Disguise is an essential tool in espionage. However I still remember the roar of laughter from fellow cinema goers when Tom Cruise peeled off his latex face in Mission: Really Impossible – No We Mean It This Time. Given I’m writing a book about seventeenth century spies, latex is off the menu. I did find some absolute gems though in my wander through history.
Organic hair dye
"Did you use walnut shell for this drab brown mop?" "Only at the beginning. Since then a tincture of rosemary and sage has kept the colour as you see."
One of my blonde characters is ordered to dye her hair brown to be less conspicuous. She improvised a treatment from a recipe I found on an organic hair treatment website.
Mousehide eyebrow wigs
Eyebrows, or the lack of them, are a key giveaway of someone’s natural hair colour. But how can you create them before the days of brow pencils and mascaras? It turns out there was an interesting 18th century fashion fad of eyebrow wigs. Yes, seriously. Check out this great account by Julie Walker on Mouse-skin eyebrows. Sadly they would be too laborious for my character to apply daily. Instead she uses soot set with sugar paste. But for a one-off? I’m keeping this one on file.
Here’s Gainsborough’s magnificent portrait of Grace Dalrymple Elliott from 1782 sporting some magnificent false eyebrows:
Boils and scars as a disguise
How can you fake some horrendous skin complaint in the days before rubber? It turns out egg white applied wet and then dried makes a pretty disgusting layer. If you mix in cochineal – made from the crushed beetles – even better. It was exported from Central American from 15th century onwards, so works for the 1650s.
When you start thinking about food that stains skin and clothes, the possibilities really open up. Homemade organic makeup is a great Google search term if you’re struggling. There are some very resourceful women out there.
P.S. Need to approximate a port wine birthmark? Port wine doesn’t work. Go for squeezed beetroot instead.
About the author
H.J. Reynolds has written A Treachery Of Spies, focusing on Royalist spies in Oliver Cromwell’s England. The manuscript is complete and she is now seeking an agent. If you’d like her to submit some sample chapters, you can contact her at helen[at]hjreynolds.co.uk