Women’s 1920s Makeup: An Overview

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1920s-womens-makeup-TNHere’s our guide to women’s 1920s makeup. Wearing makeup really took off again in the 1920s after being in the wilderness for some time. New products came onto the market and items became more affordable. The stars of cinema were highly jnfluential, and magazines were full of makeup advice and etiquette.

Influences on 1920s Makeup

Society and Attitude

Makeup had been deemed inappropriate for many decades and only worn by a certain type of woman (tarts and floozies!) and stage performers. While some Victorian women did use makeup, it was used very discreetly however, in order to remain ‘socially appropriate’. During the Edwardian era, makeup usage was a little more acceptable. But it wasn’t until the 1920s that makeup came back with a vengeance.

At the start of the decade, makeup was still on the more cautious side, especially the wearing of lipstick. However, by the mid-1920s, makeup was openly worn and applied in public. By the end of the decade, not only was wearing makeup fashionable and respectable, it was de rigeur.

Excerpt from The Etiquette of Beauty (c.1927) applauding the use of cosmetics.

Post War

The economy of many developed/Western nations quickly recovered after World War I and, by the early 1920s, had started to bloom. This prosperity lead to an increase in manufacturing and, combined with a fresh interest in makeup, resulted in various new cosmetic products and brands becoming available.

Department store chains such as Woolworth’s, opened up across Britain and the United States, offering women the chance to see and try products. More affordable products came onto the market, leading to an increase in the amount of makeup and skin care products that the average woman owned and used.

As sales increased, it encouraged manufacturers to improve packaging. The compact was a great way to have portable makeup and a vanity case could contain all manner of makeup items.


Cinema had a tremendous influence on makeup products and women wearing it. Actresses were seen as glamorous stars and, consequently, the faces of women such as Clara Bow, Gloria Swanson, Louise Brooks, Greta Garbo were much admired and copied.

Colleen Moore Photoplay (1926)
Colleen Moore on the cover of Photoplay (Jan 1926). Her main rival early on was Clara Bow (both played flappers).

Film fan magazines, like Photoplay and Motion Picture Magazine, followed the private lives of the film stars, as well as being full of adverts for various cosmetic products.

Cosmetic manufacturers were quick to see the lure of the silver screen beauties and, as a result, started to use movie stars in adverts to promote their products. Their success saw magazine advertising increase dramatically throughout the decade.

The average woman may not have had such an adventurous lifestyle as portrayed by the leading ladies in films, but they could attempt to emulate how the stars looked.

Makeup Men

Max FactorCecil Holland and the Westmore family were the main Hollywood makeup artists of the day who worked with the film stars.

Max Factor revolutionised screen makeup, consistently developing new products, which then became available to the public. He is acknowledged as the creator of Clara Bow’s ‘cupid’s bow’ lips.

In 1920, Max Factor officially began referring to his products as “make-up”, based on the verb phrase “to ‘make up’ one’s face”. Until then the term “cosmetics” had been used in polite society.

1920s Makeup Summary

The main aspect of a classic 1920s makeup look is a smooth, natural complexion with a rosy rouged cheek. Lipstick colour would be matched to the cheeks and a dainty lip shape was the thing. In other words, full lips were not the done thing. Thinner eyebrows were “film star fashionable”, often drawn curved beyond the natural brow line.

Evening and daytime makeup etiquette was considered to be different. That is to say, what was acceptable for parties was not acceptable for day wear. Subsequently, women had more subtle day makeup, and different colours and application for evening makeup. In particular, a dark smoky eye, so often seen as essential 1920s, would not have been worn by the average woman during the day. This was more the “film star flapper” look, with eyes made up for the movies.

Clara Bow (Motion, July 1927)
Clara Bow (Motion Picture Classic, July 1927).

1920s Makeup Elements


The complexion was considered the most important aspect of beauty, as it had been in previous decades, and cold cream was a best seller throughout the decade.

A variety of skin care products were on the market, including those to remove wrinkles, build tissue, retain youth, whiten skin, remove blemishes and vanquish freckles. Their use was widely discussed in magazine articles, just like today, as well as the instruction booklets produced by the cosmetic brands.

