The History of Makeup – The 1940s

By the time the 1940s had arrived, the cosmetic industry was booming. Brands such as Coty and Tangee were now rivalling some of the biggest names in beauty that had been around since the 1920s. Brands such as Max Factor, Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein and Maybelline were stepping up their makeup game in order to remain in the beauty hierarchy. The 1940s, much like previous decades was incredibly glamorous and cinema and magazines were still a major influence on women everywhere. But the 40s was one of the most devastating decades in recent history. The onset of World War II took a enormous toll on the worlds population economically, politically and emotionally, but regardless of the social and political constraints the decade saw, beauty amongst women was still desired and achieved. Much like the Depression Era of the 1930s, women still took pride in their appearance in spite of the economic struggle the world was facing.


Rationing and shortages in WWII caused huge problems for people worldwide. On that list was cosmetics along with food, fashion and hygiene products. Even smaller, seemingly unimportant products were in shortage such as hair accessories like clips and pins as well as cosmetic packaging. Materials such as metal and plastic were needed for the War which meant beauty products were no longer able to be packaged in these materials. Beauty brands at the time, such as Revlon even began manufacturing first aid kits for the US Navy. During the height of the war, finances amongst households were sparse, so women would often create their own makeup from ingredients at home. Not all cosmetic materials were being rationed but in an attempt to save money, ingredients such as coal dust and Vaseline was mixed to create mascara, beetroot was also used as homemade lip stain and some rather gruesome ingredients such as Rabbit skin was used as a make shift powder puff. Eventually, cosmetics hit stores again and due to the incredibly high demand, women were often queuing for hours to get their hands on them. Some women even resorted to theatrical makeup from the 1920s and 30s which were found in old second hand stores.

While the men were at War, women in the 1940s were now doing the jobs of their fathers, brothers and husbands. These jobs were often hard and manual so makeup was important to preserve femininity. In fact, women were encouraged to wear lipstick as it was seen as a morale boost for the nation and it’s estimated that 90% of women wore lipstick during the 1940s. The encouragement of lipstick was used both sides of the Atlantic and women would kiss their letters to their men at War. These lipstick prints were the morale boost the soldiers needed at such a dark time.

The popular beauty trends of the time took a more natural approach as opposed it’s 20s and 30s counterparts. Complexions ranged from pale to a sun kissed glow which was achieved by applying a foundation one shade darker. Brows were pencilled in much thicker and more arched, eyeshadow was applied sparingly due to the ingredient and material shortages but medium browns and beige’s were the preferred everyday colours. The 1940s also saw the birth of the winged liner look we all know and love today. Cheeks were kept more natural and understated with rosy shades and lips were bright, bold, beautiful and filled into the “Hunters Bow” shape which was round and full, inspired by Hollywood. Famous film stars of the time included Joan Crawford, Veronica Lake, Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner, all of which heavily influenced the beauty industry.

In the 1940s, a flawless base was heavily sought after, however, unlike the 1930s, a full coverage matte face wasn’t the only option. Foundations were now being formulated to have a “sheen” to them in order to achieve a natural look. With Max Factor’s Pan Cake makeup success in Hollywood during the late 30s, a huge demand for this product off screen arose. Pan Cake Foundation was incredibly popular throughout the 1940s due to it’s compact packaging and the ease of re-applying throughout the day. Powder compacts in the decade had now replaced the loose powders of the 1920s and 1930s due to their messiness and inconvenience. Now that women were working masculine jobs, makeup had to be on the go. Later in the 40s Max Factor released their iconic Pan Stik. A creamy stick foundation which was favoured in Hollywood and later, amongst everyday women. This foundation helped women everywhere achieve their glowy but natural skin. The preferred foundation shade of the time included going one shade darker to achieve a sun kissed glow. Helena Rubinstein released her Beach Tan Foundation and matching powder which was incredibly popular. A powdered base was still very popular and often came in pressed form in a compact. Women would often powder a shade or two lighter to help contour the face as well as bringing some normality back to the skin, as foundation shades were often too dark. Luckily face powder wasn’t affected during War Time rationing and was still readily available.

