Like the sixties, the seventies was a diverse decade for makeup looks. Continuing on from the late 1960s flower power trend of more natural looks, the decade went into super glam mode, gave a nod to retro smoky eyes and skinny brows, revolved around the glitter ball of decadent disco and pogo-ed into avant-garde punk.
Women’s Liberation in the 1970s
Still reverberating from the social movements of the 1960s, the 1970s was a decade of great political, economic, social and technological change worldwide.
In particular, the political and economic liberty of women advanced greatly during the decade, with women’s liberation groups and feminists worldwide demanding changes for women at work, in the home and all aspects of life.
Inequality in the workplace was rife, where women were paid less than their male equivalent and often had to endure harassment. It wasn’t easy for women to work in the trade jobs (e.g. electrician, plumber, carpenter), and very few did during this time, especially women of colour.
Despite the scales of equality being unbalanced at the start of the decade, changes did happen. Women all over the world achieved all sorts of “firsts” in sport, politics, jobs, at home and in general.
Just a few of those successes include: Switzerland gave women main election voting rights (1971); the USA passed legislation to ban sex discrimination in employment (1971); five all-male colleges at Oxford University opened their doors to women (1972); Women are allowed on the floor of the London Stock Exchange (1973); Britain passed the Equal Pay Act and Sex Discrimination Act (1975), and domestic violence was no longer a “private matter” with The Domestic Violence Act (1976). And love her or loathe her, in 1979 Margaret Thatcher was the first woman to be British Prime Minister. Only a decade or so before, this would have been inconceivable.
So, what does all this have to do with makeup? Quite a bit!
Influences on Women’s Makeup
The growth of women’s liberation and feminism had an impact on advertising and the cosmetics industry. Never one to miss a trick (or a potential sale), brands started to steer away from old-fashioned portrayals of women to appeal to the new independent woman.
It had its successes, including Revlon’s fragrance Charlie. Launched in 1973 and targeted at the sassy working woman, it was a best seller. Other companies followed suit with their own scents for “the liberated woman”.
Feminism presented a dilemma to the wearing of makeup for the “liberated”, who didn’t want to be seen as a sex object, but wearing makeup had been ingrained into the psyche since birth.
This was met by a desire from consumers for more natural products and that “beauty is from within”. The beauty industry was happy to provide products described as “natural”, “barely there” or “invisible”. It was a clever sidestep, allowing woman to keep wearing makeup – and buying the products.
Nostalgia was big, especially for the ’20s through to the ’50s. In the first half of the 1970s, there was a 1920s revival.
Films like The Boy Friend (1971), The Great Gatsby (1974) and The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) brought the ’20s alive, and inspired doll-like faces with smoky eyes and skinny brows. Makeup brands (including Revlon, Biba and Mary Quant) used this look in cosmetic adverts.
Films were as influential as ever. One film that had a significant impact on both the Art Deco revival and the post-glam pre-punk brigade was Cabaret (1972).
A tale of divine decadence and androgyny in 1930s Berlin clubland, there was black and white styling, a boyish girl in massive false eyelashes and a man in loads of makeup.
Saturday Night Fever (1977) and its best-selling soundtrack by the Bee Gees contributed to broaden disco’s popularity, a dance craze of mid- to late-’70s, when it fell firmly out of fashion.
Disco was decadent, with glittery, glossy and shimmery makeup, designed to be seen. In the mid-’70s, American makeup artist Way Bandy utilised the boogie-nights look of smoky eyes twinned with red lips, giving it his mark and techniques.
Donna Summer was the disco queen and always looked glamorous. Other singers that inspired makeup (and hair) include Debbie Harry (with those red lips), punk mistress Siouxsie Sioux, and Cher.
While disco was sexy and brazen, the music upstart of the decade was, of course, punk.
Initially a backlash to mainstream culture, punk seemingly crashed out of nowhere, and was not just a sound, but a lifestyle.
The makeup was highly expressive, worn by men and women alike. Hard facial makeup included pale skin with dramatic eyes, brows and cheeks. It was provocative, ferocious and tribal.
Magazines were incredibly popular for teens and adults alike, offering endless style advice.
Some were tailored to a specific demographic e.g Cosmopolitan for the young independent woman, Ebony for African-American women, and teen mags like Jackie (UK) and Dynamite (USA) published stories, beauty tips and gossip in a format that resonated with teenage girls.
Feminist magazines sprung up out of the feminist movement, aiming to provide more than knitting patterns, beauty tips and marriage advice.
