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Flapper Jane Goes Shopping for Makeup

First, a personal note. I know I’ve neglected this series of late, though I hope you’ve been consoling yourself with my Jazz Age Jazz April. Originally, I had planned to post the entire series as building up for the release of Give in to the Feeling, and yes, yes, I know that happened at the beginning of March, and yes I know I’ve drafted the entire series back in November, so what have I been thinking?
Well, life happened, I suppose. But here I am with the third instalment of the series and I do have two more instalments drafted, so there is hope that you’ll see the end of it at some point this year (grins)

For the newcomers, this is a series where I try to argue that the change in looks of the New Woman of the 1920s wasn’t just a matter of fashion, but it spoke of a new social status and a new way of looking at women broth from their own eyes and from the eyes of men and society in general. You may want to check out the first instalment Shameless, Selfish and Honest and the second The New Woman Appropriates the New Makeup.

So, guys, here we go!

The Twenties were an incredible time. It was a time of exploration and experimentation. A time of new things, new ideas, new attitude. If you were a young girl of the middle class in a big American city, there was probably no better time to live. You would be exploring your new-found freedom of expression, a new way of thinking ideas in your mind, and a new way of using your body and face. You even had a sparkling lead woman to guide your way: actress Clara Bow.

Clara Bow - Rough House Rosie (1927)
Clara Bow

Although there were many film superstars in the Twenties, both men and women, Clara Bow was one of the most popular. She was not the first flapper to appear on the screen, but through her film It, she sure became one of the main influence on what flappers would become in the eyes of society. Clara Bow built the way flappers looked, the way they wore their hair, the way they wore their makeup. The way they spoke, the way they acted, the way they treated men. She incarnated what every girl wanted to be and the girl every young man dreamed of.
Clara Bow was the one who launched the makeup feature most iconic of the 1920s flapper: the Cupid’s Bow.

The 1920s were the best of time for a girl to experiment with cosmetics, the best in a long time. In previous decades, cosmetics – and especially paint – had been dangerous and uncomfortable to wear. But starting in the 1910s and more so in the 1920s, cosmetics (they weren’t called makeup yet) evolved dramatically, both in terms of comfort and safety.

Substances like lead, arsenic, mercury and zinc oxide were quite common in pre-1910s cosmetics and they truly damaged the health of women who dared wearing them. But in the 1920s, doctors started to work with cosmetics companies to ensure a safer composition and standard. “Safe” became a popular selling point in advertisement.

Prior to the 1910s, cosmetics had been a pain to put on as well. Blush and lipstick came in tubes and sticks wrapped in paper and were messy to apply, questionable in results and certainly went against the ‘natural’ look most popular at the time.

But in the 1920s, a lot of tools that we take for granted today first appeared. 1920s makeup became hot topic for all modern women (not just girls). Women magazine often wrote about how to best use the makeup products they were advertising. Advice articles and books abounded. Makeup tools swiftly became essential inside a woman’s beauty-case.
It was in the 1920s that Max Factors officially began referring to his products as makeup, from the verb phrase, “To makeup one’s face.”

FACE – make it pale and smooth

In previous decades, and especially from the Victorian Era, complexion was considered one of the most beautiful feature in a woman. That was still true for the 1920s New Woman, therefore cold creams that made the skin smooth and rich were still very popular. They started coming in colours too, though in a very limited range, the most common being white, pink (often called flesh or natural)  and sandy tone (called brunette).

After the invention of the compact, powder became much more popular and took away from the use of cold cream.
The modern young women wanted to achieve a fine porcelain finish to her face and neck, so she used powder liberally. In fact, much more liberally than we do today. Powder was applied with a puff, often not only on the face and neck, but also on shoulders and décolleté. It appears that the urban legend that flappers powdered their knees is just that, a legend.

Powder came in the same colours as the cold cream, but in the earlier years of the decade a green-tinted face powder which stressed the paleness of the face could also be purchased, and anyway, women would sometimes mix different colours of powder to make their own.
Makeup wasn’t cheap. As with all beauty tools, many poorer women used home remedies, which may have been less effective than the company’s makeup, but still did the job. In place of face powder, some women would use ivory face powder.

Once they had achieved a nice, smooth and uniform base was to their faces, gilrs would light their face up with colours.
Rouge (what we now call blush) was one of the conquest of 1920s women, because previously only unrespectable women would wear it. It was applied in circles on the apple of the cheek with two fingers, so to make the face as round and full as possible.

It originally came in paste, cream and powder, but with the introduction of the compact case, rouge – just like powder – became transportable, socially acceptable and easy to apply.
In those early times, the market didn’t offer a great variety of colours, especially for women of colour. Orange-red and raspberry-red were the most popular throughout the decade, while rose-red became more common in the late 1920s.

