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Women’s 1950s Makeup: An Overview

Here’s our look at women’s 1950s makeup. Following on from ’40s wartime austerity, the ’50s was a time of growth and prosperity. Many economies around the world blossomed and grew. The end of rationing opened up the way for new products and consumers had more spending money available. New makeup products and colours appeared, and the luxury cosmetics market took off.

Film Stars

The stars of the silver screen continued with their strong influence on the masses. 

Leading ladies like Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Dandridge, Doris Day and Elizabeth Taylor had an enormous impact on styles. 

Likewise, Betty Grable and swimmer Esther Williams were influential, being two of the biggest box office draws of the 1950s.

1950s makeup with Marilyn Munroe
Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn.

Television

Television broadcasts had resumed in the UK after total suspension during WWII.

By by the early 1950s most of the country could now pick up a TV signal, thanks to a post-war effort to increase signal coverage. This, along with Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, resulted in a sharp increase in TV ownership during the 1950s.

Watching TV was fast becoming a popular pastime for all the family – and the variety of shows brought new ideas and influence to the masses. In addition, early 1950s TV was predominantly live and some adverts were no different!

Makeup Brands & New Products

Wartime restrictions meant that many products were simply not available. Now that rationing was over, the cosmetic market bloomed. Moreover, products were of better quality and new colours became available.

The luxury cosmetic market took off, led by fierce opponents Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. Not only did they sell makeup, but they also had a vast range of skincare preparations with exotic and expensively-priced ingredients.

Max Factor was still the leading brand for invention. They made products everyday women wanted to use, inspired by the actresses who wore Max Factor on and off the screen. For example, in 1953 Max Factor introduced Creme Puff – the first all-in-one base and powder. They also launch the first retail concealer in 1954, a flesh-coloured stick called Erace.

In 1952, Boots relaunched its No. 7 range, which had almost disappeared during the war. The black and gold packaging was influenced by Hollywood.

Avon came calling round at people’s homes to demonstrate and sell their cosmetic products.

1950s makeup with Revlon
Makeup advice from Revlon's booklet "For A Lovelier You" (1959).

The Teenager

The 1950s saw the emergence of the teenager as an independently recognised consumer group with spending power. Young people now had disposable income – be it through jobs or their weekly allowance. Subsequently, this money could be spent on whatever they liked. Of course, the cosmetic brands recognised this and set about getting some of that money. 

Products were marketed specifically to this new consumer group with glee. For instance, skincare products aimed at “teenage problems” like acne became more common. 

A teenage girl wearing some makeup became more acceptable during the ’50s, potentially a right of passage into womanhood. Teen girls mainly stuck to the basics like lipstick and nail varnish, rather than wearing a full face of makeup.

Along with cosmetic brands, publishers also recognised this new buying force and new magazines for teenagers sprung up. They had articles focused on things that matter to teens, including fashion, home life, advice, looks, and popularity. Of course, adverts completed the pages.

Classic 1950s Makeup

The classic 1950s makeup look consisted of strong and full lips, with obviously made-up, yet elegant eyes. 

Emphasising eyes, while retaining a “natural glamour”, was key. Eyeliner and mascara were used to create the main definition of the eyes and one shade of eyeshadow was worn on the upper eyelids.

Brows were arched and strong, and pencilled-in to define the shape and frame the eyes. 

Rouge was worn sparingly, a mere hint to add a soft warmth to the face, and is not the main feature of 1950s makeup. 

A classic 1950s makeup.
Grace Kelly.

1950s Makeup Elements

Eyebrows

Eyebrows were arched, with brow pencil being used to fill in and define the shape. Furthermore, also the ends of the brows could be extended with a pencil.

The fashionable 1950s brow consisted of a strong arch and a decent thickness that tapered out at the ends. The thickness varied from medium to very thick, but skinny brows were definitely no longer in.

women's 1950s makeup and brow shapes
The eyebrows of various 1950s icons. (Top L to R): Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn and Liz Taylor. (Bottom L to R): Diana Dors, Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly.

Eyeliner

A black line along the upper lash line with a little outward flick was the fashionable fifties look throughout the decade. 

The doe-eyed look started in the late 1940s and continued into the early 1950s. This saw eyeliner used on the upper and lower lash lines. 

By the mid-1950s, this had turned more into a cat-eye, with its outward flick on the upper lash line. The flick varied from long and extended to just there – it all depended on the wearer.

As emphasising the eyes was back in fashion, liner pencils could now be found in more colours. This included the basic black, brown and grey as well as the more trendy blues, greens and purples.

women's 1950s makeup
Eye makeup advice from Dorothy Gray (about 1954).

