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Women’s 1920s Makeup: An Overview

Here’s our guide to women’s 1920s makeup. Wearing makeup really took off again after being in the wilderness for some time. A lot of new products and brands came onto the market over the decade and items became more affordable. The stars of cinema were highly influential on fashion, and magazines offered makeup advice.

Society's 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 and Edwardian women did use makeup, it was used very discreetly however, in order to remain “socially appropriate”. 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.

women's 1920s makeup
Excerpt from "The Etiquette of Beauty" (published about 1927).

Film Stars

Cinema and its leading ladies had a tremendous influence on women. Not only did actresses and their on-screen personas influence the makeup and hair fashions, they demonstrated how the modern women could now behave.

Actresses were seen as glamorous stars and, consequently, the faces of women such as Clara BowGloria Swanson, Louise BrooksGreta Garbo were much admired and copied.

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 film stars in adverts to promote their products. Their success led magazine advertising increased 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 at least attempt to emulate how the stars looked.

Colleen Moore on the cover of Photoplay (Jan 1926).
Clara Bow (1927). Her main rival early on was Colleen Moore, as both played flappers.

Post War Boom

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 a massive increase in manufacturing. Together with the fresh interest in makeup, this resulted in a huge number of new brands and cosmetic products becoming available as the decade progressed.

More brands lead to the average women owning far more makeup and skin care products than previous generations.

Another factor that encouraged an increase in sales was the department store. Chain stores, such as Woolworths, rapidly expanded across Britain and the United States. They offered women the chance to inspect and try cosmetic products in the flesh. Subsequently, women flocked to the stores to see what it was all about, and sales increased dramatically.

As sales increased, it encouraged manufacturers to improve packaging and quality. The compact was a great way to have portable makeup and a vanity case could contain all manner of makeup items. Quality continually improved as the decade progressed.

Experience & Advice

The initial look of women making up their faces in the 1920s was not great. Firstly, colours were very limited and the products were chalky. Secondly, as the previous generation did not do makeup, there was no one to pass on any true experience in makeup application. 

Home lighting was not as clear and bright as today, and we all know the importance of good lighting when doing makeup.

Things improved as the decade progressed. Basically, better quality products, combined with more colour options, gave women a helping hand. Similarly, there was makeup advice galore to be found in little booklets that came with the products themselves, as well as in magazines.

Egyptian Art

The discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb by Howard Carter in 1922 was a huge influence on art, architecture, fashion, films and jewellery. The heavy kohl-rimmed eyes on Egyptian art helped inspire the wearing of dark eyeliner.

Film Studio Makeup Artists

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 largely 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 Overview

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 appropriate. 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, or something kept for parties and evening wear.

Faces from 1920s magazines, showing the flushed rosy cheeks and thin eyebrows.

Makeup Elements of the 1920s

Complexion

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. 

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

Excerpt from Princess Pat's booklet "Devoted to Beauty" (1926).

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).

Face powder was applied with a powder puff or chamois and used liberally. It was advised to rub it in to create a base. 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.

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

Eyebrows

Long and thin eyebrows were the “film star fashionable” look for the ’20s. Brows would be either shaped in a smooth curve or left straight across, then brushed and coloured by using a paste, block mascara or a pencil.

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

For those that did pencil in, one look was to draw the ends of the brows slopping down beyond the end of the natural brow. Clara Bow had this look for some of her career. In fact, her pencilled brows were drawn on lower than her natural brow line, curving down towards her cheeks. This resulted in the mournful “doe eyed” look.

(L): Clara Bow whose eyebrows were drawn on low and sloping below her natural brow. (Above): Louise Brooks with thin and straight brows.

Eyelashes

Mascara was still a relatively new invention and lash products were used to primarily darken the lashes, rather than lengthen and curl like modern mascaras. Also, it was known as “eyelash beautifier”, “eyelash darkener” or “masque”.

Until these products came along, Vaseline or a brown cream product could be added to lashes to add shine and make them look thicker.

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 eyebrows. Colour options were black and brown.

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.

Eyeliner

Josephine Baker with sultry smudged eyes.