After cold cream, face powder was the most important makeup item for many women. It came in limited colours, the most common being white, cream, light pink (often called ‘Flesh’ or ‘Natural’), dark pink and sandy-orange (often called ‘Brunette’ whatever the brand). Green-tinted face powder was also available.

Face powder was applied with a powder puff and used liberally. Powders were sometimes mixed to personalise colour more, and some women used different colours around the face – an attempt at contouring. Powder was also used to conceal blemishes.

A foundation cream could be used under powder, especially for those with drier skin, to moisturise and smooth the skin prior to the powder.

Women's 1920s makeup - Jonteel face powder colours
Jonteel face and rouge powders in White, Flesh, Light, Medium, Dark, Outdoor and Brunette.


Long, curved and thin eyebrows were the ‘film star fashionable’ look for the ’20s. There were two ways to get this look. Firstly, one could pluck them thin and pencil in or, alternatively, remove the hair and simply draw on the brows in pencil to create whatever shape or look one required.

Brows would be shaped in a thin arch or curve, then brushed and coloured using either paste, block mascara or a pencil. It was fashionable to draw the ends of the brows slopping down beyond the end of the natural brow. For instance, Clara Bow‘s pencilled brows were often drawn on lower than her natural brow line, as well as curving down towards her cheeks, which resulted in the mournful ‘doe eyed’ look.

However, everyday women may not have plucked their brows as thinly as seen on some movie stars or in adverts. For instance, portrait photographs show ordinary ladies with eyebrows that tend to be slightly thicker than the “film star face”. Likewise, instead of using a pencil to create a defined shape, some women would have simply used a dab of Vaseline to condition and smooth their brows.


Mascara was still a relatively new invention and used to primarily darken the lashes, rather than lengthen and curl like modern mascaras. It was known as ‘eyelash beautifier’ or ‘eyelash darkener’. Until these products came along, Vaseline or a brown cream product could be added to lashes to add shine and make them look thicker.

Maybelline mascara
Block eyelash beautifier. Maybelline was the leader in lash products and spent a lot on advertising.

Mascara formulations included liquid, paste and a solid cake block, which came with a little flat brush for applying the product to the lashes. Likewise, it could be used on eye brows.

The eyelash curler was invented by Kurlash in 1923. Moreover, it was a big success, despite being expensive at the time. It looked similar to the clamp curlers we use today.


Black or brown kohl eyeliners were used to draw a line on the upper eyelash line. It could be drawn a little beyond the lash line and smudged out with a finger to lengthen the eyes.


Obvious eyeshadow was only really worn by everyday women for evening functions or formal parties. Then colour was applied to the eyelids, and blended to create a soft smoky look. It was largely blended into a rounded shape, rather than winged, and didn’t go to the brow. The heavily shadowed look seen on film stars was more for the movies than real life.

For daytime, eyeshadow wouldn’t have been worn. If someone did wish for a subtle hint to their eyelids, it would be a through the use of a darker face powder, nothing more obvious.

Photoplay magazine covers: (top left and clockwise) Aug 1926; Nancy Caroll in Sept 1929; Jan 1921; and Greta Garbo in Aug 1929. The makeup look was pretty consistent throughout the decade.


Lipstick colours included shades of red, pink and orange. Colour descriptions used in adverts and on products included poppy, rose, scarlet, cerise, raspberry and carmine. It was advised in beauty books and magazines to match ones lipstick to ones rouge.

Lip pomade came in little pots and was also used on cheeks. The new thing was the lipstick in a push-up tube made from metal or Bakelite, invented by Maurice Levy in 1915.

Coty 1929
Extract from a booklet called “The Subtle Art of Make-up” by Coty (1929).

The cupid’s bow is the lip shape most associated with the 1920s. To create this look, the upper lip was drawn heart-shaped, even going outside of the natural lip line. Likewise, lipstick on the middle part of lower lip could be applied just outside of the lip line, especially for those with thinner lips. This resulted in creating a smaller-looking, dolly-like mouth. However, lipstick was never applied to the full corner of the mouth. In other words, lipstick would not be used to create a full mouth, as this was considered to be vulgar.

1920s makeup
Women’s makeup as seen on the cover of movie magazines from the 1920s – softly curved, thin and defined brows, darkened eyelashes, rosy flushed cheeks and dainty red lips.

