Spotlight On …

Mouse-skin eyebrows; fact or fiction?

Written by Victoria Green

Millennials have a bad rep for being image obsessed. From watching beauty tutorials on YouTube and posting make-up looks on Instagram to huge brands like FENTY taking over social media feeds, it’s no wonder that teenagers are image-conscious and product-obsessed. But this trend for enhancing your natural appearance is nothing new. We all know that throughout the ages, women have worked hard to beautify themselves. Whether it be to make them more marriageable, to show off class and status, or just for their own satisfaction, make-up has always been en vogue.

In Ancient Greece, women would paint their faces with toxic lead, or powder it with chalk. To be pale was fashionable, a sign of wealth and prestige. To be pale meant that you didn’t go outside; you were so rich you had servants to venture out and do your shopping for you. Cleopatra famously popularised kohl and the perfect winged-eyeliner look. In pre-revolutionary France, there was extravagant, powdered wigs and heavily-rouged cheeks. And, let’s be honest, red lips have never gone out of style.

One trend you might not have heard of has a distinctly leathery-origin. And involves eyebrows. And a mouse skin.

Allow me to explain. The whole conversation came about because of a question asked of us on Twitter, and the picture of a tiny mouse skin that followed.

“I heard once that ladies used mouse skin to make patches and false eyebrows in the eighteenth century. Do you know if this is true?”

And do you know what? I didn’t. So I turned to the internet to form a clever reply that made me look as though I did. The search results were so interesting, I decided to become a temporary expert in the area of ‘False Eyebrows of the 18th Century’, and write a blog just in case this question ever came up in someone’s pub quiz.

As it turned out, the trend for strong brows was as fashionable in the 18th Century as it is today. In 1716, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu described fashionable ladies at theatre; “all the ladies have … snowy foreheads and bosoms, jet eye-brows and scarlet lips.”

Women’s eyebrows at the time were plucked very thinly, pencilled high and curved, or shaved and replaced. For some this was a fashion choice, but for others a necessity. Lead-based cosmetics, used to achieve ‘snowy foreheads’, caused hair-loss at the forehead and brows, which led to a receding hairline and a bare brow. While this look was all the rage during Elizabethan England, 18th Century women opted to seek artificial solutions.

 © National Leather Collection 2018

A mouse-skin from the National Leather Collection, tanned by Gomshall Tanneries

As early as 1703, it became custom to trap mice and use their fur to form artificial brows. The pelts were trimmed into the desired shape, and stuck to the forehead using an adhesive. Can’t imagine it? Luckily, Lucy Worsley modelled the look back in 2014.

As with false eyelashes on a night out, the glue didn’t always adhere very well, and a lady could be caught with wonky, or even missing, brows. A poem written by Matthew Prior in 1718 pokes fun:

HELEN was just dipt into bed
Her eye-brows on the toilet lay
Away the kitten with them fled
As fees belonging to her prey

For this misfortune careless Jane,
Assure yourself, was loudly rated
And madam, getting up again,
With her own hand the mouse-trap baited.

On little things, as sages write,
Depends our human joy or sorrows
If we don’t catch a mouse to-night
Alas! no eyebrows for to-morrow.

It would seem, however, that the mouse-skin beauty trend didn’t stop with eyebrows. Pelts were used to cover a variety of sins: smallpox was the leading cause of death during the 18th Century, and those who survived were often left with nasty scarring. Not to mention all of the toxic white lead applied to the face and bosom which caused awful side-effects; eyes became inflamed, tooth enamel broke down and the skin changed texture, sometimes becoming blackened.

To conceal any unsightly blemishes, patches in the shape of stars, hearts, half-moons, etc, were worn on the face with the aid of a gum adhesive. Known as mouches (‘flies’) in France, these patches were so significant that they delineated class and declared political opinions. For grand society ladies, such patches were cut out of black taffeta, silk or velvet, but mouse or moleskin was a budget option for women of limited means. The patches became symbols of political allegiance; patches were worn on the right if you were a Whig, left if you were a Tory.

The humble mouse pelt quickly became a staple of 18th Century grand society, the more extravagant the better! Jane Austen’s World even makes reference to patches shaped like horse-drawn carriages.

But this all begs the question; were the mouse skins tanned hair-on for repeated use? Jonathan Swift’s A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed (1734) suggests this with a description of a lady safely storing her brows for the next day:

 © National Leather Collection 2018

Her eyebrows from a mouse’s hide
Stuck on with art on either side,
Pulls off with care, and first displays ’em
Then in a play-books smoothly lays ‘em.

Let it not be forgotten, however, that both poems cited here are written by satirists and are, therefore, liable to hyperbole and generally taking the biscuit. Perhaps the comment they were intending to make was that women of the 18th Century were so beauty-obsessed as to resort to such ridiculous practices as trapping mice to wear on their faces. This is definitely one beauty trend that I’m hoping doesn’t catch on with the Instagram generation!