MythBusters: Fashion History Edition

5:37 PM

Myth: Fashionable eighteenth-century ladies shaved off their eyebrows and used false eyebrows made of mouse fur.

Grace Dalrymple Elliot by Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1778. Private Collection. Are those eyebrows made of mice?

This is a common myth about eighteenth-century beauty that I have read in many books, some reliable sources of fashion history information and some not. But, when doing historical research, it's always best to go back to the primary sources. Primary sources are sources of information produced in the actual time period, such as a letter, newspaper article, or painting. As this excellent article from The British Library shows, the primary source evidence for mouse-skin eyebrows is thin. The following are all the sources which mention mouse-skin eyebrows, arranged in chronological order.

A section from The Tender Husband, a comedic play by Richard Steele, 1707:

Mrs. Clerimont: The Ladies abroad used to call me Mrs. Titian, I was so famous for my colouring; but prithee. Wench, bring me my black eye-brows out of the next room.

Jenny: Madam, I have them in my hand.

Fainlove: It would be happy for all that are to see you today, if you could change your eyes too.

Mrs. Clerimont: Gallant enough -- no hang it, I'll wear these I have on...
A satirical poem by Matthew Prior, 1718:
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.

A section from A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed by noted satirist Jonathan Swift, 1734:
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.

A short section of an anonymous poem published in the London Daily Post in June 1736:
Or Nightly Traps insidious lay,
To catch new Eye-brows for the Day
The next primary source example mentioning mouse-skin eyebrows doesn't appear until 1782.

Satirical print dated June 18, 1782. In the collection of the British Museum.
This print shows two ladies arriving at a cosmetics shop. The sign on the door advertises the products within, including "Italian washes, Ivory teeth, Mouse Eye Brows, and the Best French Roush."

And that's it. Many beauty treatises were published in the eighteenth century with tips on hair care and recipes for cosmetics. One of the most famous today is The Toilet of Flora by Pierre-Joseph Buc'hoz, published in 1779. There were also several works written about wigmaking, cosmetics, and beauty. Finally, throughout the century satirists and critics lampooned women and their beauty practices. None of these sources (at least the ones we can access today) mention mouse-skin eyebrows. There are no tips for the application and storage of mouse-skin eyebrows in beauty manuals. There are no mentions of mouse-skin eyebrows in informational texts about the cosmetic industry. And, perhaps most tellingly, there are no accounts of women using mouse-skin eyebrows in satirical texts beyond the ones listed above. The satire industry was large and booming during the eighteenth century and it seems strange that, in all the texts and images poking fun at women and their artificiality, there are no mentions of mouse-skin eyebrows (once again, apart from what is listed above). That would seem to be an item ripe for satirizing.

How then to explain the few mentions of mouse-skin eyebrows listed above? The earliest mention is the scene from the play by Richard Steele where Mrs. Clerimont prepares herself for the day. It should be noted that this play is a comedy, meaning the characters are heightened for comedic effect. Mrs. Clerimont is insecure, stating just before the exchange quoted above:

"... Oh bless me Jenny, I am so plane [sic], I am afraid of myself -- I have not laid on half red [rouge- blush and lipstick] enough -- what a dogh-baked [sic] thing I was before I improved myself, and travelled for beauty -- however my face is prettily designed to day [sic]."

In this quote Mrs. Clerimont complains that she is, in reality, very ugly, and it is only through the improvements of cosmetics that she becomes a beauty. The character of Fainlove agrees, replying:

"Indeed, madam you begin to have so fine an hand, that you are younger every day than the other."

Here Fainlove compliments Mrs. Clerimont, telling her that she has become so talented at applying make up that she seems younger every day. In this context, Mrs. Clerimont is an object of ridicule and her use of mouse-skin eyebrows may just be one of her ridiculous methods of beautifying herself. They might just be unique eccentricities created for comedic value on the stage.

