Women’s 1950s Makeup: An Overview

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Following from the 1940s wartime austerity , the 1950s was a time of growth and prosperity. Many economies around the world blossomed and grew. Therefore, consumers had more spending money available and the end of rationing opened up the way for new products. New colours and makeup products appeared, and the luxury cosmetics market took off. Here’s our look at women’s 1950s makeup.

Influences on Women’s 1950s Makeup

Television and Cinema

Movie stars continued with their strong influence on the masses. Leading ladies like Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Doris Day and Elizabeth Taylor had an enormous impact on styles. Likewise, Betty Grable and swimmer Esther Williams were influential, being two of the biggest box office draws of the 1950s.

Television broadcasts had resumed in the UK after total suspension during WWII, and by the early 1950s most of the country could now pick up a TV signal, thanks to a post-war effort to increase signal coverage. This, along with Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, resulted in a sharp increase in TV ownership during the 1950s.

Watching TV was fast becoming a popular pastime for all the family – and the variety of shows brought new ideas and influence to the masses. Early 1950s TV was predominantly live and some adverts were no different!

Esther Williams, Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe.

Makeup Brands and New Products

Following on from wartime restrictions, where many products were simply not available, rationing was now over and the cosmetic market bloomed. Products were a better quality and more colours became available.

The luxury cosmetic market took off, led by fierce opponents Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. Not only did they sell makeup, they had a vast range of skin care preparations with exotic and expensively-priced ingredients.

Max Factor was still the leader in invention and made products women wanted to use, inspired by the actresses who also wore Max Factor off screen.

In 1953, the first all-in-one base and powder, Creme Puff, is introduced by Max Factor. They launch the first retail concealer in 1954, a flesh-coloured stick called Erace.

In 1952, Boots relaunched its No. 7 range, which had almost disappeared during the war. The black and gold packaging was influenced by Hollywood.

Avon came calling for the first time after cosmetic reps were introduced to call round at people’s homes to demonstrate and sell the makeup.

Women’s Roles

After the losses during the war, there was a shortage of men, which possibly encouraging women to “make the most of themselves” in order to snag a husband.

Thanks to more labour-saving devices on the market, women had more time to themselves and wearing makeup was simply part of a woman’s routine and an essential part of being feminine. Being without makeup was akin to forgetting one’s pants!

The Teenager

The 1950s saw the emergence of the teenager as an independent consumer group with spending power.

Young people now had disposable income – be it through jobs or their weekly allowance – and this money could be spent on whatever they liked.

The cosmetic brands soon recognised this and marketed products specifically to this new consumer group with glee. Skin care products aimed at “teenage problems” like acne became more common and teens wearing makeup became acceptable, potentially a right of passage into womanhood.

Publishers also recognised this new buying force and new magazines for teenagers sprung up. Articles focused on fashion, home life, advice, looks and popularity, with adverts completing the pages.

Classic 1950s Makeup

A typical 1950s makeup
Classic 1950s makeup.

The classic 1950s makeup look consisted of strong lips, with understated yet elegant eyes and a well-defined eyebrow.

Lip colours were rich and intense, and soft pastel tints were in for eyes and cheeks. Rouge was worn sparingly, a mere hint to add a soft warmth to the face.

While lips were the strong aspect of makeup, the eyes were also seen as important. Emphasising them, while retaining a “natural glamour”, was key. Eyeliner and mascara were used on the upper eye, creating definition. Eyebrows were arched and strong, and pencilled-in to to define shape and frame the eyes.

1950s Makeup Elements

Eyebrows

At the start of the decade, eyebrows were dark and strong, with pencil being used to fill in and define the shape. Brows gradually became softer – still pencilled for shape, but softer and less “crayoned in”.

A strong arch and brows of a decent thickness that tapered out at the ends was the fashionable look. The thickness varied from medium to very thick.

1950s eye brow shapes
The eyebrows of various 1950s icons: (top L to R) Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, Liz Taylor; (Bottom L to R) Diana Dors, Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly.

Eyeliner

A black line with a little outward flick was the fashionable look, creating an almond-shaped eye. Using eyeliner in general was in vogue and pencils could be found in various colours, including the basic black, brown and grey along with blues, greens and purples.

Eyeshadow

Eyeshadow came in a variety of colours, mostly in shades of grey, brown, gold and the popular blue, green and purple pastels.

Rouge was also used as eyeshadow, as well as used to warm up the face around the temples and/or forehead.

By the late 1950s, a shimmering lustre was added to makeup via a substance called guanine – it came from fish scales and guano!

Colours were applied quite minimally and generally only one colour was used on the eyelid. It could be taken out to the sides to elongate the eye, but colour wasn’t usually taken right up to the brow.

Popular eye shadow colours of the 1950s, taken from adverts and editorials
Popular eyeshadow colours of the 1950s, taken from various makeup adverts from this era.

Foundation

Foundation would always be worn. Products tended to be slighly warm in colour, with a pink or peach base. There were also green powders, used to knock out unwanted red colouring. Foundations were matched to the natural skin colour as much as possible, rather than trying to look tanned.

Foundation came in liquid, cream and cake formulations. Pan-Cake, the Max Factor staple, was as popular as ever in the 1950s, selling tens of millions throughout the decade. The 1953 introduction of Creme Puff was very successful – an easy way to apply foundation and powder all in one go.

Lipstick and Lipliners

Lips were the strongest element of a 1950s makeup, with red being the predominant lipstick colour choice.

Red lipstick varied from true-red through to deep and dark brown-based colours, to more orange-based. Lipstick also came in shades of pink, orange tones and coral colours.

The first long-lasting lipstick was introduced to consumers in 1950. No-Smear Lipstick was invented and manufactured by American chemist, Hazel Bishop, and sales were nothing short of phenomenal, from a mere $50k in 1950 to over $10 million in 1953.

Lipliners were used, sometimes to draw a line outside of the natural lip line to create a fuller-looking lip.

Revlon lipstick colours:
Some typical 1950s lipstick colours. These are Revlon colours launched in the ’50s. From L to R: Stormy Pink (1950), Love That Red (1951), Certainly Red (1951), Fire And Ice (1952), Cherries In The Snow (1953), Hot Coral (1956) and Persian Melon (1957).

Mascara

The 1950s saw the emergence of creamy mascara in a tube with a wand – Helena Rubinstein and Max Factor both lay claim to being the creator of the new wand. Either way, mascara was every woman’s favourite.

Singer Lita Rosa (1953)
Singer Lita Rosa applying block mascara (1953).

Block mascara was still used and needed activating with water. However, most women would simply spit onto the block and mix with the little brush to create a liquid paste.

Mascara was usualy only applied to the top lashes. It came in various colours, from the standard black, to brown, navy blue, emerald green and purple.

Nail Polish

Manufacturers co-ordinated their nail enamel colours with their lipsticks, so reds, pinks and corals were popular colours.  Clear nail polish was an option too. Nail polish was popular with teens.

Rouge

Rouge was used sparingly and is not a prominent feature of 1950s makeup. It came in soft pinks and corals and was often used to warm up the face, not just on the cheeks, but around the temples and forehead and so on, to add a “soft warm glow”.

Find Out More:

Sources:
Corson, R. 2004.  Fashions in Makeup: From Ancient to Modern Times. Peter Owen. 664pp.
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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