The History of Makeup – The 1950s

Now that the Second World War had ended, the 1950s saw the start of The Golden Age of Makeup. Economies were re-building, new businesses were flourishing and consumers now had more money to spend on cosmetics. Just like previous decades, Hollywood and film actresses were still huge influences on the beauty industry and women everywhere, but the 1950s saw the start of something new. Unknown faces were now becoming the faces of makeup brands, rivalling actresses, who for the past 30 years, had been the only beauty brand ambassadors. The decade also saw the start of mainstream fashion modelling which in turn, saw new faces on makeup adverts and packaging. The 1950s really marked the start of the fashion and beauty industry we all know and love today. Thanks to the end of the war, the world was now prospering.

BeFunky Collage

Unlike the understated look of the 1940s, women everywhere took advantage of their new-found freedom and heavily emphasised their femininity through fashion and beauty. Now that women were no longer working hard, manual jobs their roles in society reverted back to the mother and housewife, leaving time for a proper beauty regiment. Since the end of war-time rationing, new formulas and colours became available however, due to the terrible losses the Second World War saw, there was a shortage of men. Women were encouraged to add emphasis to their femininity in order to attract a husband. And of course, this was done through makeup. During this decade every woman, regardless of finances or social status ensured a proper beauty routine was incorporated into their lives. A woman without makeup was not the norm.

Along with cinema, new influences on the everyday woman was now coming from a new medium, television. During the war, television broadcasts ceased to exist until the 1950s. Television was now the favourite pass time amongst homes in Europe and North America and beauty ads were now being broadcast. And as I mentioned earlier, cinema’s influence on beauty was still very much at its height. Post-war beauties such as Sofia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly all took the beauty industry by storm and their iconic on-screen looks were being copied worldwide. The looks of these 50s actresses defined beauty of the era. Along with TV and Film, magazines were still big influences amongst the masses. Print publications such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Photoplay, Cosmopolitan and Life Magazine often had actresses on the front covers as well as beauty guides inside. However, magazines often urged women to ignore beauty trends set by Hollywood and urged them to apply makeup that would emphasise natural beauty and men agreed. They preferred the natural look of the 1940s as opposed to a heavily sculpted face. But regardless, women were still experimenting with new colours and techniques.


Left – Marilyn Monroe. Centre – Elizabeth Taylor. Right – Sofia Loren 1953 – 1957

Another influential medium of the 1950s was art. The decade saw the rise of pin-up girl artwork as well as pin-up artists. Pin-up girls rose to fame during the 1930s and 1940s with pin-up artwork often being painted on the side of fighter planes during the war. But the art really took off in the mainstream media during the 1950s. Pin-up girls became huge beauty icons at the time as they depicted American Beauty, which women everywhere sought after. Famous pin-up artists of the time included Alberto Vargas, George Petty and Gil Elvgren. Elvgren was one of the most influential artists in the 1950s, taking inspiration from Hollywood scarlet’s and painted his models with a nipped in waist, D-cup breasts and long legs, along with innocent facial expressions, dolly like eyes and pouty red lips. All of which were beauty ideals of the time.


Gil Elvgren Pin-up artwork – circa 1950s

With all the factors influencing 1950s beauty that I’ve mentioned, the trends of the time took a very different approach than the 1920s to the 1940s. The previous three decades all had an element or two in common while in 1950s took beauty in a completely different direction. With that said, a pale complexion was still a common occurrence during the decade, which was very different from the sun-kissed glow the 1940s saw. But unlike the 1920s and 30s a theatrical white base was no longer desirable, instead the desired foundations shades were more natural and often warm in undertone. Green based powders were also now in circulation in order to correct unwanted redness, some could say the 50s saw the birth of colour correcting. Natural coloured rouge was applied lightly to the apples of the cheeks and brows were full and dark! However, they were still kept more natural, to a certain extent. Eyes were minimal. Women drew emphasis on the lashes more than eyeshadow but winged eyeliner became incredibly popular, more so than the 1940s. And finally, a 1950s woman would draw lot’s of emphasis to her lips which were usually overdrawn for a fuller look.

For a woman in the 1950s, creating a flawless base way key. Natural was a thing of the past and the “mask effect” was in. This was created with heavy foundations and the preferred formula of the time was cream. Makeup manufactures began incorporating skin care properties into their foundations as women were now obsessed with preserving youth and achieving a youthful glow. Makeup conglomerates such as Elizabeth Arden, Max Factor and Helena Rubinstein were creating their own formulas and competing to ensure their product was the favourite. As opposed to the 1940s where natural skin was preferred, these cream foundation created a blank canvas for a woman to re-structure her face. Although cream foundations were popular, some women opted for liquids, cake formulations and Max Factors Pan Cake Makeup powder foundation was still incredibly popular, selling millions worldwide throughout the decade. As I mentioned earlier, a pale face was popular, although not as popular as it was during the 20s and 30s. Women often applied foundations that matched them closely, however warmer undertones were favoured. Peach and beige toned foundations were the popular choice and were often powdered with a powder with a similar undertone. A matte face made a reappearance during the 1950s and in 1953, Max Factor released their Creme Puff powder foundation which mean’t a woman could create a flawless matte base all in one go.


