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Women’s 1940s Makeup: An Overview

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Rounded red lips, more than any other aspect of makeup, seem to define the classic 1940s look. There is, of course, more to the look than red lipstick. Here we look at makeup in general during the decade, including how the war affected product availability. Canny women invented and “made do” to keep up appearances. War was not going to stop them having a little glamour.

Wartime Rationing

The decade started with much of Europe at war, with other nations worldwide soon to be joining the battle. Wartime restrictions gradually impacted everyday life and cosmetics were no exception.

Shortages of alcohol meant less cologne. Fats and oils were in in short supply (even soap was rationed) and glycerine was a key ingredient in making munitions.

“Such strange things disappeared. No hair clips, curlers, no safety pins.”[1]
Packaging was affected as metal and plastic were in much need for the war effort, and not readily available for the cosmetic needs of a nation. In fact, during the war, some cosmetic companies made 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, cochineal or beetroot juice for lipstick, bi-carbonate of soda for deodorant and gravy browning for leg tint were just some of the ways British women kept up appearances.

“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.”[2]

When cosmetic supplies did reach the shops, the word would soon get out and women would queue for hours. Even old theatrical make-up found in second-hands shops was used because it was better than nothing.

Rationing didn’t end as soon as the war finished and, for some items, it continued until 1954 in Britain. Things slowly but surely came back into regular circulation after the war and 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….”[3]

Patriotism

Lipstick was seen as “good for the morale of the nation”, both in Britain and the USA. Women were applauded for the use of lipstick, seen as keeping their femininity while carrying out men’s work.

"Victory Red" from Elizabeth Arden.
“There wasn’t much in the way of make up, just a bit of Pond’s cream and a dab of lipstick.”[4]

Makeup brands embraced selling patriotism and red, of course, was 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.

Film Stars

Joan Crawford with her distinctive Hunter's Bow lip and arched brows. She is often credited as having made both elements popular (1946)

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, and colour movies allowed women to see the shades worn by their favourite stars.

Joan Crawford’s lipstick shape, known as “the smear” or Hunter’s Bow, was created by Max Factor for Joan in the 1930s and was much copied into the 1940s. A full and curved lip shape was now in vogue, after the more dinky mouths of the 1930s.

Magazines

Film magazines showed the style of Hollywood stars, and fashion magazines had the latest trends and advice. Film stars featured in adverts for hair and beauty products, as the brands had long realised that famous faces sell products. Magazines also showed everyday women at work in their work attire, but still managing to look glamorous and feminine. 

Classic 1940s Makeup

Gene Tierney with classic 1940s makeup.

The overall makeup look of the 1940s was fairly 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. 

Eyebrows were shaped, 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 one’s hair colour that would dictate which colour range to opt for, although, a woman’s eye colour and costume shade was also to be considered. Beauty guides also gave the advice to colour-match one’s lips, cheeks and nails to one co-ordinated shade, rather than each one being different. 

Whatever a woman’s background or class, they always made an effort to look groomed with what little they had.

Makeup Elements

Eyebrows

women's 1940s makeup
Rita Hayworth.

A woman’s eyebrows were kept groomed, shaped and defined with brow pencil. 

1940s brows had much more to them than the thin, over-plucked brows of the preceding decade, but they were not left overgrown, too wide or full. They could be arched or rounded in shape.

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 a slick of Vaseline could also be used.

Eyeliner

During the war, any eyeline created was subtle and mainly used to softly emphasis the lash line. A brow pencil was used as eyeliner and the two colour choices were largely black and brown. 

Later on 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, as was extending it outwards to create an almond shape. 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 blue, walnut brown and green.

Eyeshadow

Max Factor's guide to applying eye makeup (1940).

Wartime meant eyeshadows were hard to come by, so homemade solutions were found. For example, to create a soft grey eyeshadow, women could burn a candle under a saucer, producing a sooty residue which could then be mixed 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.

Application was simple – one colour was applied to the eyelid with a finger. This was then blended 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.

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 (more for evening wear) such as gold.

Towards the end of the decade, eyes were becoming more featured with makeup.

Colours for all occasions for the brown haired woman from Helena Rubinstein (1945).

