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How to Be a Renaissance Woman by Jill Burke: An erudite, witty and engaging history of cosmetics and beauty

Burke does justice to a neglected and trivialised area of study

How to be a Renaissance Woman: The Untold History of Beauty and Female Creativity
Author: Jill Burke
ISBN-13: 978-1788166669
Publisher: Wellcome Collection
Guideline Price: £25

In 1480, the Venetian Council of Ten made it illegal for women to cut their hair into a fringe. A hairdo that covered the forehead was considered “indecently masculine”, and the law stipulated that the male relatives of any woman sporting one would have to pay a vast fine. And yet contemporary portraits showed that many women simply ignored the rule, as they defied other laws that attempted to control their style.

For women in the early modern period, beauty and fashion could be a profession, a source of personal pleasure, a way of attracting a male protector – or all of the above. As Jill Burke writes in her lavishly illustrated and hugely entertaining new book, “Renaissance women cared about what they looked like. They had to.”

Burke, a historian of the body and its visual representation, examines the beauty culture of the Renaissance, which she roughly defines as the period 1400-1700. How did the visual art of that period, from portraits to crude pamphlet engravings, reflect and inform the real lives of women at the time?

Drawing on a huge range of primary sources, and vividly depicting the experiences of real Renaissance women including writers, slaves, street sellers and alchemists, Burke explores everything from hair dye and “natural” make-up to diets and early modern medicine. In doing so, she shows how beauty culture, then and now, creates, reinforces and subverts ideas of gender, race, class, creativity and power. And she even includes some lightly adapted Renaissance recipes, so readers can create their own lotions and cosmetics.


I spent two years of my history of art degree focusing on the period covered in How to Be a Renaissance Woman; the idea that the art we studied had any connection to a wider complex beauty culture in which women engaged was never mentioned, let alone explored. That was back in the 1990s, but as Burke points out in her introduction, the history of cosmetics and beauty during the Renaissance remains relatively neglected and trivialised today. In this erudite, witty and utterly engaging book, she does a lot to redress the balance.