Rouge was still very popular throughout the 1940s, however it was applied very sparingly on the apples of the cheeks and blended up towards the cheekbones to further enhance a natural face, as well as defining the bone structure, slightly different to the dramatic 30s rouge which covered the majority of the cheek. Although blush wasn’t as readily available as other products, particularly in the UK and Europe, if a woman wasn’t able to find a blush, she’d use her lipstick as rouge as well as her contour. Lipstick was a very good option as it had far more staying power than an actual blush. However, if a woman could get a blusher, it was common to apply a moist rouge (cream blush) and set it with a powdered rouge. Pressed blushes weren’t always necessary as the natural look was most desired and cream rouges would look the most natural. The favoured shades at the time included peaches, corals and pinks. The idea was match the blush undertones to the skins undertones to ensure makeup looked as natural as possible.

Unlike the 1920s and 1930s, not much emphasis was placed on the eyes again, due to War Time shortages, eyeshadows was incredibly difficult to come by. As well as shortages, simplicity was important, especially now women were working manual jobs. However, a little eye definition was still desired and on a day to day basis all that would be used was mascara. Some preferred just a light coating of Vaseline on the lashes but by the 1940s, new mascara formulations had been produced. The classic mascara cake was still very much in use but liquids and pastes were now available. Women would often mix these with either a drop of water or spit to create lot’s of lash definition. Eyeshadows were reserved to nighttime and the colours would often be very neutral. Colours would match the eye colour so a blue eyed girl would wear blue-grey shades and brown shades would be used on hazel, brown and black eyed girls. Access to coloured eyeshadows became far easier after the war but during the first half of the 40s, if access to eyeshadow wasn’t possible, women would create their own out of ingredients such as burning a candle under a saucer which would create a soot like mixture. This was mixed with petroleum jelly and would be used to create a soft smokey eye, only for the nighttime. Eye liner became popular towards the end of the decade with the rise of the film genre film-noir and liner was applied to the top lash line only, very thin and ever so slightly flicked out. Prior to this, liner was seen as very fake and not favoured amongst most women.

Brows had taken a very different turn in the 1940s, gone were the days of plucking your brows to oblivion and drawing them back on pencil thin. The 1940’s brow was a lot softer than the 20s or 30s brow and women often had their natural hairs. Instead they would be neatly groomed and only stray hairs were tweezed. However, a fuller, arched or rounded brow was the favoured shape and would be achieved with the aid of a brow or eye liner pencil which would be one shade darker than the hair. Some women preferred to define the brows with just petroleum jelly, so you also could say that the 1940s saw the very first brow gel.


The 1940s lip was the most iconic and most loved makeup item amongst women of the time. If nothing else was applied, a bright red lip would be on a 1940s woman’s face. As I mentioned earlier, lipstick helped boost soldiers morale as well as women’s back home. During the early to mid 40’s, red was the favoured shade, everything from classic bright reds, blue toned reds, pink red, orange red and cherry red. Lipsticks were nearly always matte, however a little petroleum jelly would be applied for a glossy lip. After the war, lighter lip colours were being introduced, colours such as light pinky reds. By 1948, lip pencils also became increasingly popular and helped women to achieve the full mouthed, Hunters Bow lip made popular by film actresses such as Joan Crawford. The Hunter’s Bow lip was another innovative creation by makeup genius Max Factor who created the shape specifically for the silver screen. The dainty, understated lip contours of the 1920s and 30s were long gone. The Hunter’s Bow lip meant a woman’s mouth would be deep, full and rounded, and women would over-line if necessary. Actresses Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman opted against the Hunter’s Bow lip and chose to leave their naturally thin lips as they were as they preferred the natural look.

The 1940s is one of the most recreated vintage looks today and one of the most beautiful. Despite all of the economic and emotional struggles that came with WWII, women during the time still managed to look beautifully put together and defined the natural face. 1940s women wasn’t going to let another World War stop the advances of fashion and beauty.

Sources – Glamourdaze, Historical Honey, Hair and Makeup Artist Handbook, Vintage Dancer

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