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The New Woman appropriates the 1920s makeup

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.

New Woman New Look 2 - Safer Handier and Sexier: 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

Nice girls didn’t wear make-up still well into the 1910s – 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. That, 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. Artificiality was most abhorred, especially where women were concerned. The Gibson Girl was eager to use any trick available to her to enhance her appearance – 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 girl only had to use them wisely.

Besides, cosmetics differed greatly from paint. Paint was supposed to create an artificial illusion of beauty, whereas cosmetics would make a woman’s natural beauty glow, especially by highlighting the health and looks of her skin.

Like any woman in any era, Victorian women 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 used 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 the widely used whiteners, which made the skin look fairer and were therefore very popular, contained such dangerous substances. But this was true 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 take advantage of any trick. For example, beauty books of the era suggested biting their lips and pinching their cheeks vigorously before entering a room. Maybe not as effective as paint, but sure safer.

I’m beautiful, let me show it off

1920s couple with parasol

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 entered the market. And at the same time, youths’ attitudes toward makeup 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 the competition very fierce on both sides. Because free choice became so much more critical in the peer group, attracting attention became likewise crucial. Make-up was a new tool in this new game where every girl became a star.

The popularity of movies exploded in the 1920s. Many films 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 look – for the new youth.

There was a very practical reason why actresses used makeup: it accentuated their feature ‘on screen’, something necessary in the black and white era. That kind of makeup existed specifically to highlight their eyes and lips, and therefore their expressivity on screen, but it soon 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 beauty and learn how to enhance their sex appeal. It was a completely new way to understand and express themselves.

The New Woman appropriates the new make-up (The New Woman's New Look Series) At the beginning of the #1920s the angelic Gibson Girl turned into the daring Flapper Jane. Trouble ensued Share on X

Flapper Jane: the stubborn pursuer or self-expression

Flappers were famous for applying lipstick and powder in public. Scandalous as this was 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. This communication wasn’t entirely free from the pressures of the new consumers’ society, yet it broke sharply with any past convention.

The way young women used freely what was once considered scandalous and vulgar gave rise to a lot of protest from more conservative observatories who cried out for the lost purity of women. Such free use of cosmetics looked decadent to them. In fact, like many other new activities of the 1920s youth, it was carefully kept in check by the peer group.

It was the peer group that determined what was tasteful and what was excessive. Wearing makeup and even applying it in public was generally acceptable, but using too much or ignoring the etiquette distinguishing day from night makeup was normally sanctioned. Girls who exceeded in the use of makeup were made fun of. Slowly a common ‘code of conduct’ took shape, which dictated what was acceptable, a code not imposed by elders, but one that youths created themselves.

It was just a matter of time before older women, then society at large, accepted makeup as normal in a women’s life.

The Twenties were the death of paint and the birthplace of makeup.

The New Woman's New Look Logo - The new fashion of the 1920s wasn't just a matter of fashion. It spoke of women's newfound freedom of expression as well as a larger revolution in the society at large
  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


Vintage connection – Modes in Make-Up
Cosmetics and Skin – Early movie make-up
About Education – Flappers in the Roaring Twenties


  • Anabel
    Posted January 5, 2016 at 18:43

    That was fascinating! I had heard the term Gibson Girl, but not how it originated, and the role of early films on the development of make up makes so much sense, but I’d never thought about it before. Re the safety – even now, not for everyone.I had a sore (literally) relationship with cosmetics, even the hypo-allergenic brands caused me skin problems, and I eventually gave up altogether. I felt naked at first but now I don’t care!

    • Post Author
      Posted January 6, 2016 at 07:36

      Happy you still like the series, Anabel 🙂

      The safety of make-up is still an issue, sometimes. Here in Italy, we had a problem a few years ago with products coming from outside the UE, cheaper, but problematic. A friend of my boss’s daughter ended up in hospital intoxicated by nail polish. Would you imagine that?

