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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1930s capsule wardrobe

Since I’ve ‘discovered’ Pinterest, I’ve also reaffirmed my love of the idea of the capsule wardrobe. I don’t know why I love these so much, maybe it’s just that my own clothing collection is rather hit-and-miss and I often find it hard to know what to put on. Whatever the reason, I love those graphics that show you 16 or 20 items of clothing with accessories, then show you how to combine and rearrange them to create 30 or 40 outfits. I note they are often in neutral colours especially beige, which is a colour I rarely wear, and I’m guessing that the neutral palette makes it easier to put together ‘a look’.

As I work from home and have no colleagues, apart from Mabel and Malcolm, that is, I usually schlep about in scruffy tops and aged comfy jeans. I’m a bit ashamed to admit my own shortcomings, because I not only enjoy the history of costume and fashion, but when I created my 1930s mystery series, the Dottie Manderson mysteries, I decided to make my main character a mannequin in a fashion warehouse, just so I could indulge my love of clothes. I regularly mention clothing and fabrics in the stories, which some readers–especially gentlemen–Stuart Aken, I’m looking at you–have found a bit trying, to say the least. Soz, guys.

All this got me to thinking, ‘What would Dottie wear?’ Being a 1930s mystery series featuring well-to-do families in between-the-wars England, there are a lot of visits and house parties. So what would a young woman need to take with her for, say, a weekend in the country in Summer? I’m leaving out tweeds, because a) I abhor shooting and hunting and so, consequently, does Dottie, and b) no woman looks good in tweeds. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Where’s the glamour in a tweed coat and skirt? Answer: there is none.

Here we go. Oh, and by the way, I’m taking the role of Dottie’s maid Janet for this trip, so I will do the packing.

Firstly, I will be packing nightwear in the form of a negligee and matching wrap. Dottie is 20ish so there’s no way this girl will be wearing a massive up-to-the-neck-down-to-the-floor cotton nightgown, she’s not 90! The negligee will be ankle-length, and made of something soft and sheer like artificial silk or crepe-de-chine, probably in soft blues or pinks, with lace edging in cream of a deeper cream/coffee colour and narrow ribbon in a matching colour to fasten. Women’s underwear came in the form of long bloomers, to the knee or just above the knee, in either a loose and light sheer fabric with lace trim, or in close-fitting, machine-knitted cotton. There were also teddies and camisoles, worn with a sense of modern naughtiness by the younger women and viewed with maternal concern by the older. Petticoats with supporting lace or embroidered cupped bodices.  Bras as we know them today were still waiting in the future, but the complete lack of support of the well-named ‘flapper’ style of the twenties was no longer fashionable. Pantyhose was still to come, so stockings were worn with a suspender (garter) belt and no doubt thrilled men then as they do now. Stockings for day-wear would be sturdier than their evening-wear counterparts. I must remember to pack some silly little slippers just to keep Dottie’s feet warm in the bedroom, and the hallway to the bathroom and back.

There will be a day outfit in the form of a day dress or suit/costume. If we are travelling light, I think we might manage with one or two, but if we have a whole car to fill, we might take three or four outfits just for a two-day trip. The style for the 1930s was fairly straight but more feminine and less plain than the very straight, quite masculine styles of the 20s. Picture a dress with a very slight flair, an A-line skirt, or perhaps quite close-fitting to the knees then flaring out, gently for a day dress and more dramatically for an evening dress when the wearer might want to dance and feel the fabric swirl out about her. The length would reach to the mid-calf for day-wear with ankle-length or floor-length for evening. Shoes had quite high heels, say three inches or so, and were often buckle-fastening or laced. With the exception of tennis shoes and gumboots, shoes would have been made of leather.

Styles were plain in execution, but with a lot of embellishment such as bows or jabottes at the neck, functional or decorative buttons on pockets, sleeves and bodices. There were variations in lapel size and shape, from deep and wide, to small and standing up straight, from squared off, to drooping downward. Belts, cuffs, shoulder tabs and waistband tabs were very ‘in’. The zip was still a few years away from general fashion use, so buttons, hooks-and-eyes, and buckles were used far more than we do today. For day-wear necklines were quite high.  Fabrics would be mainly cotton, linen or wool, although man-made fibres that laundered easily such as crepe-de-chine and artificial silk for blouses or light summer dresses were popular. And of course, no lady would go out without a little clutch purse, gloves, and a hat, even in summer.

Hat boxes could accommodate two or three hats depending on size and shape, so Dottie doesn’t need to worry about wearing the same hat all weekend! I’d suggest a neat little beret for going out in the day time, or perhaps a felt cloche hat with a rakish feather, some beading or ribbons, or if the weather is very warm and sunny, I think she’ll need a wide-brimmed straw hat to keep the sun off her face.

Then obviously she will be changing for dinner, so a long evening gown is a definite must. And a girl can’t wear the same frock two evenings in a row, so perhaps I’ll take two gowns. White was a popular colour for an evening dress for a young woman, although shades of red, brown and green were also worn. Older ladies tended to favour black too, though this was not usually seen on young women due to its funereal connotation. Gowns would be flaring, long, and low-cut, or with cut-out sections in the bodice, and were made from taffeta, satin, or silk mixes: silk-satin, silk-organdie, silk-crepe. The shoulders were often bare, or the gown might be more or less backless, and rather daring. No wonder the gentlemen flocked to light a lady’s cigarette. Smoking was gaining popularity amongst the young and it was more socially acceptable for women to smoke in public. Shoes for evening wear would be strappy and often silver or gold in colour, and perfect for dancing in, but affording little protection from a partner with two left feet. In case the apologetic gentleman should ask a young lady to step out on the veranda to look at the stars, a lady would also require a wrap, and I’m sorry to say these were very often animal fur, although silks, brocades, velvets and fine wools were also worn.

I think we have everything we need for a summertime weekend in the country. As a maid, of course, I will require only my uniform, a plain dress, sensible shoes and an overcoat. My main fashion pleasure will be confined to taking care of the precious garments of my mistress. I could never hope to own such things.

Of course, I don’t wear the anorak all the time. It’s for special occasions.

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