The History of Makeup – The 1920s

The use of cosmetics has dated back as far as Ancient Egypt, with makeup being popularised by Queen Cleopatra. From then, the Romans, Ancient Greeks and Aristocracy and Royalty of the Renaissance era have all be known to use makeup to assert their social class as opposed to beautify. But fast forward to the start of 20th century and the drastic change in makeup application from the muted and vastly understated Gisbon Girl look of the Edwardian era, to the highly dramatic, and somewhat theatrical flapper girl look saw women of the time assert their power through the art of makeup. By the mid 20s, makeup was fashionable and respectable.


Prior to the 1920s cosmetic usage held a huge stigma in society as it was only common for prostitutes and stage actresses to paint their face. It’s been said that with the aftermath of World War I and fewer men in society, women would wear makeup to attract men, using makeup as an aid for companionship. In addition, makeup prior to the 1920’s often contained toxic ingredients such as mercury and lead which naturally, made cosmetic usage far less popular, but with the technological advances of the 20th century, makeup began to be produced with safer ingredients which aided in the cosmetic boom. The rise of film actresses such as Clara Bow also aided in the cosmetic boom. Bow helped to redefine and normalise cosmetic usage, which lead to the every day woman experimenting with makeup.


The makeup trends of the time consisted of a heavily powdered, pale face, darkly lined dough eyes, pencil thin brows that extended downward towards the temple and a heart-shaped cupids bow paired with a dark lip colour. With the rise of cinema in the early 20th century, and the rise of actresses such as Greta Garbo, Louise Brooks and Clara Bow, women would often admire their beauty and copy it with makeup, and with the rise of flapper girls, the 1920’s was the decade which saw women purposefully applying makeup to change their appearance.

A woman’s aim in the 20s was to achieve an extremely pale, flawless face. This was often done with cold creams followed by a face powder, usually in a loose form, that was one – two shades lighter. The colour selection was very limited, usually only available in three light shades, but women often mixed colours to create dimension. Rouge, or blush as we know it today, was used to create a youthful glow. The formulas were often powder, but creams, liquids and pastes were also available and the colour selection varied from mainly pinks, but reds and oranges became popular also. Rouge was always applied in circular motions to the apples of the cheeks to create a youthful look, contrary to the more sculpted look we favour today.

Probably the most iconic eye, the 20s smoky eye. Popularised by flapper girls, this look was achieved by applying smudged kohl over the lids, into the crease and under the eyes. The 20s really saw the birth of the smoky eye we know and love today. The favoured colours during the time consisted of black, green, grey or blue and were often paired with either a black or brown kohl pencil. The popularity of eyeliner was heavily inspired by Ancient Egypt following the discovery of Tutankhamen’s Tomb in 1923. Eyeliners also acted as a brow pencils. Brows were heavily pencilled in to draw even more attention to the eyes and often drawn in lower than the natural brow to emphasise the dough eye look, which was made popular by Clara Bow. Not every woman followed the dough look as much. Although brows were still thin, some women preferred to pencil in their brows in their natural shape. Pastes or cake mascaras were also used in the brows. Cosmetic brands at the time took advantage of cinema and often used famous actresses in their ad campaigns. Actress Mildred Davis was the model used for Maybelline’s famous cake mascara which was the favoured mascara in the latter half of the 20s. Prior to this, women often lengthened their lashes with a combination of petroleum jelly, soot and kohl. The 1923 invention of eyelash curler also impacted women greatly and this became the perfect way to achieve the desired dough eye look.

Clara Bow was one of the first to create the cupids bow and soon after, every woman was striving to achieve the perfect pout. Women would achieve this look with the help of metal lip tracers, however Helena Rubenstein was the first to develop the self shaping lipstick, a lipstick shaped like a heart to help women accomplish Clara Bows signature lip. Women would purposely make their lips appear smaller by drawing emphasis to the cupids bow and by slightly over-lining the centre of the bottom lip. The sides were often left bare giving the appearance of a smaller mouth. The lipstick push up tube was a wonderful innovation in cosmetics, created in 1915 by Maurice Levy. Prior to this, lipsticks came in pots or compacts, which is why Levy’s invention was so popular, lipsticks became more compact and travel friendly. The favoured lip colours during the 20s often consisted of reds, pinks and oranges. In the early 20s, darker lips were more desirable with women using Bordeaux shades and brown reds. The latter half of the decade saw the introduction of raspberry shades and cherry reds.

The 1920s was an incredibly significant year for women. Women’s identity was established through something as simple as fashion and makeup. The highly conservative Gisbon girl was abandoned and the flapper was born. Breaking societal norms with short skirts, short hair and cigarettes.

Sources – Smithsonian, Glamourdaze, Hair and Makeup Artist Handbook.  


4 thoughts on “The History of Makeup – The 1920s

  1. I’m showcasing my makeup in a segment of a runway show in a few days and I’ve been searching the internet for history in makeup because my theme is “Makeup Through the Era’s”. I cannot begin to explain how helpful your articles are. I’m so happy that I came across these! I actually saved this to my favorites to reference back to it whenever it’s needed. I’ve learned so much from you. Thank you so much! I can’t wait to share your blog with my friends and fellow makeup artists!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow! Thank you so much. I’m so glad I could help you 🙂 I’ve been away from my blog for a while due to university but reading your comment had inspired me to start writing again! Xxx


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