Eyeshadow

Eyeshadow came in an array of matt colours, including shades of grey, brown, blue, green, and violet.

The application was quite minimal and, generally, only one colour was used on the upper eyelid. It was applied with the little finger and blended out to create a winged look, as well as fading up towards the brow. An intense colour was not applied right under the brow. 

By the late 1950s, a shimmering lustre could be added to makeup via a substance called guanine, which came from fish scales and guano.

women's 1950s makeup eyeshadow colours
Popular eyeshadow colours of the 1950s, taken from adverts and editorials.

Foundation & Powder

Women would always wear foundation and colour was matched to the natural skin colour as much as possible, rather than trying to look tanned. 

1950s foundations tended to be slightly warm in colour, with a pink or peach base. They came in liquid, cream and cake formulations.

Pan-Cake, the Max Factor staple, was as popular as ever in the 1950s, selling tens of millions throughout the decade. Also, the 1953 introduction of Creme Puff was very successful, offering women an easy way to apply foundation and powder all in one go.

Powder was used to set the foundation and to keep shine at bay. It was pressed in all over the face with a powder puff, and a face powder brush or cotton pad would be used to brush away the excess.

A flawless foundation that has been well powdered (1958).

Lipstick

Lips were a strong element of a 1950s makeup, with a red shade being the predominant lipstick colour choice. Even then, red lipstick came in many shades, from the deeper blue-based colours right through to the lighter orange-based colours. Pinks and coral colours were also worn.

Lipsticks were matte and applied to create a full mouth. After application, lips were pressed together and then blotted with a tissue before applying the final layer. A little face powder could be used to set the lipstick after the first application. 

sheen could be added with lip pomade, Vaseline or by simply licking the lips.

The first long-lasting lipstick was introduced to consumers in 1950. No-Smear Lipstick was invented and manufactured by American chemist, Hazel Bishop, and sales were nothing short of phenomenal, from a mere $50k in 1950 to over $10 million in 1953.

Some typical 1950s lipstick colours. These are Revlon colours launched in the '50s. From L to R: Stormy Pink (1950), Love That Red (1951), Certainly Red (1951), Fire And Ice (1952), Cherries In The Snow (1953), Hot Coral (1956) and Persian Melon (1957).

Mascara

Singer Lita Roza applying block mascara (1953).

Block mascara was still used and needed activating with a little warm water. However, most women would simply spit onto the block and mix with the little brush to create a liquid paste.

Cream mascara in a tube with a wand appeared in the 1950s. Both Helena Rubinstein and Max Factor laid claim to being the creator of the new wand application. Either way, it was the start of the wands rise.

Mascara came in two main colours, namely black and brown. However, more adventurous colours were also made like navy blue, emerald green, grey, pistachio, and violet.

Nail Polish

Manufacturers co-ordinated their nail enamel colours with their lipsticks, so reds, pinks and corals were popular colours. Clear nail polish was an option too.

Rouge

Rouge was used sparingly and is not a prominent feature of 1950s makeup. It came in colours of soft pinks, reds and corals.

Rouge was often used to warm up the face and add a soft glow. It would be swooshed around the temples and forehead. 

An oval face was considered to be the perfect face shape. Therefore, rouge was used to contour to make the face look as oval as possible. 

Cream and liquid rouge would be applied after foundation but before powder. Whereas powder rouge would be used after powdering.

1950s makeup colours
Pond’s Beauty Book (1958).

Find Out More

Sources:
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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11 thoughts on “Women’s 1950s Makeup: An Overview”

  1. The 1950 era is quiet inspiring. This information was very useful throughout my studies. Great site.
    regards Misty

  2. I am writing about my mother in Los Angeles in 1952. Anyone who has written about the red lipsticks, their Sheen, creamy texture, shades, I would appreciate hearing from you. Thank you.

  3. I am writing about the 1950s and my mother who was famous at the time. I would love to hear from anyone who was in Los Angeles 1952 and who has Written about lipstick color I’m looking for words language to describe the creamy dark red. Thank you

    1. You can still get some of the Revlon lipstick colours started in the 1950s (as listed in the post) e.g. “Cherries in the Snow” and “Stormy Pink” are still available. Max Factor’s Pan-Cake is still going strong, as is Creme Puff powder 🙂

  4. I loved your HONEY color lipstick back in the 1950’s. It was my first lipstick. Is there any chance that you still make that color but maybe have a different name on it? Please let me know. Thank you.

    1. Hi Eleanore. We don’t make any cosmetics – we are simply makeup artists writing about stuff!

  5. I really like the make up trend of the ’50’s and I tend to lean toward reds for my lipstick. I also apply lightly blush on my cheekbones, around my temples, and across my forehead for a more natural look. Great article!

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