Opinions may differ largely on the subject of most modern improvements, but few will be found to regret that the lady of to-day no longer considers it ornamental to cover her face with black patches. It is a remarkable thing that the patch ruled society, as it did, for so long. It seems incredible that ladies, whose lives were shaped to the single end of enhancing their personal charms, should have been so deficient in taste as to imagine that the patch would serve them for that purpose. The beauties of the Court of Louis XV. gummed pieces of black taffeta on their cheeks in order to heighten the brilliance of their complexions. But it is to be doubted whether the most brilliant complexion could compensate for the hideousness of the patches. Originally, the number of patches considered necessary was limited to one, the object being to imitate a mole which Venus was supposed to have had on her face. But later the limit was removed, and fashion permitted decorations of all sorts and in large numbers. In Fairholt’s “Costume in England,” we find a cut of a lady of the time of Charles I., with her face adorned in this manner. Over the right eye, stretching from the temple to the centre of the forehead, is fastened a patch representing a coach and four, and very hideous it looks. On the right cheek an enormous half-moon is worn, and below it a still larger star. The chin is nearly covered by a circular patch (evidently Venus’ mole), and under the left eye is another half-moon, as large as the first. And yet this lady was probably considered at the time to present a charming picture, and to be a model of how a lady of fashion should be ornamented. The coach and four patch was an especial favourite. The author of “England’s Vanity,” published in 1653, writes bitterly on the subject, likening the coach to a mourning coach, and commenting on the lugubrious effect of so much black on the face.

Patches, which were common with Roman ladies in the latter days of the Empire, seem to have become popular in England during the Elizabethan age, for the fops of the time are spoken of as decorating their faces with black stars, crescents, and lozenges.

“To draw an arrant fop from top to toe,
Whose very looks at first dash show him so,
Give him a mean, proud garb, a dapper grace,
A pert, dull grin, a black patch cross his face.”

And the fashion grew rather than decreased during succeeding reigns, for, writing in 1640, a certain Glapthorne recommends lovers, if they would prosper in their wooing, to “take a black spot or two,” for that thus they will appear more gracious in their mistress’ eyes.

The earliest mention of patching by the ladies of England occurs in Bulwer’s “Artificial Changeling” (1653), where the writer alludes to the practice as the “vain custom of spotting the face.” Pepys, too, has his word to say on this, as on every other matter. He has duly recorded in his diary his wife’s first appearance in patches, which would appear to have taken place without his consent, for three months later he makes an entry in his diary: “My wife seemed very pretty to-day, it being the first time I had given her leave to wear a black patch.” And a week or two later he declares that, with two or three patches, she looked far handsomer than the Princess Henrietta, so that the experiment was apparently a success. Patches were de rigueur on most occasions, but Lady Castlemaine, whose word, when she was in power, was law, decreed that they should not be worn with mourning. Except for this, there were no restrictions placed on their use, and they were much in evidence in the afternoon at the theatre, in the evening in the parks, and at night in the drawing-room. It is scarcely to be wondered at that these decorations were unpopular with the Puritans, and many a puritanical satirist turned his pen against them. An “Invective against black-spotted faces,” by one Smith, achieved some fame.

It is worthy of note that under the rule of the Commonwealth patches were never seen except in the very lowest ranks of society. But once Fashion had adopted the craze, all assaults, whether of rhyme or reason, proved, as usual, useless, and every beauty who wished to be in the mode continued to cover her face with black spots. So much so, indeed, that in 1754 the patch was not only still in existence, but threatened to overwhelm the female face altogether. A writer of the period observes with some humour that, though he had witnessed without protest the spectacle of the feminine cap diminishing to the size of a patch, it was not without concern that he saw the growing tendency among ladies to enlarge the patch to the size of a cap, and he begs the beauties of his time to stop short actually of covering their eyes with patches, for surely, he says, it is to be hoped that the ladies will not give up that place to a plaster which the brightest jewel in the universe would want lustre to supply. But even a subtle compliment of this description failed, as satire and invective had failed before it, and we find the same writer suggesting as a last resource that any lady who preferred the simplicity of the patch as an ornament to the glare of her jewels, should forthwith sell the latter and bestow the proceeds on some deserving charity, and be allowed to wear as many patches on her face as the hundreds of pounds which she had contributed to so laudable an object. “And so will the public be benefited, and patches, though not ornamental, be honourable to see.”

Patches, like many other apparently trivial things in those days, had a certain political significance. When party feeling ran high in the days of Anne, we have it on the authority of the “Spectator” that politically-minded dames used their patches as party symbols. Thus, if they patched on the right side of their face, their sympathies were Whig, if on the left they were Tory. While those who were neutral decorated both cheeks, and so, from the point of view of fashion, gained by their absence of political opinions. Some of these ladies, indeed, adhered so steadfastly to their party, and were so far from sacrificing their zeal for the public to their passion for any particular person, that in one draught of marriage articles a lady expressly stipulated with her husband that whatever might be his political opinions, she should be at liberty to wear her patches on whichever side she pleased.


Unsigned article in the Globe; title and date entered by Wodehouse
in his Money Received for Literary Work notebook.


Transcriber’s note:
Wodehouse claimed that he “dug these [turnovers] out of reference books” and we can verify that in this instance; except for a few comments, nearly all of the column is adapted from “Patching and Painting” in The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities, edited by Robert Chambers and published by W. and R. Chambers in 1864. Wodehouse is doing a better job here of rewording the abridged material and creating a smooth flow of ideas than in some of the other turnovers.
The illustration from Fairholt’s Costume in England may be seen at

Neil Midkiff