Brow pencils were used as eyeliner. Colour options were brown and black.

A line was popular on the upper eyelash line, simply following the natural lash line. It could be drawn a little beyond the lashes and smudged out with a finger to lengthen the eyes, but long extended “cat eyes” or flicks were not fashionable at this time. 

The whole eye could also be lined, and either left as drawn or smudge to create a softer look.

 

Eyeshadow

Obvious eyeshadow was only really worn by everyday women for evening functions or formal parties. Then eyeshadow colour was applied with a finger to the upper eyelids, and blended out to create a soft smoky look. It was largely blended into a rounded shape, rather than winged, and was faded up towards the brow. The heavily shadowed look seen on film stars was more to emphasis eyes for the movies, rather than showing real life.

For daytime, eyeshadow wouldn’t necessarily have been worn. If it was, it would be very muted. Likewise, a little dark face powder could be used.

Eyeshadow came in basic colour options, such as grey, black, plum and brown.

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

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 lipstick and rouge colours, as well match to one’s skin tone.

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.

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 continue throughout the 1920s.

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

The first products were made in soft translucent pinks or 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 polish to create metallic effects

Some brands also used this concept. Cutex, for example, had a clear polish which came with a separate tint. The tint was used to create varying degrees of colour, before being sealed in with a clear top coat.

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 was the half moon manicure, where the moon and tips of the nails were left bare or whitened. For a whiter nail tip, products like Nail White by Cutex was used.

(Above): The half moon manicure was popular in the '20s. (Left): Cutex nail products in 1927.

Rouge

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.

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 named their colours very simply. For instance, light, medium and dark were common names. A darker rose colour was sometimes called “Brunette”, as it was considered to be the right shade for those with 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. All had a matte finish.

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 could be 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, as well as 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.

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 designed to be worn on tanned skin were released.

Find Out More

Sources:
Cocks, D. (c.1927). The Etiquette of Beauty. New York, George H. Doran company.
Corson, R. (2004). Fashions in Makeup: From Ancient to Modern Times. Peter Owen.
Drowne, K & Huber,P. (2004). The 1920s (American Popular Culture Through History). Greenwood Press.
Hill, D. D. (2002). Advertising to the American Woman, 1900-1999. Ohio State University Press.
Peiss, K. (2011). Hope In A Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture. First University of Pennsylvania.
Sherrow V. (2001). For Appearances’ Sake: The Historical Encyclopedia of Good Looks, Beauty and Grooming. Greenwood.
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11 thoughts on “Women’s 1920s Makeup: An Overview”

  1. Wonderful info! I’m furnishing a dollhouse in mid-1920s Art Deco, so this gave me a good list of items for m’lady’s make-up table, along with combs, bushes & hair pins for her maid to do her hair in modified finger-wave ‘do with soft curls at the neckline, from simple daytime “Junior League” functions to more glamorous Society functions to the occassionaly flapper-style “night on the town” with her close-to-her-age nieces & nephews (the dollhouse resident is a very wealthy, WWI war-bride widow, in mid 20s in age.
    Thanks!

  2. I’m so happy that i found this because we are doing a play based in the 1920s called Anna in the Tropics and i can use this to build my character look. thanks for this

  3. Thank you for this information. I can tell a lot of research was done. It will be a fantastic reference as I prepare to become a 1920’s flapper. I am paying homage to my Grandmother who had her first child, my Mother, in 1920.

  4. I am a beauty journalist. There are some things here which are so knowledgeable and clearly help you to map out trends. Thank you.

    1. Indeed Natasha – fashions do have a habit of coming round again and again and again, but perhaps sometimes the origins get lost over time 🙂

  5. This is such great info, and so well-researched! I never would have thought that the love of the suntanned look started back in the 20’s. I started at your 1970’s page through googling eyeshadow looks of that period, and saw that you cover ALL the periods- so I’m working my way from the 20’s through the 60’s now!

    1. Hi Todd, Thanks for your lovely comment and happy our info is useful 🙂 We’re getting there – still a few periods to write about! Cheers

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