The other sources, such as the poem by Matthew Prior, have a similar purpose as Steele's play. They are meant to poke fun at the ridiculous methods women use to make themselves beautiful, and eyebrows made of mouse fur fit right in with that context. In Jonathan Swift's poem, his titular nymph is lampooned for a series of beauty failings. She has a "crystal eye", false teeth, and a flea-infested wig. She is clearly a caricature. After all, we don't use this poem as evidence that all women had false eyes and teeth.

However, just because there is no concrete evidence of mouse-skin eyebrows doesn't mean it wasn't a trend. Perhaps these satirical texts truly were referring to a fashion trend popular in the first decades of the century, which then faded from popularity. But the overwhelming lack of evidence places doubt on this conclusion.

Where does that leave this myth?

A Woman in Blue by Thomas Gainsborough, late 1770s-early 1780s. In the collection of The State Hermitage Museum. With some clipart additions of my own.

I have no definite conclusion. The evidence is thin, and I personally think that the use of mouse-skin eyebrows is unlikely, but with no definitive evidence I can't make a conclusion either way. Was Steele's play an influence on subsequent mentions of mouse-skin eyebrows? Was this some sort of recurring joke? I end with this Very Academic Statement: Clearly much more research needs to be done!

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  1. I'm definitely wondering if it's a Restoration/late 17th century thing now! Perhaps a short fad or even just a rumor or urban legend that hung on in a few satirical references after the turn of the century.

    1. Yes, me too!! I see a journal article in my future...

  2. Like the second picture :) M&MFASHIONBITES
    Maria V.

  3. Excellent article! I've come to the same conclusion myself. It also seems a lot of hassle to prepare mous skins to make eyebrows. You can't just skin a dead mouse, you would need to prepare the skin too. And I have never seen any mention of preparation of mouseskin eyebrows either.

    Another thing is that eyebrows looks fairly natural on portraits, sometimes evidently darkened, but mostly looking- like eyebrows. Seems a bit odd that people should shave off their eyebrows to put on a pair of natural looking fake ones...

    1. Thank you! And I agree about portraits, if mouse eyebrows were indeed a sign of beauty (and probably also wealth) then why weren't they obvious in portraits and illustrations?

  4. I know that eyelash extensions and strips are a modern thing (I have even found some made of squirrel hair, like some fine paint brushes, and real human hair). Many fairer-skinned ladies have very light eyebrows or none at all (speaking from experience) and older ladies sometimes lose theirs altogether. If a strong brow is in fashion, I can easily see fashion-conscious folks turning to eyebrow patches if adding powders wouldn't suffice to fill out the shape, especially considering the popularity of other types of patches in the late 17th and early 18th century. Cassidy may be onto something there!
    Also the popularity of mouse eyebrow reference in comedy may have a language/translation component as well. Eyebrows in French are "sourcils" while mouse/mice are "souris." They're not really close in pronunciation, but they are close in spelling. My French is really limited, so I wouldn't rely solely on my word play skills for an answer, though. Have you found any mouse skin eyebrows references in French, or are they just an English thing?

    1. I haven't looked in to French sources yet but that's a really good point about possible mistranslations! Once my French improves I will definitely explore further.

  5. *That should say "sable" not "squirrel." This is what I get from trying to comment with a tablet...

  6. thepragmaticcostumer: And add that spelling had a lot more leeway back then, it may very well be a mis-translation! Like Cinderella's glass/fur slipper... I wonder if there are any sources for mouse eyebrows in any French original material. :)

  7. Very interesting read - too often these things are just accepted as fact. I'm so glad to have discovered your blog and look forward to reading more!

  8. I would imagine that mice were considered just as filthy in the 18th century as they are now. I can't see anyone wanting to use their fur to apply to the face! And someone else pointed out that if prominent, wealthy people were wearing false brows, it would have been obvious in the paintings of these people. I agree. I think that's an excellent point.

  9. I would imagine that mice were considered just as filthy in the 18th century as they are now. I can't see anyone wanting to use their fur to apply to the face! And someone else pointed out that if prominent, wealthy people were wearing false brows, it would have been obvious in the paintings of these people. I agree. I think that's an excellent point.