Beautiful For Ever: The True Story of Madame Rachel of Bond Street
“Madame Rachel promised her clients that she would make them ‘Beautiful For Ever!’ But what they found inside her beguiling oriental boudoir with its latticed screens, lavish oriental wall hangings, splashing fountain and heavy crimson drapes, was something far darker. For beneath the clever sales patter and the wheedling manner lay a merciless con-artist and fraudster who made a career out of lies, treachery, and the false hopes of her victims.”
Madame Rachel: purveyor of cosmetics, lies & false hopes
Back in the 1860s there was little or no choice for women who wanted to look good – that is if they dared meddle with nature at all. In Victorian England the pursuit of beauty was totally frowned upon. Queen Victoria was appalled at its growing popularity: to her mind and that of all respectable women, cosmetics were vulgar and highly improper – resorted to only by actresses and prostitutes. Such was the general hostility to the use of makeup that many women concocted their own cosmetics and creams at home and those who did buy cosmetics and hair colourants did so under the counter, away from public scrutiny.
Only well-heeled society ladies with plenty of money could afford the exclusivity of one of the discreet ‘lady renovators’ or ‘rejuvenators’ then operating in Mayfair. And the person they all flocked to in secret – heavily veiled and by closed carriage – was Madame Rachel of 47a New Bond Street. A self-appointed, but entirely bogus ‘Purveyor of Cosmetics to Her Majesty the Queen’, Madame Rachel promised her clients that she would make them ‘Beautiful For Ever!’ But what they found inside her beguiling oriental boudoir with its latticed screens, lavish oriental wall hangings, splashing fountain and heavy crimson drapes, was something far darker. For beneath the clever sales patter and the wheedling manner lay a merciless con-artist and fraudster who made a career out of lies, treachery, and the false hopes of her victims.
‘Beautiful For Ever!’
But what went into such products? The base ingredients were of course, a lot less exotic-sounding than Rachel boasted: chemicals such as corrosive sublimate, prussic acid, carbonate of lead and even arsenic all were used to whiten the skin in Victorian times, as well as to supposedly eradicate blemishes and wrinkles. All were caustic and poisonous and could cause chronic inflammation of the skin or even kill, if taken in large quantities. Yet Rachel’s desperate lady clients suspended their disbelief and flocked to her door in droves.
Enamelling ladies’ faces
Rachel’s fame as an ‘enamellist’ spread far and wide: rich American women were reported to be flocking to London for her talents as she continued to assert her exclusivity in the papers, stating that ‘all other persons presuming to style themselves enamellers commit a gross fraud on the public at large’. She and she alone, she warned, was the sole possessor in the world of this great art. In so doing, she entrapped and defrauded a succession of nervous clients. The unwritten subtext of her advertising claims was guaranteed to induce anxiety in the vain and gullible: go to Rachel and you will be transformed into a socially acceptable beauty; stay away and you will languish unnoticed, unloved – and, more importantly, unmarried – in the shadows.
The law inevitably caught up with this clever fraudster. Madame Rachel was twice prosecuted for fraud at the Old Bailey – in 1868 an 1878 – and served two prison sentences. She died in Woking jail in 1880, unrepentant to the last and still insisting that she alone knew the secret art of making women ‘Beautiful For Ever’.
There is still a building on the site of Rachel’s salon in New Bond Street; it is now the premises of Pinet’s, a swish couture shoe shop; her house round the corner in Maddox Street has recently been renovated.