A bit of colour in your cheeks: 1930s make-up

This ad for Maybelline shows the archetype for 1930s make-up.

Make-up in the 1930s was gradually moving away from the secretive, rather apologetic attitudes of the 1920s and earlier which kept make-up containers such as compacts small and discreet, in much the same way as women’s smoking accoutrements. Partly this new acceptance was to do with the trend for more a feminine look after the androgynous 20s, but it was also due to the burgeoning movie industry and the new passion for celebrity role models, and the aspiration to adopt Hollywood styles and trends as part of everyday life, even for those on low incomes. You might see a certain dress or hat in a film, and a week later your friend, sister, mother or yourself could have copied it at home to create your own variation to wear on your half-day out or the next time you went to the cinema.

Yes, that is 1930s mascara, to be applied with a kind of toothbrush thing. It looks like boot polish. And who knows, maybe it was. But it got a girl noticed.

The cosmetics companies lost no time in showing the everyday woman how to use their products to achieve the same looks, or an approximation of them, as the big screen icons such as Myrna Loy, Barabara Stanwyck, and Carole Lombard, whose glamour was so appealing to women – and of course to men, which was a big part of the thrill.

In 1937, Myrna Loy was featured by Photoplay magazine in a kind of cross-over promotion with Max Factor, sporting her face with a clever ad for her latest film Parnell, in which she appeared with Hollywood megastar Clark Gable, whilst her photograph lent authority and appeared to endorse the products being promoted, no doubt sending her fans out in droves to buy the make-up ‘used by Myrna’.

The typical look was for pale foundation, with pink ‘roses’ on the cheeks. Eyebrows were very arched, and plucked extremely thinly, or even completely removed then pencilled-in in a much higher bow than nature intended. The eyes were emphasised with deep colour–blues, greens and mauves were popular–on the lids and highlighter or shimmer on the under-brow area. Lips were painted in a range of tones, mainly deep pinks, reds and oranges.

A range of lovely, very appealing products from the Coty range, and featuring the Lalique powder puff design.

It’s a surprisingly colourful palette, and the products were manufactured by many of the big brand names we still know today such as  Revlon, Max Factor, Coty, Almay, and Maybelline, not forgetting our own dear Boots No. 7 which first appeared in 1935! Helena Rubenstein created the first waterproof mascara in 1939. Cream eye-shadows, lip ‘glosses’, and ‘pancake’ make-up also appeared in the 1930s. It was an exciting time to be a girl! Make-up like face creams and powders were mostly sold in glass or china pots, or for cheaper brands, or the lighter products such as eye-shadows and lip-sticks, in sturdy, decorated cardboard boxes or in tin or plastic.

Here’s an extract from the sales pitch for Max Factor: ‘Choose your colour harmony shade in Max Factor’s Face Powder and see how naturally the colour enlivens the beauty of your skin.’ It sounds so similar to the kind of advertising copy we read or hear today, doesn’t it?

Sales were booming. The new advances in chemicals and manufacturing processes helped to pave the way for a wider use of make-up, especially among younger women who worked in factories and had their own money. Prices came down and demand went up. Glamourdaze.com quotes the Daily Mail as asserting that ‘In 1931, 1,500 lipsticks were being sold to women for every 1 being sold in 1921.’ How true that is I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were fairly accurate. Affordability, economics, a decade of peace, industrial progress, and women having jobs, their own money and more autonomy all must have combined to create the perfect climate for a boom in make-up alongside other new consumer goods such as clothing, accessories, household appliances and even cars.

The Coty compact with design by Lalique.

In the image above, you can see a lovely vintage Coty powder compact. The design was by Lalique, the famous glass guy. I sold one of these on eBay for a nice little sum a few years ago! Coty started in 1904 and Lalique set up his first glass ware and design business in 1921. This gorgeous powder puff motif is still highly collectable, though affordable, and is still in the very small size compact that was normal for the 1920s – a little over two inches in diameter. A tiny thing of great beauty. You can find them quite easily on the Internet, sometimes still with a little powder inside, and usually with an applicator or sponge. But beware, there are replicas about. They are easy to spot, being much larger–the kind of size we usually see now of about three and a half inches or more–plus shallower, and the design is more precise and detailed.

So make-up, then as now, really did depend on who you wanted to be, and just as in the fashion world, the designers followed trends very closely, with lower priced brands following after the big leagues, and with everyone keeping an eye on their favourite celebs.

PARNELL, US poster art with Clark Gable and Myrna Loy, 1937

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