While the placing of false beauty marks, or patches, on the face began in ancient Rome around the first century C.E. , it became a widespread fad across Europe from the late 1500s through the 1600s. A dark mole that occurs naturally on the face is sometimes called a beauty mark. Beginning in the late sixteenth century, fashionable men and women imitated this natural mark by sticking black beauty patches on their faces. These patches were eventually used to send signals to members of the opposite sex in flirtatious courtship rituals, but they had a practical use as well. Carefully shaped black patches could be applied to hide blemishes and scars on the face, especially the deep round scars left on those who survived the frequent outbreaks of smallpox. Smallpox was a contagious and often fatal disease that caused its victims to break out in sores. It was the vaccination for smallpox, discovered in 1796, that led to the end of the fashion of wearing beauty patches.
The use of patches as a fashion statement began in Paris, where young women and men began wearing patches made of black taffeta, velvet, silk, or thin leather, cut into tiny circles, crescents, stars, and hearts. These patches were stuck to the face with gum mastic, a type of glue made from the sap of trees. More and more elaborate patch designs were created, in such shapes as sailing ships, horse-drawn carriages, and birds in flight. Small boxes were made so that the fashionable person could carry extra patches, in case one fell off or a new look was desired.
Soon, the patches began to take on meaning and send subtle signals to others at parties and other social events. A patch near the eye indicated passion, for example, and one by the mouth showed boldness. A black spot on the right cheek marked a married woman, while one on the left cheek showed that one was engaged.
All the Rage. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1992.
Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Apparel in the Western World. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing, 1970.