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.
Influences on Women's 1920s Makeup
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.
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 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. 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.
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.
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.
1920s Makeup Elements
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
The lip shape most associated with 1920s makeup is the cupid’s bow. This 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 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!
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 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.