Ms. Magazine (USA, launched in 1971 and still available) and Spare Rib (UK, 1972-1993) talked about domestic violence, abortion, rape, sexual harassment and other issues that the mainstream mags stayed away from. They resonated with women across America and Britain respectively, and kept women in touch with the latest developments and issues.
There were lots of choices. Revlon, Max Factor, Yardley, Coty, Helena Rubinstein, Elizabeth Arden, Maybelline, Bourjois – all the familiar names were main players in the cosmetics market, though success varied from country to country.
For example, Rimmel and Yardley were popular in their home turf of Britain, but less so overseas. Cover Girl and Maybelline were mainstream in the United States, but, again, had less hold on the international markets.
Biba started in the ’60s in Britain and continued into the mid-’70s. Being on trend and doing things differently to the competition gave them huge success during this time. When it launched its makeup range, Biba had a laid back approach to selling and even allowed customers to try the makeup range with samples left out in the shops - a practice unknown in other stores. Some cheeky minxes used to regularly come to the shops before work bare faced and leave fully made up!
Punk was a working-class revolution and, therefore, inexpensive makeup that was available to everyone appealed far more than expensive brands. Rimmel, Miners, Outdoor Girl and Boots 17 were affordable brands in the UK.
It was during the ’70s that the makeup needs of women of colour started to be more recognised, and more black and ethnic women were used in advertising. New makeup brands made just for women of colour were launched e.g. Fashion Fair Cosmetics debuted in 1973, and had adverts featuring Natalie Cole, Aretha Franklin and Diahann Carroll. Established brands expanded their ranges to include makeup for darker skin tones.
Avon was way ahead of other brands. It had started to use black women in the 1950s to sell to its black customers, and progressed to using native models in its international adverts, rather than just white models.
In 1974, Vogue was the first mainstream magazine to feature a black model (Beverly Johnson) on the front cover.
1970s Makeup Elements
The soft and natural look remained in vogue throughout the decade, running parallel to colourful fads and trends, such as the 1920s revival, the Pierrot look (as seen in Vogue in 1975) and punk.
There were three main eye looks: natural and barely there, soft and smoky, bold and garish.
Popular colours were blues, greens and purples – just look at the advert left! Earthy tones were also popular. White, silver or a similar pale colour could be used under the eyebrow to add highlight.
Eye shadow finishes could be matte or have a pearlescent or iridescent sheen to them (words like “frost” and “velvet” were used to describe them).
Formulations included pressed powder, liquid and creams. Eye crayons, shaped like a kid’s crayon, were available from Max Factor, Boots 17, Natural Wonder and others all having a range. Compacts consisting of several colours were also available.
The eye crease, so definite in the ’60s, continued into the ’70s for some makeup looks, but was now blended to create a soft depth and a cat-like or almond shape. There were no hard edges or unblended lines in 1970s makeup (with the exception of punk). Many women didn’t use a crease, just one main colour all over the lids, with an optional lighter colour under the brow.
Eyeliner might not be worn by those who favoured a more natural look, otherwise liner could be worn on the upper and/or lower lids. A heavy and well-defined approach was favoured by punks, goths and the new wave army.
Eyeliner came in pencil and liquid formulations with an applicator (e.g. Yardley’s Easy Liner, which came in black, blue, green, grey, burgundy and brown). White eyeliner worn directly behind black eyeliner on the upper eye lid was popular with some younger women/teenagers.
Lashes and Mascara
The old block mascaras had now given way to the tube-with-wand mascaras, and came in various basic colours including black, brown, blue, green and grey. Brighter colours were also made including turquoise, raspberry and lavender.
Mascara was worn on both upper and lower lashes. It could be quite liberally applied or barely there, depending on the tastes of the individual.
False eyelashes could still be worn, but the big fashion for wearing false lashes was left in the 1960s.
Fashionable eye brows were on the thinner side, from being plucked incredibly thin in a curve, to just slightly thicker and shaped with an arch. The thin, curved brows were reminiscent of the Art Deco skinny brow, as seen on Liza Minnelli in Cabaret.
Lipstick and Gloss
Deep fruit colours like plums, mulberry and cranberry were popular in the early ’70s. Pastels, peaches and pinks were worn throughout the decade, part of the more natural look, with many products using fruits and flowers in the product’s descriptions.
Red lips made a comeback in the 1970s, riding on the nostalgia trip that looked back to the mature glamour and sophistication of the 1940s and ’50s.
Lipsticks with gloss and sheen were fashionable, and there was a bit of experimentation with flavoured lip products, with mixed success.
