1920s Makeup and The Cosmetic Industry

by Karen

1920s Makeup & The Cosmetic Industry

Today, many women wouldn’t dream of leaving the house without at least a little bit of makeup on. Makeup is a mainstay in nearly every single boudoir and multi-million dollar industry that many people couldn’t imagine living without. It’s often surprising to discover that makeup has only been considered “appropriate” by society for the last 100 years. There are many factors that went into makeup’s rise in popularity. Safe to say, the Roaring Twenties were the decade when makeup and other beauty products became something that women everywhere wanted to have. Read on to learn more about how the 1920s makeup essentially gave birth to the makeup industry as we know it today.

The History of Makeup

During the Victorian Era and the early parts of the 1900s, makeup was not something that “good” or “nice” women wore. Instead, the fresh faced Gibson Girl was considered society’s beauty standard until the late 1910s. The only women who wore lipstick, blush, and eye shadow were stage performers and prostitutes. Because of this, makeup was associated with inappropriate and lurid behavior, which had no place in society.

Makeup & The Movie Industry

Makeup started to become popular with everyday women in Europe at the turn of the 20th century. The practice didn’t catch on in America, however, until the movie industry made a huge splash in society. Silver screen actresses were revered by women in society, and more and more wanted to look like Clara Bow and other beautiful women. The one person who jump-started the makeup industry in the 1920s was a man named Max Factor. A popular Hollywood makeup artist, he is said to have invented the classic “Cupid’s Bow” look that became wildly popular among women in America during the Roaring Twenties. He also coined the term “makeup,” which became a popular alternative to the word “cosmetics.” Soon, department stores like Woolworth’s and Marshall Field's opened in major cities across the country. Their beauty counters allowed women to try products before they purchased them, which made them even more accessible to the modern woman. Dedicated retail space also meant there was room for more products and manufacturers. This led to prices falling on beauty products, making them more affordable for the average woman.

1920s Makeup Trends and Products

While some may now come in slightly different packaging, many of the beauty products that Flappers and other women used during the 1920s are still around today. The biggest difference between makeup from the 1920s and modern makeup is how it is used. Women during the Roaring Twenties had a very different “look” than women have today. Here is a list of popular beauty products from the 1920s as well as how they were applied by women during this time period.


1920s makeup infographic Lipstick - originally known as “lip pomade” - was first sold in pots or tins. But Maurice Levy’s invention of the retractable metal tube-style lipstick container in 1915 changed the way that lipstick would be forever applied. Lipstick during this decade was sold in many colors, ranging from shades of light to dark pink. In the 1920s, however, dark red became the most popular lipstick shade. This lasted until the end of the decade, when lighter colors came back into style. How It Was Applied One of the most iconic looks from the 1920s was the “Cupid’s Bow” style lip. Women wanted to create small, heavily exaggerated lips that looked feminine and almost child-like in appearance. This look was created by first lining the lips into a shape that exaggerated the peaks of the top lip. Then, red lipstick was applied to fill in the outline. As this look got even more popular with the masses, lipstick stencils became available and promised the perfect Cupid’s Bow every time.


Having a flawless complexion was of the utmost importance to women during the 1920s. Beauty products like Cold Creams and other products that were said to erase wrinkles and fight blemishes were frequently applied to the face in the evening. To supplement these products and create a flawless, fresh-faced look during the day, women in the 1920s used face powders. Sold in a limited range of colors that ranged from a pale “natural” to a shade of light gold called “brunette.” How It Was Applied Pressed face powder came packaged in compacts, while more loose facial powders were sold in colorful metal tins. Women used a large powder puff to apply this powder to their entire face. While we think of contouring as a modern idea, it wasn’t unheard of in the 1920s. Women sometimes used multiple colors on different parts of their face to create a more contoured effect.


Although it was called “rouge” in the 1920s, we would today refer to this beauty product as “blush.” In the 1920s, rouge was often sold individually packaged in dainty little containers. Today, here are dozens of shades of blush to choose from. Women in the 1920s, however, had far fewer options. Often, rouge was only available in a few different colors - most of which were shades of pink. With that said, there were also orange variations of rouge that were more appropriate for darker or golden skin. How It Was Applied In the 1920s, rouge was sold in tins, jars, or compacts and could be purchased in the form of either a dry powder, liquid, or paste. It was liberally applied in circles to the cheeks. Unlike today, Flappers wanted to achieve a more flushed appearance. During the day, women often also tried to closely match the color of their rouge to the color of their lipstick.


Silent film actresses had dark, smoky eyes in their movie scenes. When going out for a night on the town, Flappers wanted to emulate this dark, soft eyes their favorite movie stars wore. Dark black, brown, and even purple eyeshadow were the most popular colors used by women during this time period. Casual eyeshadow didn’t really exist. Instead, women used a darker shade of face powder to highlight her eyes during the day. How It Was Applied Not unlike today, dark eyeshadow was applied carefully and liberally to create a smoldering evening-appropriate look. Flappers also used eyeliner pencils to help them achieve this dramatic, smoky eye effect.


To put the finishing touches on their smoky eye look, Flappers - just like women today - turned to mascara. Also known as an “eyelash beautifier,” mascara during the 1920s looked slightly different than the tubes we are used to in the modern era. Instead, it was sold as either a liquid, paste, or in a solid block. Makeup manufacturers spent lots of money promoting this product during the 1920s, as is seen through various advertisements for mascara at the time. How It Was Applied A little brush was with flat bristles was used to apply the paste or liquid directly to the lash. When creating a dramatic, smoky eye look, mascara was applied to both the top and bottom lashes. In 1923, another product made having dramatic lashes even more achievable. The metal eyelash curler from a brand called Kurlash became a must-have item for women at the time. Its design is not much different from contemporary eyelash curlers sold today.


Flappers were very particular about their eyebrows. Much like other popular makeup trends at the time, how women wore their eyebrows was heavily influenced by their favorite movie actresses. Long, arched, and incredibly thin eyebrows were all the rage, and many women started plucking theirs to achieve this desired look. How It Was Applied To create this “doe eyed” effect, women would heavily pluck their eyebrows using tweezers. Then, they would fill in the brow using an eye pencil or mascara so that they were more defined. Some women even went as far as shaving off their eyebrows completely so they could draw on the pencil-thin line they desired.

Nail Polish

Having polished nails was another trend that rose to popularity during the 1920s. While people colored their nails in many societies throughout time, the 1920s were when the first nail lacquers and liquid nail varnishes were invented and manufactured. In 1922, a brand called Cutex sold a line of both liquid and powder nail polishes. Other companies soon followed their lead and the nail polish industry as we know it was created. How It Was Applied The most popular nail colors during the 1920s were shades of pink, rose, and red. The “half-moon manicure” was the manicure of choice for fashionable women during the Jazz Age. To create this look, they painted the middle part of their nails but left the tips white. Sometimes, they would even apply a white pencil underneath their nails to brighten up the tip and create a more eye-catching contrast. This was no doubt a precursorto the popular “French manicure.”

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