Home » Women’s 1920s Makeup: An Overview

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. Lots of new makeup products came onto the market throughout 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. In contrast, skincare was altogether a different matter and it was acceptable to look after one’s complexion and hair. In fact, not doing so was deemed irresponsible.

While many Victorian and Edwardian women did use makeup, it was used very discreetly 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.

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 makeup and hair fashions, but they also demonstrated how 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. They were also full of adverts for various cosmetic products.

Cosmetic manufacturers were quick to see the lure of the silver screen beauties. As a result, film stars were used in adverts to promote the products. Magazine advertising increasing 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.

1920s makeup Colleen Moore
Colleen Moore depicted on the cover of Photoplay (Jan 1926).
1920s makeup Clara Bow
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 started to bloom by the early 1920s. This prosperity leads to a massive increase in manufacturing. 

The increase in manufacturing coincided with a fresh interest in makeup. It resulted in a huge number of new brands and cosmetic products becoming available as the decade progressed. However, makeup colours were still limited to basic shades.

The department store also influenced an increase in makeup sales. 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 continued to improve as the decade progressed.

Experience & Makeup Advice

The initial look of women making up their faces in the 1920s was not great. First of all, colours were limited, and products could be waxy or chalky. There was also no one to pass on experience in colourful and bold 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, however, as the decade progressed. Better quality makeup products and more colour options came to market. 

There was also makeup advice galore to be found in little booklets that came with the products. These advised women on how to use the products and what shapes were acceptable.

women's 1920s makeup advice
Advice on wearing makeup during the day (1928).
Advice for wearing makeup in the evening when a heavier application was more acceptable (1928).

Egyptian Art

Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. This had a huge influence on art, architecture, fashion, films, and jewellery. Egyptian art featured dramatic kohl-rimmed eyes making dark eyeliner seem exotic.

Film Studio Makeup Artists

Max Factor, Cecil Holland, and the Westmore family were the main Hollywood makeup artists of the day. They were instrumental in creating the film stars looks.

Max Factor, in particular, revolutionised screen makeup. Theatrical greasepaints did not work well for film, so he set about creating products that did work. He consistently developed new products, which later became available to the public. He is also generally acknowledged as the creator of the cupid’s bow lip shape, as seen on Clara Bow.

In 1920, Max Factor began referring to his products as makeup, taken from the phrase “to make up one’s face”. Until then, the broad term “cosmetics” had been used in polite society.

Classic 1920s Makeup Look

The classic 1920s makeup look has a smooth, natural complexion with a rosy cheek. Lipstick created a dainty lip shape, and thin eyebrows were film star fashionable. The eyebrows were sometimes drawn curving beyond the natural brow line.

Women wore obvious makeup during the day. However, bolder colours and a heavier application were saved for evening events. In particular, a dark smoky eye – often seen as essential 1920s makeup – would not have been worn by the average woman during the day. 

A smoky eye and heavy makeup was also the “film star flapper” look. It is worth remembering that film makeup was exaggerated to create dramatic characters and features.

Faces from 1920s magazines, showing the flushed rosy cheeks and smooth complexion.

1920s Makeup Elements

Complexion

The complexion was considered the most important aspect of beauty, as it had been in previous decades.

A huge variety of skincare products were on the market, including those to remove wrinkles, build tissue, retain youth, whiten skin, remove blemishes, and vanquish freckles. Good old cold cream was a best seller throughout the decade and its creamy texture helped create a smooth base onto which powder was applied.

Face Powder Base

Face powder was the most important 1920s makeup item for women after cold cream. 

It came in limited colours  – and the names were not much more adventurous. The light pink shades were commonly named “flesh” or “natural”, whatever the brand. Similarly, a darker sandy-orange was often known as “brunette”.

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

Powders could be mixed to personalise colour. Similarly, women might use different shades around the face – an attempt at contouring, perhaps. A dab of powder would also conceal a blemish.

Face powder was applied with a powder puff or chamois and used liberally. It was best to rub it into the skin to create a base, rather than simply pat it on.

1920s makeup Princess Pat
Excerpt from Princess Pat's booklet "Devoted to Beauty" (1926).

Eyebrows

Long and thin eyebrows were fashionable in the 1920s. Brows would be plucked and shaped to a smooth curve or left fairly straight. 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. Her pencilled brows were also drawn on lower than her natural brow line, curving down towards her cheeks. This created a mournful doe-eyed look.

However, the average woman may not have plucked their brows as thinly as seen on the 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. Women could use a dab of Vaseline to condition and smooth their brows, rather than pencil them in.

1920s makeup Clara Bow
Clara Bow's eyebrows were drawn sloping below her natural browline.
Louise Brooks with straight brows.

Eyelashes

Eyelash products were known in the 1920s as eyelash beautifier, eyelash darkener, masque, cosmetique, or something similar. These products darkened the lashes and added shine. 

Eyelash makeup came in liquid, paste and cake form. The solid cake blocks came with a small flat application brush. Ladies would spit onto the block and rub it around with the brush before applying the resulting liquid to the lashes. These products could also be used on eyebrows. 

Colour options were mainly black, dark brown and brown.

Kurlash produced the first eyelash curler in 1923. It was a big success, despite being expensive at the time. Nothing much has changed since its invention – today’s clamp curlers look very similar.

Block mascara from Maybelline, featuring the eyes of actress Mildred Davis.
Magazine cover from January 1921
Magazine cover from January 1921.

Eyeliner

Brow pencils were used as eyeliner rather than having a separate type of pencil. Colour options were basic, mainly limited to browns and black.

