What Was 1920s and 1930s Makeup Like

By the more puritan late Victorian era make-up had gone underground, rearing its head only as the trademark of a stripper or a whore. By the 1920s, however, young women had tired of this colorless existence, and make-up staged a comeback – putting on lipstick was soon to become the gesture of the decade.

At this point conformity was everything: in the quest for the perfect English rose complexion, women on both sides of the Atlantic had treatments to bleach their skin, and splashed out on copious amounts of rouge and talcum powder to create what nature had denied them. Even those who resisted lipstick and rouge succumbed to lightening their skin with face powder.

In Europe the battle against ageing had begun – women in Paris and London were having face-lifts long before they became popular in the USA. While the English were (secretly) undergoing the knife, their American counterparts were settling for skin conditioning of a less radical vanity: sales of Cold Cream were rocketing, along with more sophisticated remedies.

While polite society recoiled in horror at the onslaught of eyebrow pencils, eye shadow, mascara, blusher, lip pencils and rouge, younger women reveled in it. Now that painted nails no longer signified a ‘painted woman’, blood red became the color of the decade. On every street corner beauty salons popped up, offering massages, manicures, facials, hair coloring and makeovers.

The banners of respectability were the salons’ best advertisement, and before long treatments were so popular that there were waiting lists for appointments. In addition, the universal use of make-up brought with it new dilemmas surrounding etiquette. Even the most well-bred women could now be caught brushing their hair at the table, or leaving lipstick smears on napkins. Beauty editors were swift with their advice: put yourself together before you go out, and leave yourself alone in public.

DIY beauty thrived just as much, and every department store had huge cosmetics counters. By 1925 it was estimated that American women alone spent a staggering $1 billion on beauty products. Once, wearing make-up meant painting a questionable moral picture; now no girl worth her lipstick would be seen without The Depression of the 1930’s did nothing to curb women’s addiction to cosmetics. Like children let loose in a fantasy land, they reveled in the choice of color – a whole spectrum away from the mundane reality of their everyday existence. With green, blue and lilac coming out of Paris, the idea of wearing make-up to match your clothes and not your skin tone were born.

1930s Makeup
1930s Makeup

The healthy outdoor look soon replaced the porcelain complexions of the fickle followers of fashion. Beauty was no longer left to fate, as nearly every woman now possessed a plethora of make-up products, along with eyelash curlers, false lashes and a regular appointment with a hairdresser. Of course, exploitation touched men as well as women: once beards were deemed unfashionable, beauty houses reaped the benefits of increased sales of razors, lathers, creams and colognes.

The 1930s’ most defining beauty characteristic, however, was the Hollywood star, icon like Gloria Swanson and Greta Garbo, offering glamorous escapism from the humdrum reality of Depression. Every woman wanted to look like a star, and if she could not actually be Marlene Dietrich she could.


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