Before the 20th century, “nice girls” did not wear makeup, which was commonly called “paint.” This differed from cosmetics such as face creams and similar products that were intended to improve the skin, not mask it in the way that paint did. Even into the 1910s, what we would call makeup today was associated with prostitutes, dancing girls and movie stars. It was the silver screen that made young women flock to the beauty section of their local department stores.
At first, beauty products were not about changing one’s look but about enhancing natural beauty. Face creams, lotions and powders all helped even out skin tone. Getting a “facial” at a “beauty salon” was unheard of in 1917, but by 1929 the beautician industry had 18,000 beauty parlors in America. The industry of women’s beauty services had exploded.
The number of beauty products and cosmetic lines exploded, too. Helen Rudinstein and Elizabeth Arden worked with chemists to make some of the first sun blocks. Since the sun tan and sun burn were in style, Arden turned her attention to creating powders that were tinted to help make a sun kissed glow. She also made liquid rouge, eye shadows and lip sticks. Shade choices were minimal.
Most makeup in the 1920s was limited to just a few shades that never matched natural skin tone. The initial look of women in makeup was ghastly! With limited colors, chalky foundations, and no previous generations of women to teach them how to apply makeup, the first attempts were anything but glamorous. Women didn’t seem to mind. In their eyes, makeup was intended to draw attention to their face, to illicit reactions, to look like a movie star.
Men, however, didn’t appreciate the “face masks.” They may have noticed, but they certainly didn’t swoon over the unnatural qualities of makeup. They also didn’t like that women pulled out their makeup and mirrors and applied it right at the dinner table instead of going off to the powdering room. Men secretly missed the days of the demur Victorian porcelain dolls.
As the decade progressed, the quality of makeup improved. The number of products went from a few dozen to 450 by 1924. By the end of the twenties, there were 1300 brands and shades of face powder, 350 rouges, and a hundred red lipsticks. It was a 52 million dollar industry. Poor women used home remedies such as ivory face powder, although the tanned look was in and many women shunned the pale skin of the past.
Rouge, which we could call blush today, also added some color to the face. It came as a powder, paste or cream in an orange-red at first then a raspberry-red for most of the 1920s and a rose-red by the late ’20s. When it was made available in a compact, its popularity grew. Rogue was applied in circles on the cheeks with two fingers unless you were a flapper, and then you might dab some on your knees, too!
Face powder was patted on with a soft round puff. (As a kid I loved to sit at my grandma’s vanity and dab her powder on my face. I still have her vanity, compacts and original powder, which I don’t use but love to smell. Oh, the memories!)
The invention of the metal lipstick tube in 1915 was a welcome addition to a woman’s beauty routine. Now a woman could simply carry her lipstick with her and touch it up as needed. Stencils and metal lip tracers helped ensure perfect application along the lip line. Matte red was the overwhelming color of choice (sometimes it was cherry-flavored) and by far the most popular application of it was creating the “Cupid’s bow.” Also, called bee stung lips or rosebud pout because of the full bottom lip and pointed smaller upper lip. A few movie stars applied a beauty mark below the corner of the lip which some flappers copied.
For the eyes, the look many aspired to was the dramatic appearance of Clara Bow’s dark, smudged kohl rims. Kohl was also used for eye-shadow, although cream eye-shadow was available later in the decade. Dark grays were the favorite colors, but many women chose shades that matched their eye color.
Blue eyes: green or blue eye shadow, brown mascara and eyeliners
Green eyes: Grey or green eye shadow, browns mascara and eyeliners
Brown eyes: brown or plum eye shadow, black mascara and eyeliner
Black eyes: a very faint red could be applied.
Eye shadow was applied with the fingers, lightly against the lash-line and then smudged upwards for a smokey effect.
Mascara was still in the development stages. It could be purchased in liquid, wax or cake form. If you wanted to try Maybelline’s mascara, the company was kind enough to include a brush, which had to be moistened with water before dipping in cake powder, along with a close-up photo of silent film star Mildred Davis for use as a reference. Keep in mind that the brush was not the circular type that is used now, so eyelash curlers, invented in 1923, were quite popular.
Eyebrows were shaped thin and curved with a slight downward point at the inner end. The thickness of the eye was even all around. Eyeliner, in pencil form, was used on the eyebrow but mostly just as a liner on the top eyelid. It was just brown or black for most of the twenties. Blue or violet came out in the later years, which was drawn on and then smudged for a lighter misty effect.
When the decade began, nail polish was not common, but by 1922 Cutex had developed liquid and powder polish. Thanks to the automobile industry, which perfected new durable paints, the cosmetics industry had something to copy. The Cutex line featured various shades of bright rose, pink and red. The favorite style of manicure was known as the “moon manicure,” polishing only the middle of each nail leaving the tips white. Nails were shaped oval and slightly pointed.
By the end of the decade, the women’s cosmetic industry had completely transformed. The use of makeup was now not only accepted but also welcomed as a form of self-expression and femininity.
How to Wear 1920s Makeup
I put together a how-to guide for authentic 1920s makeup here. My general feeling about existing tutorials is that they use too many modern techniques and products to achieve a genuine 1920s look worn by real women, not movie stars. For my sources, I look at vintage makeup guides and books written in the 1920s. I also use reproduction makeup for the most accurate colors (see below.)
Once such book that I love was put together by vintage fashion blogger, It is a reproduction of Marjoie Oelrich’s beauty booklet. The book mostly focuses on beauty routines and weight loss, but the makeup section is quite helpful. It discusses applying makeup for your specific face shape and complexion. This is extremely helpful since not all makeup tips apply to every face. The tips I learned from this book have really helped me create an authentic 1920s look that actually makes me look natural, not “made up.” Highly recommended and very reasonably priced.