Vintage magazine beauty ads from Max Factor and Elizabeth Arden circa 1950 

Rouge in the 1950s wasn’t the focal point of a woman’s face and applied to give a natural flush. Unlike the 30s and 40s when blush was used to aid in achieving a contoured face, in the 1950s it was used sparingly and the purpose of rouge was to warm up the face. So adding a little dimension and normality back into the face because foundations cancelled out every flaw and imperfection. The favoured shades during the decade was pinks, peaches, corals and pastels. Pastels dominated the 1950s in every aspect of women’s fashion, beauty and even home decor. Audrey Hepburn once said that she “believed in pink!”.  A prominent way a woman’s love of pastels came through was with rouge. It was applied mainly to the apples of the cheeks but could also be applied on the cheek bone, temples and forehead to warm the face up. The favoured formulas of the time included creams but powders were also widely used.

Eyeshadow was also used very sparingly and often just the one shade would be applied. However, film actresses would usually have a little crease work done whereas the everyday woman would use one shade all over the lid and blended outward to elongate the eye. Usually, women would apply shades that matched their eye colour however pastels were still incredibly popular and shades varied from greys, brown, gold and pastel blue, green and purple. For evening looks, shadow shades would often be matches to accessories and attire more than the eye colour and rouge would also be used as eyeshadow in some cases. The decade also saw the birth of new formulas such as shimmer shadows which were created from ingredients such as guanine, this ingredient was made with fish scales! Revlon also released the first eyeshadow palette trio with shimmer shades in order to help women to create specific looks.



While eyeshadow was kept minimal, the focus of the eye was lashes and liner. The 1950s saw the birth of the tube mascara we all know today. Beauty giants Helena Rubinstein and Max Factor both claim to be the pioneer’s of the modern tube mascara but nevertheless, mascara was a staple in 1950s beauty. Cake and block mascara was still used but due to the innovation of tube mascara, this became a popular formula. Upper lash emphasis was popular during the time and the lower lashes would be left bare. The lashes would be generously coated to elongate the eye and add femininity. The decade also saw the start of coloured mascaras with the classic blacks and browns, but the addition of navy, emerald and purple took woman’s beauty in an editorial direction. Along with beautifully luscious lashes, winged eyeliner became increasingly popular thanks to the influence of Hollywood stars such as Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and Sofia Loren. The preferred formula was pencils and a slightly winged out eye line helped create a beautiful almond-shaped eye as well as establishing the retro, pin-up look we all know and love today. The cat eyeliner was a very simple, yet effective innovation in women’s femininity and due to this, eyeshadow was less popular. Black eyeliner was the most popular shade, however browns, greys, purples, greens and blues were very fashionable.

Probably the most iconic feature of the 1950s, the full brows. The heavy brow during the start of the decade became so popular because they were so different. Brows of the 20s and 30s were pencil thin and the 40s were still very thin in comparison. It was new, interesting and took women’s beauty in a new direction. Actresses such as Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor became beauty icons and known for their deep, dark, thick brows. Soon after every woman was doing their best to achieve the same results. Brows were often pencilled, as pencil was the preferred formula, in a darker shade. Darker than the natural colour and heavy emphasis was placed on the arch. The front of the brow was strong and tapered off a lot lighter. While thick brows were the trend in Hollywood, some women took a more natural approach and filled in what they already had. However, their brows were still a lot thicker compared to previous decades and women took care to ensure their brows were always groomed. The latter half of the decade saw the transition of the softer brow. Brows were no longer being pencilled in so heavily and dark, however they were still well-defined.


Left – Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday 1953. Thick, dark brows. Right – Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s 1961 with a much softer brow

The final product the 1950s woman used in order to complete her look was of course, lipstick. Just as it was in the 1940s, lipstick was an incredibly popular product during the 1950s and the favoured shade was a classic red. A 1951 survey saw that more than two thirds of women now wore lipstick. A beautiful lip really was the epitome of 1950s beauty. Lip liners entered the market in the 1940s but became increasingly popular during the 50s because it was common for women to slightly over draw their lips to achieve a voluptuous shape. In addition, the favoured shape was a soft rounded lip with a matte finish, however a glossier lip was also on trend and would often be achieved with a little petroleum jelly. While red lips were the dominate shade, different shades of red were often used depending on hair colour. For example, women with blonde, red or medium brown hair would often wear orange based red lipstick, whereas women with dark brown to black hair would wear purple based reds. However, other shades became popular such as pinks, corals and pink based reds. The 1950s also saw new innovations in formula with the first ever smudge proof lipstick being released in 1950, titled No-Smear Lipstick. Chemist Hazel Bishop created a smudge proof, kiss proof formula that promised long-lasting wear. Her long lasting lip stick was so successful that she created Hazel Bishop Inc. the following year. In 1950, the year of its release sales amassed to an impressive $50,000 but by 1953 sales had reached a staggering $10,000,000! To put that into perspective, that’s almost $100,000,000 in 2017!


Vintage Revlon Lipstick Ad circa 1950s and Marilyn Monroe’s iconic red lip 

The 1950s was a remarkable era for women’s fashion and beauty. Due to the end of WWII, technologies advanced, consumerism boomed as did the economy and brands were now able to create innovative beauty products and help women everywhere feel their best. The 1950s also marked the start of the beauty and fashion industry we all know and love today by using fashion models in beauty adverts. New brands were being born such as Shiseido in 1957,  Clarins in 1954 and Biotherm in 1952. It really was one of the most influential decades in recent history.

Sources – Glamourdaze, Alison Barbera, Hair and Makeup Artist Handbook, Vintage Dancer


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