Nail Polish

Nails had been coloured for thousands of years using pastes, powders, liquids and waxes made from all sorts of ingredients largely unchanged for centuries. Abrasive products would be used to buff and shine the nails. This method of tinting and creating shine would remain popular throughout the 1920s.

Cutex nails 1920s
The half moon manicure of the 1920s.

Nitrocellulose-based liquid nail varnish started to be manufactured more successfully in the 1920s, creating new product options. Early solvent-based nail varnishes didn’t always adhere well and soon wore off, however it was the start of the modern nail varnish industry.

The first products were made in soft translucent pinks or simply clear, creating a natural-looking colour reminiscent of the nail waxes used at the time. More obvious colours would be available by the end of the decade, along with mother of pearl (made from fish scales) which allowed a sheen to be added.

More colour options could be created with a little artistry. For instance, gold, silver or pearl powder was mixed with clear varnish to create metallic effects. Some brands also used this concept. Cutex, for example, had a clear varnish which came with a separate tint. The tint was used to create varying degrees of colour, before being sealed in with the clear varnish.

The concept of matching nails to dress colour came about in the late 1920s. It swept across Paris and London, with manicurists offering their clients this nail-to-frock mix and match service.

Nails were filed to an oval tip, some even had quite a sharp point. One popular style of manicure seen in the 1920s was the half moon manicure, where the round moon and tips of the nails were left bare. For a whiter nail tip, products like Nail White by Cutex was used under the tip.

Women's 1920s makeup
Photos from L to R: Singer Marian Anderson (c. 1920s-30s); the face of an everyday young woman with a kiss curl (c. 1928); Actress Anna May Wong with thin brows and lined eyes (c. 1920s).


Rouge was applied after the powder foundation. It was applied generously to the apples of the cheek, where colour naturally occurs, and blended out. As a result, women had a warm, glowing and flushed look to their cheeks. Lipstick and rouge colour would be matched, or at least attempted.

women's 1920s makeup
Mary Garden rouge (1920) in progressively darker shades of pink.

Rouge came predominantly in shades of pink, from pastel pink to dark rose. Orange tints were considered good for women with a golden skin tone or those with a tan, once a tan became acceptable later in the decade.

To start with, brands simply named their colours  ‘Light’, ‘Medium’ or ‘Dark’. A darker rose colour was sometimes called ‘Brunette’, as it was considered to be the right shade for dark hair. Later on names started to become more adventurous.

Rouge formulations included dry powder, liquid and paste, which came in little pots, tins, jars and compacts.

In addition to being used on cheeks, rouge could also be put under eyes. It was believed this created a youthful glow, as well as cover up dark circles. Likewise, it was also applied under the eyebrow.

The Start of the Suntan

For much of the decade, having a tan was not fashionable – in other words, pale was in. This was because manual labourers working outside would be tanned and it was not the done thing for the middle and upper classes to have the “common face of labour”.

Whitening products like bleach cream and pale-coloured face powders would be used by women of all colours to remove any sign of a tan or blemishes .

The rise of the tan started in about 1928. Subsequently, magazine articles were suddenly devoted to the suntan and new tanning products started to be seen on the market.

Coco Chanel is often credited with popularising a suntan among the wealthy. The story goes that she inadvertently burnt during a trip to the French Riviera. However, by the time she had arrived home, her skin had turned a golden brown colour, thereby gaining the admiration of her followers.

Josephine Baker, the dancing belle of Paris with her exotic looks and naturally dark skin, may have also contributed to tanned skin being fashionable.

The suntan’s rise in popularity meant that makeup products were updated to take that into account. As a result, fake tan products were now on the market and new makeup colours were released designed to be worn on tanned skin.

Find Out More:

Cocks, D. c1927. The Etiquette of Beauty. New York, George H. Doran company.
Corson, R. 2004. Fashions in Makeup: From Ancient to Modern Times. Peter Owen. 664pp.
Drowne, K & Huber,P. 2004. The 1920s (American Popular Culture Through History). Greenwood Press. 360pp.
Peiss, K. 2011. Hope In A Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture. First University of Pennsylvania. 352pp.
Sherrow V. 2001. For Appearances’ Sake: The Historical Encyclopedia of Good Looks, Beauty and Grooming. Greenwood. 288pp.

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