Foundation & Powder

Foundation colours were geared towards natural or those designed to add a “healthy glow”, creating a natural sun-kissed look or a slight tanned look. Having a sun-kissed glow was popular.

Various brands were on the shelves and came in both matte finishes and those advertised as “having a sheen”, but Max Factor’s Pan-Cake was the foundation winner.

Initially it was developed for the film industry, but once actresses saw the results on screen, they wanted to use Pan-Cake off screen as well. Seeing an opportunity, the Max Factor brand launched Pan-Cake to the public in the late 1930s and 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 the movies, before being released to the public shortly after.

To set foundation, pressed powder would be used. Inspired by seeing film stars doing it in their films, ladies would happily top up their powder in public.

Lipstick

Red, red, red! This was the colour of the decade, though there was variation in the red, from the classic pillar box to a reds with a variety of undertones, including blue, brown, orange and pink.

Lipstick was matte so if a shine was required, a dab of petroleum jelly was applied. Lip Pomade made by Max Factor was used to add a glossy sheen to lipstick.

Lipsticks were also quite staining, meaning a little of it lasted a long time, making it perfect for wartime skimping.

It wasn’t just the lipstick colour, but the shape of the lips that defines the 1940s. After the dinky lips of the 1930s, the fashionable forties lip shape was the deep and rounded Hunter’s Bow, seen on the stars of the screen like Joan Crawford.

After the war, new lipstick colours started to come in, including lighter colours. 

Lip pencils also started to make their mark in the late 1940s, being used to simply create a lip line which was then filled in with lipstick, rather than create an obvious outline. 

Lipstick colours of the 1940s, taken from makeup adverts for brands including Max Factor, Tangee, Gala and Helena Rubinstein.

Mascara

Eyelash products came in black, brown and blue. It was mainly only applied to the upper lashes, but it could be applied to both the upper and lower lashes.

Nail Polish

From Revlon's booklet "Fashion in Hands" (1941).

Nail polish colours were mainly in shades of red and pink, including darker reds and corals. Colourless polish was used as a top coat. Other colours were available, such as gold and dark green, but shades in red and pink were the commonest colours by far.

Generally, nails would be painted to colour match lips and cheeks. It was advised by beauty booklets and magazines to “harmonise” to be colour correct.

Rouge

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. This gave cheeks a soft, natural-looking glow. Heavy and obvious rouge was not done during the ’40s. As well as the cheeks, rouge could be used around the face, to create a soft contour.

As rouge was not always available during the war, women would use lipstick to add a hint of colour to their cheeks and, as lipstick was staining, it would last quite well.

Legs & Stockings

Nylon stockings were in short supply in wartime, as nylon was taken for the war effort. After the war, they came back with a vengeance. Ankle socks were also worn during the day or for work.

Never to be beaten, woman created the illusion of stockings with leg makeup and an eyebrow pencil line drawn up the back of the legs to create the stocking seam. This was fiddly, so not all girls used a line – even just colouring their legs was better than nothing.

“Like the other young women, I drew black lines down the back of our legs to pretend we were wearing stockings. These were imposable [sic] to get until the Americans Forces arrived.”[5]

Leg makeup was originally made simply to create a tanned look, then became “liquid stockings” makeup due to the lack of real stockings.

For those without leg makeup, products like tea, gravy browning and watered down Camp Coffee (made from chicory) were used to stain the legs. Women may have even used it on their faces to add a tanned look. Cake makeup for the face could be used on the body. All was wonderful… until caught in the rain!

Find Out More

Sources:
[1] [2] © Constance M Galilee [3] ©Florence Fryer-Kelsey [4] © Marian Whatton [5] © Irene Currington. WW2 People’s War – an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar
Corson, R. (2004). Fashions in Makeup: From Ancient to Modern Times. Peter Owen.
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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16 thoughts on “Women’s 1940s Makeup: An Overview”

  1. 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!

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

    1. Hi Debbie, Thanks so much for commenting, really glad you love our site (we try hard to get the facts right!) and happy vintaging! 🙂

  4. 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!

    1. Hi Andrea, Thank you letting us know – it’s always good to hear that our articles have been useful. Good luck with the play 🙂

  5. 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

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