  • audiothing
    Posted January 5, 2016 at 20:08

    What a fascinating article, thanks, like Anabel, I’d heard of the Gibson girl, but never knew the origin.
    I find myself wanting to know more, for instance did the women realise the dangers of some of the cosmetics they used, if so did they go ahead anyway?
    I’d love to know more about the actual products they used. I never knew I was interested until I read this, thanks again

    • Post Author
      Posted January 6, 2016 at 07:41

      Thanks so much for stopping by.. I’m so happy you found the article intersting 🙂

      I haven’t found direct reference to the fact that women knew products where dangerous, but I assume they did, based on the fact that they used very little. And in the Twenties, when girls started to use make-up a lot mote, one of the reasons was that it was safer. ‘Safety’ was actually a strong advertising point for the products, so I suppose there must have been an awareness about their previous danger.

      If you are interested in knowing what actual products were used in the Twenties, stay tuned for my next instalment. I’ll address the Twenties’ beauty case 🙂

  • Jane Castandiello
    Posted January 6, 2016 at 06:33

    I love this post so much! <3 I've always been fascinated with Gibson Girls, but as you know, I'm a 1920s gal too. Gibson Girl and Flapper Jane are really different people in terms of everything, but they're both beautiful. Someday, I'd like to copy their looks and have separate photoshoots— that's one of my dreams. Haha!

    Btw, kudos on your choice of video! That tutorial is so easy to watch and very accurate, too. (I really want to have that metal lip tracer haha!)

    • Post Author
      Posted January 6, 2016 at 07:43

      Hi Jane, so nice to see you here 🙂

      I love that video too, that’s why I wanted to share it. I use that to make up myself for the photo in the sidebar. It was fun!

  • Sara L.
    Posted January 6, 2016 at 13:40

    This was really interesting, Sarah. I’m not so familiar with the 1920s, though I knew a little about “flapper” fashion before this. It’s fascinating how make-up trends moved from one “extreme” (using very little or none at all) to the other during that time period, and how fair skin was considered beautiful back then and today people think bronzed or tanned skin is better-looking. Though I think (but I could be wrong) that women are starting to retreat from the tanning trend because of how unhealthy it is our us in the long run…

    • Post Author
      Posted January 10, 2016 at 17:55

      I think the say people use their looks is fascinating in every era. It says so much about us.

  • CW Hawes
    Posted January 6, 2016 at 17:11

    Wonderful article, Sarah! Very informative! I’m making a note of it so I can come back to it for reference.

    • Post Author
      Posted January 10, 2016 at 17:56

      So happy to be useful 🙂
      Thanks for stopping by, CW.

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted January 11, 2016 at 20:36

    I’ve known about how painting one’s face used to be considered disreputable and how it gradually became more socially acceptable, but I loved learning some new information. I wore makeup (almost always eye makeup, not so much lipstick) when I was in junior high and at university, but now I only wear makeup extremely rarely, like for a wedding. I love nailpolish, but leaving my face devoid of makeup just fits with my very low-maintenance, anti-girly-girl personality. (I’ve also been told I have such nice skin I don’t need makeup to enhance anything.) It’s kind of ironic how some people would consider my no-makeup style as shocking as a woman starting to wear makeup in the early 1920s.

    • Post Author
      Posted January 12, 2016 at 17:17

      LOL! I never wear make-up either, even if ny coworkers keep telling me I should, because it looks good on me. Mah… I’ll try to do it… soon 😉

  • Place4Papers
    Posted January 18, 2016 at 13:25

    Thanks for such an informative post. Now I know top make-up trends in 1920s 🙂

    • Post Author
      Posted January 18, 2016 at 13:54

      Happy you enjoyed the post. And thanks so much for stopping by 🙂

  • Mandibelle16
    Posted August 21, 2016 at 03:35

    Great history. Interesting to read. On Dave Lackey’s website (a beauty guy in. Canada) he had a history of Eluzabeth Arden. It was fascinating jus as this was, both saying how it was a difficult thing, having makeup and skincare come from “paint” for prostitues to something the everyday woman used to enhance her beauty.

    • Post Author
      Posted August 21, 2016 at 08:18

      Hi there and thanks so much for stoppin gby and commenting 🙂
      You know what? I’m going to check Dave Lackey’s site. Thanks for mentioning it.

  • Rosella Sle
    Posted December 1, 2020 at 20:43

    Feeling so good while reading .. thanks for writing 🙂

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