09. Patching Makes a Comeback

Around 1910, something very curious happened: starting in Paris, patches and boxes to keep them in made a comeback. The pages of American Vogue explain:

The newer, most fascinating of all the little accessories of a fashionable woman’s toilette, a little patch box holding the ‘pattes de mouche’ which have returned to favor with other adorable fancies of the 17th and 18th centuries. Happy she who owns one of these treasures handed down to her from some beautiful ancestress! Other less fortunate women ardently search the shops of the Latin Quarter, for these tiny bibelots carved in gold, ivory, and enamelled, that served the beauties of two hundred years ago.

The article goes on to give this fashion from the past a particular slant for today by linking it with the new mirrored powder compact, which was itself facilitating a huge shift in public behaviour. For it enabled women to do a novel, daring, and by no means universally approved thing: not only wear makeup, but unashamedly own up to it by applying it in public. Patching, the magazine suggests, can be performed by the modern ‘coquette’ with the same daredevil élan. She is to use ‘black plaster cut in rounds and ovals; and she sits as serenely in a public restaurant or tea room adjusting a loosened bit, as when she powders her dainty nose’.1

In the very next issue Vogue followed up with an article about Parisian shopping, showing that even if you can’t find ‘the real article in the antique shops’, you can at least for nine francs buy a new ‘tiny square patch box’ of silvered metal: ‘old in idea, but quite modern in make’. They will ‘store the tiny bits of black plaster used now, as of old, to heighten the delicacy of the complexion’.2

We can see an example of these ‘tiny bits of black plaster’ that Vogue was promoting, for by 1915 Johnson & Johnson had scented an opportunity. Using left-over material from making regular surgical plasters they developed a side line in facial stickers – echoing, in fact, the original migration of the patch in the early seventeenth century.

'Beauty Spots' packet with image of young woman wearing patches
‘One Hundred Assorted Beauty Spots’, made by Johnson and Johnson, USA, c. 1915, Envelope: 7.3 cm (length) x 4.4 cm (width), Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, Washington DC, Gift of Paul Reznek, Accession no. 237605. Photo: Smithsonian Institution
'Beauty spots' packet and contents - 4 x patches loose, the rest in folded paper bag
‘One Hundred Assorted Beauty Spots’, made by Johnson and Johnson, USA, c. 1915, Envelope: 7.3 cm (length) x 4.4 cm (width), Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, Washington DC, Gift of Paul Reznek, Accession no. 237605. Photo: Smithsonian Institution

The company’s trade journal explained the product to the retail druggists in whose shops the public would buy them:

To supply the demand created by this fashion we have arranged an assortment of designs consisting of stars, crescents, arrow points, hearts, etc., which are put up in envelopes, each containing 100 spots (3 dozen on a card); also in fancy boxes containing 300 assorted.3

In the years that followed, the patch – or beauty spot as it was now known – had some high-profile wearers, like the film icon Clara Bow, or the British actress Benita Hume.

A pouting woman with patch on cheek and huge bow in her dark hair, holding a clown-face mask up to her face
Clara Bow with Clown Mask, c. 1929, Photo: Jhayne, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Embed from Getty Images

But there is something very self-conscious about these revivals and reappearances. They seem more like consciously created fads than genuinely widespread trends. Playful but perfunctory; fun but fleeting.

In fact, we see here the afterlife of patching: not a new style but a knowing one; not fashion but ‘dressing up’. Patches and dots become a way of doing masquerade.

A young woman in evening dress, wearning a turban and holding a mask, which has several patches embellishing it
The beauty unmask’d, by Henry Morland (artist) and Philip Dawe (Printmaker), Published by Carington Bowles, 1770, mezzotint, hand-coloured, sheet 39 x 29 cm, Lewis Walpole Library, no. lwlpr02861. Photo: Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University
A masked woman with a patch and a masked man bendign towards her so that the brim of his large hat frames her face
Detail of the cover of The Yellow Book: an Illustrated Quarterly, designed by Aubrey Vincent Beardsley, vol. I, April 1894. Photo: Public Domain, via the Hathi Trust
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This move on the part of patching from being unthinkingly in the here and now, to gesturing knowingly at the there and then, suggests one final point. The way the patch and its box have shaped – and continue to shape – our image of the past.


[1] Vogue (New York), vol. 35, issue 7, 12 February 1910, p. 5.
[2] Vogue (New York), vol. 35, issue 8, 15 February 1910, p. 60.
[3] From Red Cross Messenger (March 1915), vol. 7, no. 10, p. 286. Quoted from Margaret Gurowitz, ‘Beauty Spots’, Kilmer House Blog, Johnson & Johnson Archive, https://www.kilmerhouse.com/2008/03/beauty-spots

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