Today we have a special guest post by vintage makeup expert Gabriela Hernandez, Founder of Besame Cosmetics. I asked her to give us a simple guide to creating 1930s makeup for both day and evening looks. This is not a sponsored article, although I may receive a small commission if you purchase Besame makeup through any of the following links. Thank you for your support.
When we watch classic movies from the 1930s and 1940s, we can’t help but feel that life was more glamorous then. I’m quite sure that real life for ordinary people like you and me was actually far from glamorous – we lead much more comfortable, convenient lives today. But the difference is that in the 1930s and 1940s, fantasy ruled. Led by the motion picture industry, the optimistic illusion was sustained that life was indeed glamorous, in spite of the extreme hardships of The Great Depression, the Dustbowl, and World War II.
Back then, movie stars always looked like movie stars. When they weren’t on camera, they were photographed playing tennis in pristine, perfectly fitted tennis whites, or in fabulous nightspots, wearing equally fabulous evening clothes, furs and diamonds, and sipping martinis. Today’s era of the rich, famous and unkempt, hanging out in Starbucks in their saggy sweat-pants, is a very different world indeed.
When we offer classes in 1930s and 1940s makeup at our Besame boutique in Burbank, it’s always with this bit of caution: the look of those eras is quite artificial compared with our own. This degree of artifice is what makes the retro images so glamorous. We recommend that you think carefully about doing anything to your appearance that can’t be easily undone with a washcloth. Specifically, for instance, eyebrow tweezing. Don’t overdo it, because a natural brow may be hard to grow back.
We’ve created a range of versatile cosmetics that are excellent to achieve these looks—and I’m including tips on how to integrate some of the techniques of the 1930s and 1940s into a wearable look that you can enjoy every day.
1930s Makeup: Powders
Foundation: A very light complexion with a delicate pink undertone is considered the ideal. Although Coco Chanel had made the Riviera suntan a status symbol in the 1920s, the goddesses of film kept their skin super-pale. To achieve it, white or ivory-tinted powder, or rice powder, was applied on top of classic “vanishing cream.”
For deep skin tones the selection of beauty products was limited but quickly growing. Brands such as The Overton-Hygienic Co. made the high-brown line of face powders. Valmor Health Products Company started made the Sweet Georgia Brown line and Madam Jones line of makeup and beauty product. The Lucky Heart Company also made face powders and hair products in the late 1930s. La Jac by Keystone was yet another new brand.
Blush: Rouge was used sparingly, if at all. The desired effect in the 1930s was not rugged, wholesome or outdoorsy, so bright pink cheeks were not in vogue. A light application of cream rouge (apricot for day, raspberry or rose for a slightly more flushed look) can approximate this studied effect using today’s products.
For an authentic 1930s look, use just a bit of cream rouge high on the cheekbone, and finish with a pat of translucent powder.
1930s Makeup: Eyebrows
The brow of the 1930s is extreme—super-skinny. As was true in the 1920s, the brow is plucked into a single, thin line. In some cases, the brow is shaved off entirely, then drawn in with a pencil. The difference: in the 1920s, the brow was penciled in lower on the temple, and the line was often straight across. In the 1930s, the arch was made much higher, forming a lofty half-moon shape, and the outer edges winged out (Jean Harlow is a very glamorous example of how this brow was worn).
A reality check: This is a very artificial effect, like Harlow’s monochromatic platinum-blonde hair, which required weekly dye-retouches. We don’t recommend that you literally replicate this aspect of the look, though it is an important aspect of the period history.
1930s Makeup: Eyes
In the 1930s, women used olive oil or a dab of petroleum jelly on their eyelids for a bit of shine. For more daring effects, especially at night, deep blue, green, and purple, sometimes with flecks of mica or other metallics, were worn around the eyes— check out Liza Minnelli in “Cabaret” for a more recent, but very well-informed interpretation of 1930s hard-edged nightclub glamour.
Eyeliner pencil was a standard beauty must-have in the 1930s. Often, the entire upper and lower lid were lined in brown grease-pencil.
1930s Makeup: Eyelashes
Dark lashes were desired, and henna was often used to create a long-lasting stain. Sleek and slim lines were preferred, and thick lashes were not the desired look. The look of the era was a defined, separated lash that could be sharp or curled, with an emphasis on the individual lashes standing clearly in a stark row.
You can create this effect today with cake mascara or cream mascara, in black or brown.
1930s Makeup: Lips
Unlike the flapper’s round “bee-stung” pout of the 1920s, the lip-line of the 1930s was longer and sleeker. Often, the upper lip was exaggerated into a sharp “bow”— Joan Crawford, in particular, became known for her “overlip,” where the vermillion (or naturally pigmented part of the upper lip) was enlarged with opaque lip color.
Early film was not especially sensitive, so sometimes actresses wore black lipstick in front of the camera to create contrast. The lipstick worn by women in real life was almost always red and needed to be applied with a lip brush, then blotted because the formula was heavy.
Applying lipstick, blotting, then reapplying is still the best way to achieve a lasting red lip. A brush isn’t needed if the lipstick has a chiseled shape. Use the thin edge to outline, and the wider, flat surface to fill.
1930 Noir Red Lipstick – A deep plum red, good for dramatic nightlife.
1931 Carmine Lipstick – Orange-red for gold or olive skin. A summer, daytime color with shine.
1935 Cherry Red Lipstick – Rich cherry red. A classic 30s-40s shade.
1937 Fairest Red – A rose red inspired by Snow White
1930s Makeup Guide
Use this handy guide to create an easy 1930s makeup look.
More 1930s Makeup and Beauty Products
by Gabriela Hernandez, Founder of Besame Cosmetics
Author of “Classic Beauty: The History of Makeup” (Schiffer Publishing)
Gabriela Hernandez is an artist, beauty historian, and the founder of Besame Cosmetics. Gabriela started the Besame brand in Los Angeles in 2004, where the cosmetics are manufactured. She frequently consults with the television and film industries regarding how to create authentic period effects on-camera. As a beauty brand, Besame translates classic looks into wearable makeup for today’s woman. Gabriela also designs all of Besame’s classic packaging and offers how-to’s in historic makeup techniques at the Besame boutique located in Burbank, CA. www.besamecosmetics.com
Debbie Sessions has been teaching fashion history and helping people dress for vintage themed events since 2009. She has turned a hobby into VintageDancer.com with hundreds of well researched articles and hand picked links to vintage inspired clothing online. She aims to make dressing accurately (or not) an affordable option for all. Oh, and she dances too.