MOUTH – Let your lisp speak of your sensuality

Clara Bow - Cupid's Bow

Max Factor is acknowledged as the creator of the most iconic makeup practice of the 1920s: the Cupid’s Bow, which they created especially for actress Clara Bow.
The lips were to become a dramatic feature over a woman’s face, Their colour and shape would become prominent, a suggestion of sex-appeal and free life, the perfect herald of  the New Woman’s message.

To achieve the Cupid’s Bow, lipstick was applied on the upper lip so to rise above the actual lip line and make the natural shape of the lip more pronounced. The bottom lip was slightly overstated instead, the width was minimized by stopping short of the natural crease in the lip. The goal was to created a small and naughty pout.
Metal lip tracer, which helped achieved the perfect shape, became very popular.

Lipstick was another conquest of the 1920s, another piece of makeup that became portable and much easier to use. It originally came in pots or in palette and were quite messy to use. But in 1915, Maurice Levy invented the lipstick tube (made of metal or bakelite) which had a level on the side to push up the lipstick. That was challenge by a patent by James Mason Jr in 1923.
Matte red was the overwhelming colour of choice, though other shades of red, pink and orange became available and fashionable as the decade wore on. It was smudge-proof and it often came in cherry-flavour.

EYES – The dark mirror of a flapper’s soul

Marion Davies - 1920s
Marion Davies

Eyes had always been the true weapon of seduction of a women, but in the Twenties, women put extra efforts in spotlighting their eyes.
After using powder that would accentuate the paleness of the skin and a dark lipstick that would lit up the face, women used very dark colours for their eyes, which make their gaze truly stand out.

Clara Bow, with her big, dark eyes, was once again the model for so many young flappers. So much attention was given to the eyes that most of the new makeup was actually eye makeup.
Eyes makeup was worn very dark, soft and smoky. Popular colours were greys, green and black, sometimes turquoise, but fashion magazines of 1926 also mention purple and blue pencils used as eye shadow.

Eye shadow was applied with the fingers, lightly against the lash-line and then smudged upward for smoky effect. Often it was applied underneath the eye too, to make them bigger. Kohl was sometimes used as eye shadow, for a more dramatic effect especially at night, while for those less brave or for a more subtle daytime look, a trace of darker face powder was used on the eyelids.

Eyeliner, an arcane mixture of soot, lead and goose grease called kohl, that was already available in pencil form for most of the decade, was applied all the way around the eyes and then smudged out. A dot was sometimes used in the outer corner to give a tilted-up look.
Eyeliner came just in black and brown colours for most of the decade, though blue and violet came out in later years.

Eye brows were shaped thin and curved with a slight downward point at the inner end. It was fashionable to draw the end of the brows beyond the natural brow arch and slopping down. There were two ways to get the look: pluck them thin and pencil in, or pluck/shave the brows off and draw the brow in pencil, though this became much more fashionable and common in the 1930s.

Flapper Jane goes shopping for makeup – How 1920s girls discovered makeup and a new way to express theirselves #fashion Click To Tweet

Mascara was still in development stage. Before the 1920s, women would often make mascara at home with ash and India ink or lampblack, but in the 1920s it became more and more common purchasing it. It came in liquid, wax or cake form, and even in blocks that were then melted and applied to the lashes with a stick. Maybeline included a brush, which had to be moist with water before dipping it in cake powder. The brush wasn’t the circular type we used today, but a flat one, so women used eyelash curlers widely. The Kurlash eyelash curler was invented in 1923 by William Beldue.

Fake lashes were also quite popular. They were applied to the eye and then accentuated with mascara.
Fuller and longer eyelashes were obtained by the mixture of petroleum jelly with sooth or smudged kohl. The most daring could bead the tip of their eyelashes, a technique that involved heating beading makeup in a pan and then apply it to the tip of the lashes with a small stick. Actors who wanted to play up their eyes used this in place of mascara.

The 1920s were a time of exploration for women’s makeup. Girls in the 1920s used for the first time tools and techniques that we take for granted today, as we take for granted the message they were sending out: I’m a beautiful person. Just watch.

