False Modesty

Ester Boardman wears false mouseskin eyebrows in the 1780s.

“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-book smoothly lays ‘em.”

So wrote Jonathan Swift, commemorating the 18th century’s false-eyebrow trend in his ode, A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed (1731). (He goes on to describe her false teeth, hip bolsters, etc.) Though I wrote about various 18th century beauty trends in the book—wearing mouches, false beauty marks, and poufs, the gigantic towering hairstyles of the day—somehow I couldn’t work in the mouseskin brows.

In England, during the Georgian era, fashionable women wore French wigs that started far back on their heads. To accommodate the style, they shaved their real eyebrows and glued on delicately shaped mouse-skin replicas further up on their foreheads. Wearing “gently arched” brows was thought to “harmonize with the modesty of a young virgin,” tastemakers of the era reasoned. Looking wide-eyed, modest and innocent was in.

Young Ester Boardman, a society girl from New Milford, Connecticut, demonstrated the mousekin look when sitting for her portrait in the 1780s, a painting which now hangs in the American wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.