A line could be drawn on just the upper lashes or around the whole eye. Either way, the eyeliner was applied to simply follow the natural lash line and eye shape.

It could also be smudged out with a finger to create a smoky look and to add a sultry drama to the eyes. However, cat eyes or long flicks were not fashionable at this time. 

women's 1920s hairstyles Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker with sultry smudged eyes.
Gloria Swanson and women's 1920s makeup
Gloria Swanson (1928).

Eyeshadow

The smoky look seen on film stars was to emphasise their eyes for the movies or add a little drama. 

The look was created by blending eyeshadow over the eyelids with a finger. A rounded shape was fashionable (rather than a winged look) and faded up towards the brow. 

An ordinary woman would wear obvious eyeshadow for evening functions or formal parties but not during the day. Any eyeshadow worn during the day would be very muted. For example, a darker-coloured face powder could be used.

Eyeshadow in the 1920s came in basic colour options, such as grey, black, plum, and brown.

Lipstick

Lipstick came in shades of red, pink and coral orange. Products used colour descriptions like poppy, rose, scarlet, cerise, raspberry, and carmine. However, many brands also named their lipsticks simply as light, medium and dark. 

Beauty books and magazine articles advised women to match their lipstick and rouge colours – or at least to be from the same tonal family. For example, a coral cheek colour would work best with coral lipstick.

Lip pomade came in little pots and could also be used on the cheeks. It was now possible to buy lipstick in a push-up tube made from metal or Bakelite. It was invented by Maurice Levy in 1915.

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

The lip shape most associated with 1920s makeup is the cupid’s bowThis was created by drawing a curvy bow shape on the upper lip, even going outside the natural lip line. Likewise, lipstick was applied to the middle part of the lower lip. This created a rounded, dolly-like mouth. 

Other lip shapes were also seen in the 1920s, all of which concentrated on the middle part of the lip. Lipstick was never applied to create a full mouth to the corners – this was considered to be vulgar.

Lip pencils were available for outlining the lips. They were also used to subtly colour the ear lobes and outline the nostrils.

Rouge

Rouge came in three types of formulation – dry powder, liquid and cream. Liquid and cream rouge was applied before powdering, whereas the powder rouge was more for touch-ups.

Rouge was applied generously to the apples of the cheek – where colour would occur naturally after exercise. As a result, women had a warm, glowing and flushed look to their cheeks. This was an essential part of the classic 1920s makeup look.

Rouge came predominantly in shades of pink, from the paler pastel pinks to dark rose. Coral oranges were considered suitable for women with a golden skin tone or tan – once a tan became acceptable later in the decade.

Initially, brands named their colours very plainly, such as “light”, “medium” and “dark”. A darker rose colour was sometimes known as “brunette” simply because it was considered the right shade for those with dark hair. Later on, names started to become a little more adventurous.

Rouge could also be put under the eyes. It was believed this created a youthful glow by covering up dark circles. It was also applied under the eyebrow or even to the tips of the ears!

women's 1920s makeup
A lovely coral orange rouge and matching lips (August 1926).
women's 1920s makeup
Nancy Carroll (Sept 1929).

Nail Polish

Nails had been coloured, buffed and shined for thousands of years using pastes, powders, liquids, and waxes. This method of tinting and creating shine would continue throughout the 1920s until a new product started to emerge – namely, liquid nail polishes.

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

The first polish 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. Mother of pearl (made from fish scales) also started to be used to create a sheen.

A little artistry could create more colour options. 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 that came with a separate tube of tint. The tint was used first to create varying strengths of colour and sealed with the clear topcoat.

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 manicure was the half-moon manicure, where the moon and nail tips were left bare or whitened. A white nail tip was created with products like Nail White by Cutex.

The half-moon manicure was popular in the '20s.
Nail colours and women's 1920s makeup
Cutex nail products in 1927.

The Start of the Suntan

For centuries, having a tan was not fashionable – and this trend continued into the 1920s. It was not fashionable because manual labourers working outside would be tanned. Subsequently, the middle and upper classes did not want to have the “common face of labour”.

Whitening products (like bleach cream), various lotions, and pale powders would be used to remove any sign of a tan.

The rise of the tan started in the 1920s. 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, her skin had turned a golden brown colour by the time she got home, thereby gaining the admiration of her followers.

Josephine Baker was adored in Paris and rapidly becoming a major film star in Europe. Her dark skin was idolised and further contributed to the tan’s rise in popularity.

The cosmetic brands were quick to recognise this new trend. Magazine articles were suddenly devoted to the suntan and new tanning products became available. Additionally, established makeup products were updated to take into account the suntan’s rise in popularity and new colours became available. Fake tan products were also available.

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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17 thoughts on “Women’s 1920s Makeup: An Overview”

  1. I was doing research because my teenage daughter wants me to do her makeup for a 1920’s themed birthday party she is attending, and I want to get it right, but I found so much more than I expected and it was all so fascinating! I look forward to exploring the rest of the articles!!

    1. Thanks Michele for your kind words. Hope you and your daughter enjoy playing with the 1920s look 🙂

  2. Thank you for the knowledge! I’m gathering info on the time period for my murder-mystery novella whose scintillating sleuth is a lady named Miss Adah Dunkell. I will definitely be using this for reference!

  3. Such useful information for a show I planned to do in 2020. The pandemic changed that but hopefully I can do my 1920s before the decade ends!‍♀️

  4. 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!

    1. Hi Becky – your dollhouse sounds amazing! Would love to peek inside those tiny doors and windows. 🙂

  5. 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

  6. 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.

  7. 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 🙂

  8. 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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