The New Woman's New Look Logo
  1. Shameless, Selfish and Honest – The changes in society that allowed the coming of the New Woman
  2. The New Woman Appropriates the New Makeup – Women appropriate their sensuality
  3. Flapper Jane Goes Shopping for Makeup – What’s inside a 1920s beautycase
  4. Cut It and Bob It – Flapper Jane Seeks the Boyish Look
  5. Flapper: The Boyish Look of the Sexy Vamp


Fass, Paula S., The Damned and the Beautiful. American Youth in the 1920s. Oxford University Press, New York, 1977

Vintage Dancer – 1920s Makeup starts the cosmetic industry – History
Hair and Makeup Artists Handbook – Women’s 1920s makeup: an overview
Millihelen – Eyeliner and Liner Notes: A History of Makeup (1900-1920)

Flapper Jane Goes Shopping for Make up The New Womans New Look
FLAPPER JANE GOES SHOPPING FOR MAKEUP (The New Woman's New Look Series) In the 1920s, flappers discovered a new way to use their body and their faces, helped by the safer, more sensual, socially acceptable way of using make-up


  • Lillian Csernica
    Posted May 23, 2016 at 03:53

    This is fascinating stuff. I had no idea what the exact ingredients in kohl are. Now I know!

    • Post Author
      Posted May 23, 2016 at 12:27

      Yeah, well…kind of scary girls were willing to put that stuff on their eyes…

  • Lissa Johnston (@Lissa_Johnston)
    Posted May 23, 2016 at 11:59

    Great post! The more I learn about the Roaring Twenties, the more I love that era (even though I tend to focus on American history before 1900). There was a lot going on. Society was experiencing a revolution with the advent of electricity, telephone, automobile, women’s rights, etc. influencing societal change. Perhaps comparable to the impact the Internet and personal computing (including smart phones) has had on us over the last twenty years. Anyway – thx for reminding me I have a draft post somewhere about the early cosmetics industry execs who btw were mostly women.

    • Post Author
      Posted May 23, 2016 at 12:30

      As I always say, the reason why I love the Twenties is that I think they had a lot in common with our times. Learning about them is a bit like learning about us (though I suppose that’s true for the whole of history).

      Hey, I want to read that posts! 🙂

  • Robin Rivera
    Posted May 23, 2016 at 14:48

    I love your compacts! Are you a collector like I am? I have dozens of them, and also some carryalls. I’m crazy about the way cosmetics were packaged in this era. Everything was so pretty on the outside and as you pointed out, often dangerous on the inside. Did you read about all the glow in the dark makeup made with radium? It was all the rage and gave everyone cancer! Super nasty stuff!

  • Post Author
    Posted May 23, 2016 at 16:43

    Oh, I wish those were my compacts. No, those are only photos I’ve found online… though most of them are from vintage stores (a few from Etsy), so maybe… 🙂
    Only thing I own from the 1920s is a flapper purse and a tiny portable ashtray, gift of an American friend of mine. I love them.

    Well, I suppose we are doing things that denage us and we don’t know. For example, I dispcevered only a few years ago that you’re supposed to use plastic bottles only three times at most, then they deteriorate and become cancerogenous. I don’t want to think how many times I used the same plastic bottle before I discovered this.
    Science is always evolving and we discover ever new things. Sad, but true (I mean, sad, because often we would rather don’t know…)

  • Anabel
    Posted May 23, 2016 at 22:13

    Fascinating! Though, as with shoes, my experience is mainly academic. Make-up irritates my skin.

    • Post Author
      Posted May 31, 2016 at 13:22

      I don’t use make-up a lot either, but it’s fun to know these facts 🙂

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted May 31, 2016 at 05:42

    This was a really well-researched post! It’s fascinating to learn about makeup of yore, though I’ve always been very tomboyish and never much into makeup. What a difference all these decades make in what kinds of ingredients are in makeup.

    It probably goes without saying that the exotic lipstick shades I like (black, purple, blue, green) weren’t in fashion in the Twenties!

    • Post Author
      Posted May 31, 2016 at 13:24

      It was a lot of fun to reserch this article. What I like the most is the different in perception, not only about what make-up meant in general, but also about what was considered acceptable to do in order to become more beautiful.

  • Linda Hobden
    Posted July 9, 2016 at 19:15

    What a fascinating post! I was intrigued about the mascara – and the eye make up in general. The twenties is not an era I know much about – so thank you for enlightening me. Have shared on my social media sites

    visited via #BlogShareLearn

    • Post Author
      Posted July 9, 2016 at 19:23

      Thanks for stopping by, Linda 🙂

      It was a fun article to research. Some practices of the 1920s were a bit… weird, but it’s fascinating to see how something we now take for granted first found its way in everyday life.

  • Patricia jenny
    Posted August 8, 2019 at 04:12

    Thanks for sharing this great article with us. I learned lot of things from your article. I was looking for this type of couple information. Finally, I got it.

    • Post Author
      Posted August 12, 2019 at 11:28

      Thanks for stopping by, Patricia and for both reading and commenting. I’m happy you found the article useful 🙂

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