The History of Makeup – The 1930s

With the rise of Hollywood in the 1930’s, actresses became a huge influence in the beauty industry, changing the way women made themselves up. Cinema wasn’t the only factor that impacted the beauty industry during the time. Advances in technology, changing fashions and social issues such as The Great Depression further impacted beauty trends and how it was achieved by the everyday woman.

The stock market crash of 1929 changed the world drastically with the USA at the forefront. The rich lost their wealth overnight and the vast majority of US was now living in poverty, losing their homes, losing the little they had and relying on soup kitchens to keep their children fed. The last thing on any woman’s mind was makeup. During the Depression era people showing any sign of wealth was seen as flashy and in poor taste. This also included fashion and beauty. But surprisingly, as the 30s progressed, women were still making the effort to look glam, just like actresses in Hollywood. Designers of the time began creating affordable fashion with longer hemlines, slim waistlines, lower heels and this also included less makeup. Makeup was not a necessity during the Depression which is why a 1930s woman’s face looked softer as opposed to the average woman in the 20s who wore a dramatic vampy eye. Another element of The Great Depression that impacted beauty was employment. Prior to the stock market crash the male employment rate was much higher than females. Men were primary sources of income in a typical household and when the stock market crashed, lay-offs particularly in manufacturing industries were at an all time high. Due to this women were forced to find work wherever they could, mainly within the service industry which in turn made beauty less important in the everyday woman’s life. With that said, beauty was still important, not like it was during the 20s but regardless of the financial turmoil the USA was in, American women still found the time to pamper themselves.


1930s makeup at first glance doesn’t look too far from the style of the 1920s with similarly shaped pencil thin brows, a pale complexion and a prominent cupids bow. But there are some big differences for the reasons I’ve stated above. Regardless of the economic struggle the USA found it’s self in, by 1930 the cosmetic industry was the fourth largest in North America. Just like the 1920s, film actresses were huge inspirations for women everywhere. Cinema was still a new medium and actresses were incredibly recognised, more so than today. Prominent film stars of the time included Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Mae West, Carole Lombard and Constance Bennett. These women’s looks were often copied and seen as the epitome of beauty. Many magazines such as Photoplay would include guides on how to achieve “makeup of the stars” along with help from makeup artists of the time such as Max Factor. 1930s makeup was far more Hollywood influenced as opposed to the 1920s and the decade saw the birth of brands such as Lancome, Elizabeth Arden and Revlon, making cosmetics far more accessible that the previous decade.


Women in the 1920s used makeup to make a statement, by the 30s makeup was used to draw emphasis to a feminine face and was far more refined than the makeup we saw in the 1920s. The latter half of the 1920s saw the transition of a softer eye. The eye that became the popular look in the upcoming decade. The 1920s vamp was over and the 30s saw the introduction of lighter, more neutral shades for the eye. Colours such as grey, brown, blue, green and violet were popular at the time. The colour a woman wore on her eyelids also depended on her hair colour, for instance, blondes favoured blues, greens and violet shades whereas brunettes tend to wear browns and purples. Darker shadows such as brown and grey would often be applied into the crease to create the highly desired deep set eyes, a very favoured look amongst film actresses. It was also common for a woman to apply petroleum jelly all over her lid to achieve a glossy eye that mimicked that of film actresses such as Greta Garbo.

In the 1930s, technologies were advancing and new ingredients were being introduced into cosmetics such as sunscreens and products were now being made hypoallergenic. New formulas were being created constantly and cream eyeshadows was one of them. Thanks to Max Factor and Elizabeth Arden, women in the 1930s loved cream eyeshadows. Cream eyeshadows helped women to create a glossy lid without using petroleum jelly, and they could create a colourful glossy lid. The desired eye shape changed from the dough-eyed look in the 1920s to a pear shape to make the eyes appear rounder, shadow and liner would be applied by sweeping lines outwards to enlarge the eye. This was often done with a kohl eyeliner that was applied tight to the lash line and applied thicker in the centre of the lid to enhance the eyes round shape. Eyeliner could also be applied in a triangle shape to contour the eye, further enhancing feminine features. Eyebrows were vital in further enhancing the eyes round shape. They were either plucked to almost nothing or removed entirely and painted back in extremely thin and more of rounded shape but still extended towards the temple. Brows were often coated in petroleum jelly or olive oil to maintain a glossy look and due to the influence of cinema, brows were kept thin because they convey more emotion on screen.

Emphasis on eyelashes also took off more in the 1930s thanks to inventions of the cake mascara and eyelash curler in the 1920s. False eyelashes also began to become popular and were often worn by both film actresses and everyday women. Mascara was also kept too the top eyelashes and bottom lashes were completely bare, this was done to keep the attention focused on the upper lashes as full lashes were a must for the 1930s women.

The pale complexion popularised in the 1920s and was still fashionable throughout the 1930s, however women in this decade began using foundations with more of a natural shade range such as ivory or ivory with a rosy undertone. The popular formulas were mainly powders as women still preferred a full coverage matte finish, similar to the 1920s base. Later in the decade Max Factor created Pan-Cake Makeup. This foundation was made of water and powders and pressed into a compact. This product became the most popular base product of the decade and replaced greasepaint’s and heavier powders. The ultimate goal for a 1930s woman was create a flawless, matte base. Rouges in the 1930s were extremely popular, just like it was in the 1920s, however it applied very differently and the decade saw the start of contouring. Unlike contouring with bronzers or shades within that range, light and bright pinks, raspberries, reds and even brown shades towards the end of the 30s. Rouge was applied lightly throughout the day and heavier for nighttime. It was applied in a triangle shape higher on the face and covered most of the cheek, which achieved the contoured look, very different to the 20s circular rouge. The favoured formulas were creams and powders. Creams mainly due to the muted look many women of the time sought after.

Lips in the 1930s weren’t as theatrical as the 1920s, an emphasised cupids bow was still very desirable but not to the extent of the 20s. Lips were much softer, elongated and emphasis was often done to the top lip. The cupids bow was rounded out all the way to the corners of the mouth and the entire top lip would often be slightly over-drawn, really elongating the lips. Lips were made to look full with the help of contouring and this became known as the rosebud lip, very different to the petite 1920s flapper lip. During the 30s, lipstick was incredibly popular, if not the most popular makeup product with the Daily Mail reporting that in 1931, 1,500 lipsticks were being sold for every 1 purchased in 1921. – 20th Century London. The favoured colours of the time included deep, raspberry reds, maroons and oranges. Formulations in the decade began to improve with the addition of bromo-acids, castor oil and more vibrant pigments which led to the birth of “long-lasting” lipsticks. These ingredients also aided in the glossy makeup trends of the time as lipsticks were very shiny due to the emollients now in the formula. The 1930s also saw the start of lip glosses which were created first by Max Factor in 1937 and were still sold in a traditional lip bullet. The difference was the pigmentation, lipsticks had far more colour pay off. It wasn’t until later in the 20th century that lip glosses began to be packaged in the tubes were all familiar with.

The 1930s was a bittersweet decade, people were so poor they were losing their homes and were starving but they pushed through and didn’t lose life’s simple pleasures. As the West worked tirelessly to regain their economy with new cosmetic brands such as Boots No 7, Lancome, Almay, Gala of London and Payot being established, women, although poor, still strove to look their best and did it in a classy, feminine manner that radiated beauty and sophistication. A truly iconic era for beauty.

Sources – Glamourdaze, Millihelen, Fashion Gone Rogue, The History of Skincare

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