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Adapting 1920s makeup for our times

Updated on September 27, 2015

A revolution in terms of availability

During the 1910s, slowly makeup became socially acceptable again, after an almost 100-year ban. Movies played a big part on this process, as women would want to look like the stars they would see on the screen. Movies demanded dramatic and contrasting makeup, as they were black-and-white and also silent, having to compensate for the lack of sound with exxagerated expressions. Also, new, less toxic and damaging products were fastly developed during this era, making wearing makeup safe. Soon makeup was again an indispensable part of women's attire.


Flappers were rebel, liberated girls, who would experiment with the latest and most daring fashions, wore short skirts, and lots of makeup. They could be seen applying makeup in public (that was still scandalous), smoking, and drinking at bars and jazz clubs. Altough most women were well-behaved and did not go so far, all 1920s fashion was impacted by the influence of flappers, so a bit of light makeup was perfectly OK. The old Victorian style was still in vogue, but more and more women adopted the modern, dramatic styles. By the 1930s that would be the norm.


In the 1920s, movies were black-and-white and silent. Not only that, but the film used in these movies was isochromatic, wich meant that it couldn't record the red color. Red lips would appear black. Pink skin would look dark and dirty. So, actors and actresses would have to paint their faces very pale. It created contrast, very dark lips in cadaveric pale faces. The eyes were also heavily painted with kohl for more expression. That compensated for the lack of sound and words. Soon, women would want to try the latest makeup from the latest movies, imitating their favorite stars. For the first time, it was not royalty and nobility that imposed fashion, but the media.

The eyes

1920s makeup for the eyes was dark and dramatic. Eyeliner was still not available and not used (altough it existed since ancient Egypt, it would easily smudge and a good commercial alternative was still nonexistent), but the eyes would be heavily painted in smoky kohl. Kohl was usually made from henna extracts (henna became popular after photographs of Turkish women with their eyes heavily painted with henna were featured in a famous magazine), but there were also other shades, like red (rouge), purple and green available. This look can be easily achieved today with any eyeshadow in these colors. Remember that all colors were matte (altough you can innovate and add shimmer to your looks). Mascara and false eyelashes were also used, altough mascara was not very volumous (it came in a cake that had to be heated before use and liquid eyeliner was a 1950s invention) and did not elongated eyelashes. Sad eyes were the ideal - no need to "lift" them trough makeup.

The lips

The only color available back then was red (lipstick was made from rouge mixed with fats and waxes), but it came in various shades. It was always matte, but shine could be added using vaseline. So wear lipstick in any shade of red, combined with lip gloss if you want a modern twist. You can also wear dark browns and purples, to resemble what was seen in the movies. At first lips were not fully painted, only the center would be painted in a cupid's bow shape. Later, lipsticks that could be self-shaped were developed, and would be painted beyond the lipline, in the same shape. Do it slightly with lipliner of the same color of your lipstick.


Rouge, as blush was called back then, was made of rouge properly said, as well as other powders and even paper (papier poudre). It was always applied in round shapes, never angular like today. Oddly enough, the most popular color for rouge was orange. It is now almost impossible to find orange blush, and that would be clownish anyway, but there are plenty of orange-ish ones. Also, it was not smudged: it was applied in a well-defined circle, what, again, would simply look clownish today. So, apply a reddish or orange-ish blush in circles, but smudge it very well. It was always matte.

The face

Altough women now worked outside and were now seen often outdoors, and a tanned complexion was becoming popular, a very pale, even cadaveric complexion was still in vogue, because of the movies. Powders came in all shades, not only white anymore. There was no liquid or creamy foundation, only loose powder. So, choose a powder foundation and compact powder, or a duocake, either in your natural shade or one shade lighter. Powder was always matte.


Eyebrows were plucked into thin lines, altough not so thin as in the next decade. They must be well-defined with eyebrow pencil and gel or colorless mascara.

Go matte

People in the 1920s liked to draw attention to their art deco jewelry, so makeup was always matte. Do not use powder lluminator.


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