Rounded red lips, more than any other aspect, seem to define the classic 1940s makeup look. There is, of course, more to the vintage look than red lipstick. So here’s a look at women’s 1940s makeup, including how the war affected product availability. Canny women invented and “made do” to keep up appearances – a war was not going to stop them from having a little glamour!
Influences on Women's 1940s Makeup
The decade started with much of Europe at war, with other nations worldwide soon joining the battle. It had an impact on women’s 1940s makeup due to restrictions and rationing.
Wartime restrictions impacted everyday life – and cosmetics were no exception. Shortages of alcohol meant less cologne. Fats and oils meant even soap was rationed. A key ingredient in munitions was glycerine, taking it away from cosmetic production.
Packaging was also affected as metal and plastic were needed for the war effort and not readily available for the cosmetic needs of a nation. Some cosmetic companies even made items for the war effort. For example, Revlon factories made first-aid kits and dye markers for the US Navy.
Rationing in the UK meant many everyday items were hard to get. But rather than go without, women got creative and used substitutes.
Makeup substitutes included burnt cork for mascara and cochineal or beetroot juice for lipstick. Similarly, British women kept up appearances by using bicarbonate of soda as a deodorant and gravy browning for tinting legs.
“The stockings did nothing for morale, they were quite dreadful thick cotton ‘plated’ with rayon. We preferred to tint our legs with dilute gravy browning and draw a ‘seam’ up the back with eyebrow pencil.”
When cosmetic supplies did reach the shops, the word would soon get out – and women would queue for hours. Old theatrical makeup found in second-hand shops was even better than nothing.
Rationing didn’t end as soon as the war finished. For example, it continued until 1954 in Britain for some items. However, things did slowly but surely come back into regular circulation. More makeup products started to reach the shelves, eagerly bought by women whenever possible.
“We had no real cosmetics so we dyed our legs to look like stockings and wore beetroot juice for lipstick….”
Lipstick was seen as good for the morale of the nation, both in Britain and the USA. Women using lipstick were applauded, seen as keeping their femininity while carrying out men’s work.
Makeup brands embraced selling patriotism – and red was, of course, the most patriotic of the colours. For example, Elizabeth Arden produced a series of products in about 1941 called Victory Red. The tag line was, “Victory Red… a beautiful new red to brighten today and challenge tomorrow.”
In the United States, lipstick survived rationing after women protested the War Production Board’s plan to ration it. The Brits were not so lucky – lipstick was in short supply and very precious.
Going to the pictures was a popular way to spend an evening. The glamour of the film stars was admired and copied by women everywhere. Additionally, movies were now in colour – allowing women to see the shades worn by their favourite film stars.
The popular lipstick application shape of the era is the Hunter’s Bow. It was also known as the “smear” and was created in the 1930s by Max Factor for actress Joan Crawford.
Film & Women's Magazines
Film magazines such as Photoplay and Modern Screen showed the lives and style of Hollywood stars. They also wrote about the latest beauty and fashion trends.
Ladies magazines had beauty articles and fashion pages. They also showed everyday women at work in their work attire but still managing to look glamorous and feminine.
Film stars often featured in adverts for hair and beauty products, as the brands had long realised that famous faces sell products.
Classic Women's 1940s Makeup Look
The overall 1940s makeup look was reasonably natural, topped off with a splash of red lipstick glamour. Foundation was natural or leaned towards a gentle sun-kissed tone, with a very subtle, natural rosy glow to cheeks.
Shaped eyebrows were of medium thickness, brushed and gently coloured in. Eyeshadow was subtle, finished with a touch of mascara on the lashes.
Colour harmony between products was popular. Primarily, it was hair colour that would dictate which colour range to opt for, although eye colour and costume shade were also important. Beauty guides also advised to colour-match one’s lips, cheeks and nails to one coordinated shade, rather than being different.
Whatever a woman’s background or class, they always made an effort to look groomed with what little they had.
