From the 1890s to the 1910s Charles Dana Gibson created a series of illustrations that became the epitome of the Edwardian girl. They depicted feminine beauty as it was most appreciated at that time, girls who were as pure and ethereal as angels, whose looks were naturally elegant.
But at the beginning of the 1920s the angelic Gibson Girl turned into the daring Flapper Jane. Trouble ensued.
The Gibson Girl: the angelic queen of purity
Still well into the 1910s, nice girls didn’t were make-up – or paint, as it was then referred to, in case anyone missed the fact that it was bad. That kind of artificial beauty was used only by women who pursued a goal and led questionable lives: prostitutes, dancing girls and movie stars.
The Gibson Girl didn’t need anything to enhance her beauty, which, it was implied, came from her demeanour and education as well as her face and body. Men believed – or wanted to believe, or preferred to believe, or were led to believe – that their girls didn’t wear any make-up and their beauty was natural, as artificiality was most abhorred… especially in regard to women. So the Gibson Girl was very careful to use any trick available to her – but in secret and only to a certain extent. Cosmetics vendors did abound and beauty books were also available to teach how a girl could look beautiful without being artificial. A gilr only had to use them wisely.
Besides cosmetics was very different from paint. Where paint was supposed to create an artificial illusion of beauty, cosmetics would make a woman’s natural beauty glow, especially by enhancing the health and looks of her skin.
Victorian women, as any woman in any era, made good use of what little they were allowed. Powders, bases and waxes of very light colours were quite easily available, as well as the cold creams use to remove them. There was only one problem: cosmetics – not to mention paint – were dangerous.
Most of them contained toxic substances that could damage a woman’s health. Even whiteners, which made the skin look fairer and were therefore very popular, contained such dangerous substances, as it was the case for many other cosmetics of the time. And anyway cosmetics – paint even more so – were a mess to use and not very clean or precise.
So Gibson Girls were advised to use as little cosmetics as possible and instead make resource of any trick. For example, beauty books of the era suggested them to bit their lips and pinch their cheeks vigorously before entering a room. Maybe not as effective as paint, but sure safer.
I’m beautiful, let me show it off
Then as the 1910s turned into the 1920s, a few things happened.
Cosmetics became safer and easier to use, not as fussy, more precise and even portable, as the compact and the lipstick were invented. And at the same time, youths’ attitude toward make-up changed radically.
The freer interaction between the sexes made sex-appeal much more important. Young people no longer looked for just a wife or a husband in their partner, they wanted a companion, and they wanted to choose them. This made competition very fierce on both sides. Because free choice became so much more important in the peer group, attracting attention became likewise crucial. Make-up was a new tool in this new game.
In this new game, every girl became a star.
The popularity of movies exploded in the 1920s. Many film depicted the everyday lives of the new youth, thus becoming a complex game of mirrors where fiction mimicked reality and reality ran after fiction. Young men and women saw themselves in those young actors and actresses who did what every young person did, but more intensely. Those young stars whose presence was pervasive in magazines and ads became the model – both in behaviour and looks – for the new youth.
There was a very practical reason why actresses used make-up: it accentuated their feature ‘on screen’ especially in the black and white era. But their kind of beauty, the way they enhanced their feature so to make the most out of it for the screen, turned into a model for young girls who wanted to express themselves at their best and for young men who looked for just the special girl. Young people looked at their favourite celebrities to define what was beautiful and learn how to enhance their sex-appeal. It was a completely new way to understand and express themselves.
Flapper Jane: the stubborn pursuer or self-expression
Flappers were famous for applying lipstick and powder in public. Scandalous as this was considered before the 1920s, it now became fashionable and daring because of the sexual underline implied in the enhancement of sex appeal. It was a clear message that a woman had every right to use her looks to communicate her essence. A kind of communication that, though not completely free from the pressures of the new consumers society, broke sharply with any convention of the past.
The way with which young women used freely what was once considered scandalous and vulgar gave rise to a lot of protest from more conservative observatory who cried out for the lost purity of women. Such free use of cosmetics looked decadent to them, but in fact this – like many other new activities of the 1920s youth – was carefully kept in check by the peer group.
It was the peer group who determined what was tasteful and what was excessive. Wearing make-up and even applying it in public was generally considered acceptable, but using too much or ignoring the etiquette distinguishing day from night make-up was normally sanctioned. Girls who exceeded in the use of make-up were often made fun of. Slowly a common ‘code of conduct’ took shape which dictated what was acceptable, a code not imposed by elders, but one which youths created themselves.
It was just a matter of time before older women too, then society at large, accepted make-up as normal in a women’s life.
The Twenties were the death of paint and the birthplace of make-up.
- Shameless, Selfish and Honest – The changes in society that allowed the coming of the New Woman
- The New Woman Appropriates the New Makeup – Women appropriate their sensuality
- Flapper Jane Goes Shopping for Makeup – What’s inside a 1920s beautycase
- Cut It and Bob It – Flapper Jane Seeks the Boyish Look
- Flapper: The Boyish Look of the Sexy Vamp
Vintage connection – Modes in Make-Up
Cosmetics and Skin – Early movie make-up
About Education – Flappers in the Roaring Twenties
Vintage Make-up Guides – Make-up history: The make-up look from 1910s to 1950s