Women’s 1920s Makeup: An Overview

Wearing makeup took off again in the 1920s after years of being in the wilderness. New products came onto the market and cosmetics became more affordable. The love of having a suntan started during the decade and nail varnish entered the modern age. Women were influenced by the queens of the silver screen, and magazines discussed the virtues of beauty and what was acceptable or not in the world of cosmetics. Here’s our guide to women’s 1920s makeup.

Influences on Women’s 1920s Makeup

For many decades, makeup had been deemed inappropriate and only worn by a certain type of woman (yes, tarts and floozies) and stage performers. While some Victorian and Edwardian women did use makeup, it was used very discreetly and not obvious worn in order to remain “socially appropriate”. Now, makeup was back with a vengeance.

After the recession of wartime, the economy of many developed/Western nations quickly recovered and by the early 1920s had started to bloom. Prosperity lead to an increase in manufacturing and this, combined with a fresh interest in makeup, lead to a whole selection of 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. This, along with more affordable products on the market, led 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.

Colleen Moore Photoplay (1926)

Colleen Moore on the cover of Photoplay (Jan 1926). One eye was brown and the other blue. Her main rival early on was Clara Bow (both played flappers)

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

Film fan magazines, like Photoplay and Motion Picture Magazine, followed the private lives of the film stars.

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

While black and white film allowed women to see the shape and tone of the makeup, it wouldn’t be until the 1930s when colour film showed women which shades and tints were favoured.

Cosmetic manufacturers were quick to see the lure of the silver screen beauties, and started to use movie stars in adverts to promote their products. Cosmetic advertising in magazines increased dramatically throughout the decade, influencing women’s makeup choices.

Max Factor and the Westmore family were the main Hollywood makeup artists of the day who worked with the film stars. Factor revolutionised screen makeup and 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.

Makeup Products

Clara Bow (Motion, July 1927)

Clara Bow (Motion Picture Classic, July 1927). She sometimes had a beauty spot drawn onto her cheek or near her mouth.

Makeup at the start of the decade was still on the more natural and cautious side. By the mid-1920s, makeup was openly worn and applied in public. It was not only fashionable, but respectable (though there were still those who objected to “painted” faces).

Evening and daytime makeup etiquette was considered different, especially in magazine articles – what was acceptable at night was not necessarily acceptable for day wear. Women would have “day makeup” and different colours for “evening makeup”.

As wearing makeup was relatively new to the 1920s woman, the range of colours limited (especially for women of colour) and guidance was found mainly in magazines and from manufacturers, end results could be mixed. Also, lighting in homes was not as bright and abundant as it is now.


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 (for example, to vanish wrinkles, build tissue, vanquish blemishes and freckles), and their use widely discussed in magazine articles. Just like today.

After cold cream, face powder was probably the most important makeup item for many women. It came in limited colours, the most common being white, cream, pink (often called “Flesh” or “Natural”) and sandy tones (often called “Brunette”, whatever the brand). There was even a green-tinted face powder, used more in the early 1920s.

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 on different parts of the face – a sort of contouring attempt.

Women's 1920s makeup - Jonteel face powder colours

Jonteel face and rouge powders in White, Flesh, Light, Medium, Dark, Outdoor and Brunette


Mary Garden rouge (1920)

Mary Garden rouge (1920) in progressively darker shades of pink

Rouge was applied to the apples, where cheek colour naturally occurs. Application could often give women a soft, flushed look to the face. Lipstick and rouge colour would often be matched.

Rouge came predominantly in shades of pink, from pale pink to dark rose. Rouge with an orange tint was considered good for women with a golden skin tone or, later on, a tan.

Rouge was often classed simply as “Light”, “Medium” or “Dark”. A darker pink was sometimes called “Brunette”, as it was considered the right shade for dark hair.

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

Eyes and Eye Shadow

Classic 1920s eye shadow is dark, soft and smoky. Colour was applied to the eyelids and crease. Magazine articles from 1926 on mention purple and blue pencils used as eye shadow. There was also brown eye shadow. For those less brave, or for a more subtle daytime look, a trace of darker face powder was used on the eyelids.

