Women’s 1950s Makeup: An Overview

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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.

Influences on Women’s 1950s Makeup

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, 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.

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. Early 1950s TV was predominantly live and some adverts were no different!

Esther Williams, Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe.

Makeup Brands and New Products

Following on from wartime restrictions, where many products were simply not available, rationing was now over and the cosmetic market bloomed. Products were a better quality and more colours became available.

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

Max Factor was still the leader in invention and made products women wanted to use, inspired by the actresses who also wore Max Factor off 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 for the first time after cosmetic reps were introduced to call round at people’s homes to demonstrate and sell the makeup.

Women’s Roles

After the losses during the war, there was a shortage of men, which possibly encouraging women to “make the most of themselves” in order to snag a husband.

Thanks to more labour-saving devices on the market, women had more time to themselves. Ultimately, wearing makeup was simply part of a woman’s routine and an essential part of being feminine. Being without makeup was akin to forgetting one’s pants!

The Teenager

The 1950s saw the emergence of the teenager as an independent 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.

The cosmetic brands soon recognised this and marketed products specifically to this new consumer group with glee. For instance, skin care products aimed at “teenage problems” like acne became more common. A teenage girl wearing makeup became acceptable, potentially a right of passage into womanhood.

Publishers also recognised this new buying force and new magazines for teenagers sprung up. Articles focused on fashion, home life, advice, looks and popularity, with adverts completing the pages.

Classic 1950s Makeup

A typical 1950s makeup
Classic 1950s makeup.

The classic 1950s makeup look consisted of strong and full lips, with understated yet elegant eyes and a well-defined eyebrow. Brows were arched and strong, and pencilled-in to define shape and frame the eyes. Rouge was worn sparingly, a mere hint to add a soft warmth to the face.

Lip colours were rich and intense, and lips were the strongest aspect of the makeup. However, the eyes were also seen as important. Emphasising them, while retaining a “natural glamour”, was key. Eyeliner and mascara were used on the upper eye, creating definition, while eyeshadow was used quite subtly.

Makeup advice from Revlon’s booklet “For A Lovelier You” (1959).

1950s Makeup Elements

Eyebrows

At the start of the decade, eyebrows were dark and strong, with pencil being used to fill in and define the shape. Brows gradually became softer – still pencilled for shape, but softer and less “crayoned in”.

A strong arch and brows of a decent thickness that tapered out at the ends was the fashionable look. The thickness varied from medium to very thick.

1950s eye brow shapes
The eyebrows of various 1950s icons: (top L to R) Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, 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 look, creating an almond-shaped eye. Pencils could be found in various colours, including the basic black, brown and grey along with blues, greens and purples.

Eyeshadow

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

Application was quite minimal and generally only one colour was used on the upper eyelid. This was blended out towards the brow, but intense colour wasn’t applied right under the brow. The colour was also blended out to the sides to elongate the eye.

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

Popular eye shadow colours of the 1950s, taken from adverts and editorials

Popular eyeshadow colours of the 1950s, taken from various makeup adverts from this era.

Foundation

Foundation would always be worn. Products tended to be slightly warm in colour, with a pink or peach base. There were also green powders, used to knock out unwanted red colouring. Foundations were matched to the natural skin colour as much as possible, rather than trying to look tanned.

Foundation 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. The 1953 introduction of Creme Puff was very successful, offering women an easy way to apply foundation and powder all in one go.

Lipstick

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

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.

The lip shape was full and rounded. The Hunter’s Bow shape was still in vogue.

Revlon lipstick colours:
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

Block mascara was still used and needed activating with water. Most women though would simply spit onto the block and mix with the little brush to create a liquid paste. Creamy mascara in a tube with a wand appeared in the ’50s. Both Helena Rubinstein and Max Factor laid claim to being the creator of the new wand application.

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

Singer Lita Rosa (1953)
Singer Lita Rosa applying block mascara (1953).

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. Nail polish was popular with teens.

Rouge

Rouge was used sparingly and is not a prominent feature of 1950s makeup. It came in soft pinks and corals and was often used to warm up the face, not just on the cheeks, but around the temples and forehead and so on, to add a “soft warm glow”.

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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