1940s Makeup Elements
1940s foundation colours were either natural or designed to add a healthy glow. A natural sun-kissed or slightly tanned look was popular. Cake products came with a matte finish, but some were advertised as “having a sheen”.
Ultimately, Max Factor’s Pan-Cake was the 1940s foundation winner. Initially developed for the film industry, once actresses saw the results on screen, they wanted to use Pan-Cake off-screen. Seeing an opportunity, Max Factor launched Pan-Cake to the public in the late 1930s – it was a huge success.
In 1948, Max Factor followed Pan-Cake’s success with the public launch of Pan-Stik – a cream foundation in a tube that was easy to apply. It was another product first developed for filming before being released to the public shortly after.
Loose and pressed powders were available to set the foundation and eliminate unwanted shine. A pressed powder in a compact would be used to top-up while out and about. Inspired by seeing film stars doing it in their films, ladies would happily powder in public.
The eyebrows were groomed, shaped and defined with a brow pencil. They could be arched or rounded in shape.
1940s brows had much more to them than the thin, over-plucked brows of the preceding decade. However, they were not left overgrown, too wide or full.
Brow pencils came in black and brown, and it was OK to extend the outer curve of the brow line a little if wanted. Eyebrow pomades were available to keep unruly brows in check, although Vaseline could also be used.
Wartime meant eyeshadows were hard to come by, so women used homemade solutions. For example, to create a soft grey eyeshadow, they could burn a candle under a saucer, producing a sooty residue to mix in with petroleum jelly.
Colours during the war tended to be limited and on the more muted side, like grey and brown. Some greens, violets and blues were available. After the war, more colour options started to be seen, especially in the evergreen shades of brown, blue, violet, and green. There were also more fancy colours, such as gold, that would be suitable for evening wear.
The application was simple. For a start, one eyeshadow colour would be selected and applied to the eyelid with a finger. It was then blended out and towards the eyebrow.
However, it was not winged out dramatically and would only be taken ever so slightly beyond the outer corner of the eye. Likewise, there was no shadow in the crease or highlight under the brow – women wore one colour only.
During the war, any eyeliner created was subtle and mainly used to emphasise the lash line a little. Initially, a brow pencil was used as an eyeliner, and colour choices were limited to blacks and browns.
Towards the end of the decade, eyeliner started to be worn more obviously on the upper eyelids. A more definite line behind the lashes was the trend. Additionally, extending it outwards to create an almond shape was gaining popularity.
This look continued into the 1950s and was known as the “doe-eyed look”. As this trend took off, more eyeliner products and colours came onto the market. Eyeliner pencils were now available in various shades, including blues, browns and greens.
Eyelash products came in blacks, browns and blues. Block cake mascaras were still very common and cream mascara came in a tube to be applied with a little brush. It was mainly applied to the upper lashes but could be used on the lower lashes too.
Red, red, red! It was the colour of the 1940s. There was variation in the reds seen over the decade, including those with undertones of blue, brown, orange, and pink.
The darker reds and brick reds were very popular throughout the decade. After the war, new lipstick colours started to come in, including lighter shades and more pinky-reds. Women yearned for brighter colours after the drudgery of war. Lip pencils also started to make their mark in the late 1940s, used to create definition and shape rather than an obvious line.
The lipsticks were matte. If a shine was required, a woman could apply a dab of petroleum jelly over the top. There were also products available such as Lip Pomade by Max Factor.
The shape of the lips also defines women’s 1940s makeup. After the dinky lips of the 1930s, the fashionable forties lip shape was deep and rounded – known as the Hunter’s Bow.
Joan Crawford and other film stars wore this look and it was fashionable throughout the decade. Lips would be overdrawn to create the shape, especially if a woman had thinner lips. There were also lipstick applicators to help a woman create the perfect bow shape.
Rouge came in cream and dry formulations. Pressed powders came in little cardboard pots or as part of a compact. Popular colours were the peachy, coral and pink tones.
