The arrival of 1920s makeup was a revolution. After decades of conservative attitudes towards cosmetics, the 1920s saw a fight back as everyday respectable women used makeup to its full effect.
1920s Makeup Suppliers:
The Costume Rag enlisted the help of vintage fashion blogger and 1920s makeup expert Slink Wray to write this top 1920s makeup tutorial.
1920s Makeup History
The 1920s was a tumultuous decade of glamour and hardship in equal measure – dazzling for some, dustbowl for others. But many women saw their lives undergo a minor revolution: previously trussed in corsets and unable to vote, the decade bought both a relaxed silhouette and the introduction of voting rights (to some women, at least) in both America and the UK.
Influence of Cinema
Victorian and Edwardian values had seen makeup used very subtly. Perhaps the biggest influence on 1920s makeup was the arrival of cinema and stars like Clara Bow, Gloria Swanson, Louise Brooks, Greta Garbo who used very dramatic makeup both on and off camera. Much of this was actually Egyptian-inspired with the 1922 discovery of Tutankamun’s tomb causing a wave of “Egyptomania” through society, from 1920s fashion to architecture.
These films being black and white, 1920s makeup in cinema was high-contrast to define the features. Most people would only see these looks therefore in either silver screen films or illustrated celebrity magazines. The film “The Flapper” cemented the reputation of fashionable young women at the time who identified with this tribe.
The rapid increase of popularity of cinema bought a new kind of glamorous escapism to the masses, and ushered in new kinds of celebrities (bringing with the new kinds of beauty ideals) – from original screen vamp Theda Bara (actually a shy, bookish girl named Theodosia Goodman who was given a fictitious exotic backstory by her studio and paid to keep up a false image of a man-eater), to the energetic flapper Clara Bow (whose copper-colour locks caused an explosion in the sales of henna hair dye).
Heavy makeup was used on screen to maximize the expressiveness of actresses’ (and often actors’) faces during the silent era (the first commercially released feature film wasn’t released until the end of 1927), and young audiences, many of whom had never previously seen obvious makeup anywhere other than on stage, rushed to follow suit. As dresses became looser and hair became shorter, cosmetics were used to express a new, rebellious kind of femininity.
Department Stores and Makeup Brands
Another influence on 1920s makeup was department stores and manufacturers. Early on in the 1920s cosmetics were still new and rudimentary. There were not many brands and those that did exist were relatively low quality. H
However in a very short space of just a few years this exploded into hundreds of brands competing to make the best makeup. Inventions like tube lipstick and mascara were born in this period.
The inventions of mascara, lipstick, eye-shadows, pan-sticks, powder compacts and more by leading innovators such as Max Factor, Maurice levy and Maybelline’s TL Williams spread easily through fashionable shops, this of course being the era of Harry Gordon Selfridge.
After the Victorian pale look of lead, sulphur and mercury, rather less toxic 1920s makeup championed rouge, lipstick and kohl eye shadow.
Let us take you through everything you need in your makeup bag to give you a look straight from the jazz age.
1920s Flapper Makeup
Of all looks to recreate from 1920s makeup, the 1920s flapper makeup is definitely the most popular and perfect to match with a 1920s flapper dress.
Dr. R. Murray Leslie stated in a 1920 lecture that the devastation and loss of men following the First World War led the way for the flapper.
“The social butterfly type: the frivolous, scantily clad, jazzing flapper, irresponsible and undisciplined, to whom a dance, a new hat, or a man with a car, were of more importance than the fate of nations.”
No wonder then that it was these rebellious young women who brought makeup from the music halls and movie set to nightclubs and fashionable society.
1920s Makeup Tutorial
1920s Makeup Base
The classic 1920s flapper face was powdered pale and matte – “pasty is tasty” is your motto, here. Coco Chanel *did* help popularize the tan in the latter half of the decade – it implied you could afford to sail on one of the new-fangled foreign holidays that had recently become more accessible due to advances in travel.
However, it took a while to catch on – whilst bronzed looks gradually filtered through from 1925 onwards, pale was still preferred, especially outside of summer months – a Helena Rubinstein advert in a 1928 issue of Vogue promised to help readers “bleach their way to Autumn beauty”.
Besame’s Porcelain Cashmere powder compact will give you a suitably deco vibe without looking too extreme.
Blusher, when used, was patted in circles on the apples of the cheeks, sometimes rising so it sat under the eyes. The fashionable face shape was soft and rounded – this was not a decade for sharp contouring.
Of course, the vampier set sometimes skipped blush altogether – everyone knows you can’t get a rosy glow by languidly sipping cocktails in underground speakeasies whilst seducing jazz musicians, right?
Jazz age brows were famously thin (and would get thinner well into the 1930s) – slender scythes were considered more expressive for silent film starlets, and the trend caught on in a big way.
Some jazz babies shaved theirs off altogether, but you don’t have to do anything as extreme. If your brows are more full ‘n’ fluffy, cheat and use this trick we learnt from drag queens: glue your eyebrows flat (yes, we did say glue, use prosthetic adhesive if you’re feelin’ fancy, such as Kryolan’s Eyebrow Plastic or Pritstick if you’re on a budget – both will work), and comb through until the hairs are lying as close to your skin as possible. Next, apply a dusting of powder to seal it, then a thick layer of your foundation of choice, before drawing on your new brow.
