies shares the fact that the scent of sweat was considered an arousing fragrance. Go figure!

    Reply
  27. Not to mention that regular baths still weren’t an issue at the turn of the century–even in aristocratic households! One research book I own about Edwardian ladies shares the fact that the scent of sweat was considered an arousing fragrance. Go figure!

    Reply

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