Colour would be applied lightly on the apples of the cheeks and blended out. It gave cheeks a soft and natural-looking glow. Heavy and obvious rouge was not the thing during the 1940s. Rouge was also applied around the face to create a softened contour.
As rouge was not always available during the war, women would use lipstick to add a hint of colour to their cheeks. It would last quite well as lipstick could be staining.
Nail polish colours were mainly available in shades of red, including darker reds, pink-based reds and corals. Other colours were available, such as gold and dark green, but the reds were the popular colours. A colourless polish was the topcoat.
Generally, painted nails matched lips and cheeks. Beauty booklets and magazines advised women to harmonise to be colour correct. Additionally, the beauty brands produced collections of products in their latest colour, so it was easy to match nails, lips and cheeks.
Legs & Stockings
Nylon stockings were in short supply in wartime as the war effort needed the nylon. Never to be beaten, women created the illusion of stockings with leg makeup and a pencil line drawn up the back of the legs for the seam.
It was fiddly, so not all girls used a line – even just colouring their legs was better than nothing. After the war, stockings came back with a vengeance.
Originally, leg makeup was made to create a tanned look. It then became liquid-stockings makeup due to the lack of real stockings.
For those without proper leg makeup, legs could be stained with household products – for example, tea, gravy browning and watered down Camp Coffee (made from chicory). Women could also apply cake makeup to the body. No doubt women made it look fabulous – until caught in the rain!
Find Out More
- Women’s 1940s Hairstyles: An Overview.
- Photographs of British Women in the 1940s.
- Hair & Beauty Adverts from the 1940s – adverts show us the classic vintage 1940s hairstyles and makeup looks.
- Read more about the 1940s on Wikipedia.
Great Information! Question about eyeshadow, does anyone know if eyeshadows were shimmery or more Matte during the 1940s, especially around war time.
Hi Pria – eyeshadow was matte. Very little eyeshadow was worn, particularly in the daytime. One colour only (matching the eye colour) was the fashion 🙂
Doing a Decades project in my fashion class and we have to do a segment about makeup worn in our decade. this really helped me out!! Thank you so much for the great details and pictures
Thank you Kiley – hope your project goes well 🙂
great article, thank you! I’m going to a film noir themed halloween mystery event and wasn’t sure about eye color or nail color in the ’40s. interesting that pink was around, I didn’t think it was until the ’60s!
Thanks Ginny. Hope you have a great spooky event 🙂
In the 1940s, even though the popular lipsticks were bright red, would the lipstick and nail color match the color of the dress, such as a deep wine color?
Thanks best article on 1940’s makeup I’ve read
Love this history! Thanks, I need all the help I can get!
Our daughter’s wedding from the ceremony in a red, white, and blue band shell to USO reception is the 1940s. The groom is a combat veteran and seven will be in modern dress blues. All guests are invited to wear period clothes! Most of the music is period with radio war reports in between and so on and so on.
Hi Jeri – thanks for your comment. The wedding sounds fabulous! Hope it goes well 🙂
I am in a play in the forties and needed to know what to look like thx
Am a make up artist and doing he 40 look thank you it has helped me a lot .my imagination has been expanded
Hi Evelyn – glad we could help, esp. as our site was set up primarily for MUAs 🙂
Love this site! It’s informative and true to detail for us avid vintages gals!!!!
Hi Debbie, Thanks so much for commenting, really glad you love our site (we try hard to get the facts right!) and happy vintaging! 🙂
I am in a play that takes place in 1947 and I am so happy I stumbled onto this website. Thank you for the pictures this has been very helpful!
Hi Andrea, Thank you letting us know – it’s always good to hear that our articles have been useful. Good luck with the play 🙂
me too Andrea it helped me to!
Love the pictures, great detailed info and has helped my vintage experimentation! Though I’m not spitting into mascara any time soon….!!! Thank you Nx
No spitting in mascara required! Thank you for your comment – happy vintaging 🙂