The fashionable shape of the era was longer than today, so extend the line so it’s gently sloping down towards the temple. You want to aim for a look that’s mournful, but in an elegant way. #sadgirlsclub
1920s Eye Makeup
As well as being influenced by what looked good on film, 1920s eye makeup was also influenced by ancient Egypt. Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered in 1922 and instantly became a massive news story around the globe, prompting crazes for all things Egyptian, including bold, seriously smoky eyes.
With 1920s flapper makeup eyeliner was often improvised with burned matchsticks, charcoal and vaseline. Today any good eyeliner and eyeshadow will do, although use a shiny base to recreate the vaseline gloss. Alternatively just add a layer of lip balm on top with your finger. Again think of silent cinema and go for neutral grey and black.
Here you have a choice again between film stars and more everyday people. Film stars would have used strong contrasts on screen and so used heavy eye shadow across the eyelids. However, for a more average look you can be softer with this.
1920s Flapper makeup is all about lashes so curve them as much as you can. The eyelash curler was invented in 1923! Either use lots of mascara or wear false lashes.
Sweep a strong line of dark grey, navy blue, deep purple or black shadow (we love the ones featured in Sleek’s Bad Girl palette across both your upper and lower lash line and blend out – soft and smokey is your key vibe here (save the defined cat-eye liner flicks for 50s and 60s looks).
Some flappers would add a thin layer of Vaseline on top for a glossy finish that looks gorgeous in dimmed speakeasy lighting. Vampier dames can take the shadow all the way up to the brow.
Dramatic lashes are also important – this was the decade the eyelash curler was invented, after all. Cake-formation mascaras in pretty tins were popular at the time (Besame does good repro ones if you want o be authentic: https://u8x6fk4pwo5pxbfm-6428495.shopifypreview.com/products/black-cake-mascara), but a decent pair of falsies (such as these: https://houseoflashes.com/collections/new-year-new-lashes/products/luna-luxe) will achieve the look just as well.
1920s Makeup Lips
Perhaps the most iconic part of the 1920s makeup look is the pout. Like everything else about the flapper evening look, it was dark and tended towards the dramatic.
For 1920s flapper makeup, the aim was to keep the lips small but still full and bold with a tight heart shape.
Apply foundation to the lips’ edges, and the left and right side of your mouth and create this “cupid’s bow” shape by applying lipstick to the middle of your mouth in a heart shape. See this image of Besame Cosmetics’ 1935 cherry red lipstick for reference.
Using a lip pencil first can be a good way to start if you haven’t tried this before. Otherwise use the edge of the lipstick to carefully form your outline.
Use a sharp lip pencil to emphasise your cupid’s bow, overlining the center third and slightly underlining the outer corners of your mouth. Fill in with a stain in a deep cherry red or burgundy (we like Beame’s Blood Red: https://besamecosmetics.com/collections/lipstick/products/1922-blood-red-lipstick) And go easy on the gloss – matte or satin were the preferred finishes here.
Half-moon nails were a big thing throughout the 1920s – paint was applied at the centre of the nail whilst leaving lunar-pale arcs at the nail bed, and often at the tip of the nail too.
Some deco dames also got small picture painted on to each nail (proof that nail art has been around longer than we realized) – this British Pathe clip from 1924 shows a woman getting a question mark and a tiny butterfly, amongst other symbols, carefully painted on.
If your hands aren’t quite steady enough to do it freehand, try a set of nail stickers or stencils, such as these.
Yes, you read that correctly- we really did say knees! If you’ve seen classic flapper film Chicago, you’ll be familiar with the song All That Jazz, and its line, “I’m gonna rouge my knees, and roll my stockings down”. Well, it wasn’t just a fun lyric, but a legit 1920s beauty trend.
Whilst hemlines did famously get shorter during the jazz age, they generally stopped just below the knee (chorus line dancers and Busby Berkley girls excepted). However, said hemlines would often get hitched up during the energetic Charleston (one of *the* big dance crazes of the era), and so more leg would be exposed. A dab of blusher on the knees would help draw attention to the area.
Flappers feeling extra flirty were known to tuck their makeup compact into their stocking top or garter – not only did this leave their hands free from purses (useful for dancing or holding cocktails), but getting them out and using them would result in even more leg flashing – ideal for catching the attention of handsome Gatsby-alikes across the dancefloor.
That said, many average people would have only experienced a tickle-down effect of this fashion. Not everyone would have looked like silver screen icons but only tried to emulate what they could.
Today though it seems likely that you are looking for a guide to 1920s flapper makeup, and if you’re not then you only need to water down this look with a bit of Edwardian reserve and modesty to create a more authentic 1920s look for an everyday person.
1920s Makeup Powder And Rouge
The pale face remained popular from the Victorian and even Georgian eras. However, the 1920s saw many women using lots of rouge blusher. This was partly due to the new trend of suntans. Use your favourite matte foundation and concealer and set it with powder before applying blusher to the cheeks. Flappers infamously even rouged their knees!
1920s Flapper Dress
Of course no 1920s flapper look would be complete without the iconic flapper dress. We’ve got a great guide to the best 1920s flapper dresses to buy now.