Makeup was the great women’s revolution of the 1920s. Before that decade, women didn’t much use makeup, both for a question of respectability and because cosmetics were actually health hazards. But in the 1920s, makeup became acceptable and glamorous, and every young woman used it.
Before WWI, nice girls didn’t use noticeable makeup. The feminine ideal of beauty was the natural look. Women might use some makeup (sometimes bought secretly) to enhance their looks, provided it was almost unnoticeable. But this was done rarely, if only because it was such a mess to put it on.
At that time, only promiscuous women (prostitutes and actresses) would regularly use noticeable makeup because it was necessary for their profession. But everybody knew that most cosmetics included dangerous substances in their recipes (like mercury and arsenic), and the extensive use was indeed dangerous for the health.
But after WWI, a few things happened:
1. Makeup itself became less dangerous.
Thanks to many technical advances, it was possible to change the recipe for producing makeup, substituting dangerous substances with harmless ones.
2. Makeup became easier to apply.
The compact and the lipstick tube that we now take for granted appeared in the 1910s, just before WWI. These inventions made applying makeup easier, and women took advantage of it. Touching up one’s makeup in public became not only acceptable but even appealing, part of a woman’s charm.
3. Makeup became socially acceptable.
While before the 20th century, actresses were still considered promiscuous and altogether shady, from the late 1910s, with the popularisation of film, actresses turned into beauty icons and young people’s models. All actors wore makeup. It was necessary to look good on camera. But as actors and actresses became popular, and models of beauty, young people started to use makeup in the same way they saw in films. That beauty ideal then spread on all media, especially in magazines, and soon looking like a movie star was the way to go.
4. Sex appeal became a thing.
As women sought more freedom in their personal life and in the choosing of a life partner, attracting that partner became part of the game.
While before the war, choosing a suitable husband for a young woman was (largely) a family matter, after the war, young people’s expectations regarding marital life changed quite drastically. Young people didn’t want their families to make choices for them. They wanted to choose their life partner.
Therefore attracting a suitable partner became one of the most important social activities for young people (both men and women), and to do so, one had to put every tactic on the ground. Looking good was at the top of the list. Having ‘it’ was one of the most appreciated characteristics for young people, where ‘it’ was what today we call ‘sex appeal’. And what better way to show ‘it’ than looking like a movie star?Kohl and All That Jazz (Enter the New Woman #AtoZChallenge 2022) In the 1920s, makeup became safer, more ocmfortable to put on, socilly acceptable and even glamorous. Every young woman used it #history #WomenHistory Click To Tweet
The battle against the 1920s makeup
Like the bob, makeup was extremely controversial in the 1920s, and a lot was done to persuade young women not to use it.
Magazines often presented articles from doctors informing of how makeup was dangerous for women’s health. While this was still true to a certain degree, makeup was certainly much safer than it had been only a decade before.
On the other hand, advice on how to apply makeup also abounded in magazines, together with home remedies to produce one’s own cosmetics. Makeup was now mass-produced but was still quite costly for many women.
But also, makeup was then relatively new, and many women didn’t know how to use it.
With the white face, the round red cheeks, the black eyes and the red mouth, makeup might very easily become clownish when unskillfully applied.
Detractors were swift to point out how cosmetics could turn a beautiful girl into a clown, and they did use these tactics to dissuade girls from using it.
Besides, young people generally accepted makeup, but both men and women didn’t hesitate to criticise girls who used makeup too heavily or unskillfully. Not only because it was distasteful but because they gave reasons to detractors to cry out.
It may be odd to think of an entire generation of girls who didn’t know how to apply makeup and could not ask their mothers’ advice, but that is what happened in the 1920s because makeup was so new. Advice could be found in many magazines, but girls who could not afford them had to resort to more experienced peers and their own devices.
Eabinovitch-Foz, Einan. Dressed for Freedom : The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism. University of Illinois Press, Champaign, Illinois, United States of America, 2021
Fass, Paula S., The Damned and the Beautiful. American Youth in the 1920s. Oxford University Press, New York, 1977
BFI – In pictures: Makeup in the age of the flapper
Silent-ology – Silent Film Makeup: What Was It Really Like?
The British Newspaper Archive – The Lipstick Revolution of the 1920s
Smithsonian Magazine – The History of the Flapper, Part 2: Makeup Makes a Bold Entrance
Vintage Dancer – 1920s Makeup and Beauty History
Glamour Daze – A Brief History of 1920s Makeup
I usually don’t wear any makeup besides eye makeup, nail polish, and occasionally fun lipstick (black, blue, green, purple), since I’m so tomboyish, but I’ve long viewed good makeup application as an artform with the body as a canvas. It’s hard to believe that makeup has only been seen as respectable and mainstream for a bit over 100 years. One of the folders in my photo library is for vintage makeup advertisements. It really has come a long way since the 1910s!
That0s true. And what I find really odd is a generation of women who didn’t really know how to use makeup, and therefore, experimenting. It sounds so strange.
Ronel Janse van Vuuren
I still remember learning how to apply eyeliner — it was quite fun, if a bit intimidating bringing something so close to my eyes. LOL. I’m glad that makeup isn’t just safe nowadays, but also that hypoallergenic lines exist for sensitive skin.
I’ve never been so good at making myself up, so I can relate to the flappers, in some way, LOL!
Makeup sure got a bad review in books written around the 1920s. I never really got the hang of it myself and then in the 1960s it was ok to let it go. Which I’ve mostly done.
I do love makeup, but since I never use it much, I’m not particularly good (or consistent) with it.
It’s not surprising that make-up evolved as a tool to assist in attracting a mate. It’s just funny that something so common place now was once considered tawdry and ‘fast’.
TRue, eh? I like the 1920s because in so many ways it was the time when things we take for granted today started moving toward that state. And so, it’s that time of passage, that liminal place where the past and the present meet. I wonder if thisis why I find it so apt for fantasy 🙂
This is so much fun to think about. And how to a certain degree it still affects us today. Like, many men will still say “I like a girl who looks natural”, not realizing “natural look” is still makeup. 😀 But at least there is no arsenic in it!
The Multicolored Diary
LOL! That’s true. I suppose that some thinking models are hard to die out.
Giving make-up an unsavoury connotation and dissuading women from using it is still happening in India where the only acceptable make-up is kohl to the eyes. Kohl is traditionally believed to be cooling for the eyes since its made with soot and camphor. Bizarre how everyone has to get involved in how a woman wants to present herself.
True eh? And personally, I think that, with different modalities, this is happening In Europe and American too. Women are still told what they should look like and how they should behave. And often this is disguised as a way of empowerment.
Anne E.G. Nydam
Like so many of the topics you’re covering, this is two-edged. When everyone wants to dictate how women should look, that’s not freedom, whether you’re saying women can’t wear makeup or you’re saying they have to wear it to be beautiful. As for myself, I never wear any make-up at all, unless I’m “playing dress-up,” like going to a really fancy party, (Not that I’ve been to a fancy party in a long time now! lol), or sometimes if I’m giving a lecture, and then I think of it as “stage makeup.”
True, eh? Almost everything regarding the New Woman is two-edged. But that’s part of the fascination of the sunject. And of history 🙂