Lips were not heavily lined with pencil (as in, no lip liner lines were visible).
Cheeks and Blusher
Everyday blusher was quite natural throughout the decade in both application and the colours used. From the mid-’70s onward, blusher also started to become more prominent, ending up as more defined stripes on each cheek. The application started at the temples.
Blusher came in powder, gel (e.g. Charles of the Ritz gel cheek pomade) and cream formulations (e.g. Yardley’s The Apple Polishers) in compacts, pots and sticks.
Nails and Nail Polish
Nail polish came in all colours from light to dark, and in various finishes, including glittery and pearlised.
Nails could be left natural or just with a touch of clear gloss.
The French Manicure was created in the mid-’70s by Jeff Pink, founder of Orly, inspired by the Parisian models who rubbed white pencil under their nail tips.
Nails were manicured with a rounded tip, though square nails started to come into vogue, possibly inspired by Cher.
New products and application methods came in for false nails (e.g. plastic nail tips) via the manicure bars and beauty salons, for those who could afford it. If not, we’ve read about how women who wanted super long nails would super glue nail clippings to the end of their nails! Moving on…
Punk had such a unique look compared to the mass fashion trends of the decade it needs its own section.
Punk makeup did not have to be applied with finesse or elegance. It was bold and anarchic, yet artistic.
Lipstick (most likely red or black) was often applied as if on a roller coaster, creating a “smack in the mouth” look. When applied more carefully, it had a pointed look to the edges of the upper lip.
Blusher (when used) looked like it was applied with a paint roller, leaving a bold stripe along the cheek bones. No blending, no soft edges and no apology. Other shapes were created with blusher, like a triangle from the temples down to the cheeks. Blusher wasn’t used to add a defined beauty to the cheeks.
Foundation was used to create a pale base. Eyes were done with an exaggerated cat-eye shape or heavy flicks. Or the whole upper eye area was filled in with dark, bold colours and squared-off edges. Lines were also drawn out from the eyes and brows, creating geometric shapes.
Face and body piercings were in, and didn’t just involve regular jewellery – safety pins and razor blades were worn in piercings as much as in clothing. Chains would be draped from ear piercings to noses or lips. Tattooing also went against socially acceptable conventions, and designs featured punk iconography like skulls, the grim reaper and ghoulish caricatures.
Suntans and Tanning
Having a suntan was in. It all started in the 1930s, and had remained in vogue since.
People really liked a suntan, spurred on by the healthy glow associated with leisure time and beach holidays, the sun-kissed look of the skateboarding and surf riding California crowd, and being seen on models in magazines and influential women such as Farrah Fawcett.
Suntan products were used to accelerate the tanning process, rather than protect, and tanning beds were more commonly available to the public in commercial tanning studios.
Many women (and men) used to sunbath just smothered in baby oil (oh, we can smell the burning of skin as we type…) and the use of foil reflectors under faces was not unheard of. Yup, skin BBQs were taking place on sunny beaches at home and in every package holiday destination across the globe! Package holidays took off (literally!) in the 1970s, and now many families in Britain and the United States could afford to go somewhere for extra hot holiday sunshine.
Reports were reaching the media about the damage caused by sunbathing, and dermatologists were starting to see the skin damage done to the sun worshipers of the ’30s and ’40s. The beauty industry responded by producing cosmetic substitutes that looked like a tan and making tanning lotions with more sun protection, as well as products to counteract sun damage.
The sun protection factor (SPF) rating system was implemented during the 1970s.
However, whatever dangers were known about excessive tanning, or the links being made to cancer, many people simply ignored the warnings and carried on sun bathing without due care.
So that’s an overview of makeup trends in the seventies. It was a decade of significant change for women, where disco was the decadent queen, nostalgia created fads, natural was in, and punk kicked everyone’s behind, setting a precedent for street trends and youth culture. This was to inspire even more outlandish makeup in the eighties – the decade of shoulder pads, massive hair, yuppies, and Dynasty.
Find Out More:
Corson, R. 2004. Fashions in Makeup: From Ancient to Modern Times. Peter Owen. 664pp.
Inness, Sherrie A. 2003. Disco Divas: Women and Popular Culture in the 1970s. University of Pennsylvania Press. 248pp.
Jones, G. 2010. Beauty Imagined:A History of the Global Beauty Industry. Oxford University Press. 444pp.
Sherrow, V. 2001. For Appearances’ Sake: The Historical Encyclopedia of Good Looks, Beauty and Grooming. Greenwood Press. 288pp.