Pencil liners were used to draw a line on the upper eyelids or round the whole eye. A dot was used in the outer corner to “give the tilted-up look”.


Maybelline mascara

Cake eyelash beautifier (spit, mix, brush!)

Mascara was used to primarily darken the lashes and was known as “eyelash beautifier” or “eyelash darkener”.

Formulations include liquid, paste and a solid cake block, with a little brush for applying the product to the lashes. It could also be used on eye brows.

Maybelline was the leader in eyelash products and the company spent a lot on advertising.

In 1923, a new device was invented – the eyelash curler. Made by Kurlash, it was a big success, despite being expensive at the time. It looked similar to the clamp curlers we use today.


Long and thin eyebrows were the “film star fashionable” look for the ’20s. There were two ways to get the look: pluck them thin and pencil in, or pluck/shave the brows off and draw on the brows in pencil, creating whatever shape or look one required.

Clara Bow‘s penciled brows were sometimes drawn on lower than her natural brow. Being wide set and sloping down, these brows created the mournful “doe eyed” look.

Natural brows would be shaped in a thin arch and coloured using paste or cake mascara, or a brow pencil. Everyday women may not have plucked their brows as thinly as seen on some movie stars or in adverts. In portrait photographs, ordinary ladies have brows that tend to be a bit thicker.

Lips and Lipstick

1920s lipsLip pomade came in pots or in a palette as part of a compact. The new thing in lipstick was the push-up tube (made from metal or Bakelite), invented by Maurice Levy in 1915.

Lip colours came in shades of red, pink and orange – colour descriptions used in adverts and on products include poppy, rose, scarlet, cerise, raspberry and carmine. Tangee made one lipstick – an orange that turned a coral pink on the lips. Indelible lipsticks (long-lasting) were also available.

The lip shape most associated with 1920s makeup is the cupid’s bow. The upper lip was heart-shaped and lipstick on the lower lip was applied short of its outer edge, creating a smaller-looking and rounded mouth.

1920s makeup

Classic women’s 1920s makeup as seen on the cover of film fan magazines – pale skin with softly curved, thin and defined brows, mascara, rosy cheeks and red lips

Nails, Polish and Lacquer

Cutex nails 1920s

The half moon manicure started in the 1920s

The cinema showed women from all walks of life, from socialites to secretaries, with immaculate nails. Manicured nails were no longer just for rich folks whose hands never saw manual labour. Everyone could have nice nails.

Nails had been coloured for thousands of years using pastes, liquids and waxes made from all sorts of ingredients, largely unchanged for centuries. The 20th century saw the start of modern nail varnish, where a coat of liquid is painted on and left to dry/harden.

Liquid nail varnish with more in common to the products used today started in 1917, when Cutex introduced varnish made from coloured resins.

After World War I, there was a surplus of nitrocellulose. Experimentation showed that boiling nitrocellulose made it soluble in organic solvents, which, once evaporated and dried, left a hard, glossy lacquer. The car industry loved it and, with a few minor tweaks, it became nail lacquer.

Early nail varnishes didn’t adhere well and soon wore off, but it was the start of the nail varnish industry. The first products were made in translucent soft pinks, creating a natural-looking colour reminiscent of the nail waxes used at the time.

For a white nail tip, products like Cutex Nail White was used under the tip.

Nails were filed to an oval tip, some even had quite a sharp point. One style of manicure seen in the 1920s was the half moon manicure: where the round moon and tips of the nails were left bare.

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 (c. 1920s)

The Start of the Suntan

For much of the decade, having a tan was not fashionable – pale was in. Manual workers working outdoors would be tanned, so it was not the done thing for the middle and upper classes to have the “common face of labour”.

To remove any sign of a tan or blemishes, women (of all skin colours, black and white) used whitening products like bleach cream, and pale-coloured face powders.

The rise of the tan started in about 1928. 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 after inadvertently burning during a trip to the French Riviera, her skin had turned a golden brown colour by the time she got home. Also, Josephine Baker, the dancing belle of Paris with her exotic looks and brown skin, may have also contributed to tanned skin being fashionable.

Makeup products changed to take the suntans popularity into account – pale powders were out, and new shades were released to be worn on tanned skin.

Find Out More:

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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