Eyeliner and Liner Notes: A History of Makeup (1900-1920)

In Depth

This is the first installment in ongoing series about the makeup trends throughout the ages. Today we’ll be talking about the turn of the last century.

If you spend a lot of time perusing various makeup-related forums, you’ll most likely see your share of people posting various combinations of red lips with winged black eyeliner and calling the look “retro.” These people are (mostly) incorrect. While red lips and winged liner are iconic – and do have their place in makeup history – the actual trends that pervaded the 20th century were much more diverse and colourful than most people care to think.

The early 1900s can be summed up in a quote from Grandma Bouvier in an episode of The Simpsons: “Ladies pinch, whores use rouge.” Makeup at this time was still mostly the realm of ladies of the night and ladies of the stage and screen, so while many women still wore some sort of cosmetic, the point was to make it seem as natural as possible, all while denying the absolute shit out of it. This is the era of the Gibson Girl, a woman with big, soft hair and soft, delicate features. Since pale skin was incredibly popular, many women used powders with oatmeal or bismuth in them, with some more fancy people using ones with actual crushed up pearls in them (Fun fact: women were warned against using powders too often as it would either possibly clog their pores [sure], turn their skin yellow [what], or even paralyze then [what the shit are you even talking about]. As you can see, most of the medical warnings were totally bunk). People didn’t even want freckles messing up their porcelain skin, so there were various home remedies for “removing” or “lightening” freckles, including washing your face in buttermilk or with a mixture of “Jamaica rum to two of lemon-juice or weak vinegar, and a few drops of glycerine [sic],” which, I’m guessing, would also make a mean cocktail if you got sick of just wasting all your rum by rubbing it on your nose. Aside from a gentle application of rouge on the lips and cheeks, there wasn’t much else in the way of makeup until the late 1910s/1920s when things got way wilder.

The 1900s and 1910s were also a pivotal time in makeup evolutions, mainly because people were starting to make cosmetics that didn’t straight up kill you after several uses. People looked up from their vanities, looked around, and said, “Wait a second, this stuff is making my face melt off oh sweet god no.” Lead, arsenic, mercury, and zinc oxide started disappearing from formulations and several major cosmetic players came onto the scene – Gordon Selfridge (of Selfridges department stores, one of the first places to offer testers at a makeup counter), Coty, Maybelline, L’Oréal, Max Factor, and Elizabeth Arden, just to name a few – meaning that both the way that makeup was made and the way that women thought about makeup began to dramatically change.

With the western world in massive flux post-WWI, the changing place of women in society started to alter how women wore makeup. Gone was the soft, natural Gibson girl, and in came the smoky look of the Roaring Twenties. Since makeup was no longer just the bailiwick of prostitutes and actresses, many women started wearing it outside the house on a daily basis, rather than just putting rouge on and going, “No no no, my cheeks are just really pink, honest. It’s a genetic thing or… something, shut up.”

As makeup had become more accepted and the conservatism of the 1910s was slowly fading away under a pile of lead-based face paint, looks became much more dramatic and vampy. None of this “eyes, lips, or cheeks: pick one” rule, it was ALL THE FEATURES, ALL THE TIME SUNSHINE. Eyes were darkened with liner and shadow, lips were dark and drawn in, brows were drawn on, and blush was everywhere. It was a beautiful time to be a makeup enthusiast.

Since pale skin was still in, faces were covered in foundation and then powdered until they were matte and flat (or at least it was until the later 1920s, when an early version of contouring started to sneak into fashion). If you’re big into contouring and sculpting, then this is an era to avoid, because face makeup at this time was all about blush. The rouges of the past were pitched in the bin, in favour of new powder and liquid formulas that were generally more user-friendly (in both ease of use and the fact that you weren’t just smearing your face in Dr. Golden’s Slow Painful Death Blush anymore). The desired look was that of a more rounded face, so blush was placed further forward and lower in a circular motion, giving the face a sense of fullness. But blush and rouge wasn’t just for giving you a nice healthy flush. If you had under-eye darkness, rather than trying to hide it with concealer or foundation, one technique used was to take some rouge and blend it into the rouge that was already on your cheek, thereby hiding your under-eye circles by way of making everyone think that you have consumption. Hey, I didn’t say that all retro trends were good ideas. I don’t even want to think about how they would try to hide a bad zit.

As for eyes, well, look: if you’re going to do a 1920s-style look, put down the liquid eyeliner. I SAID PUT IT DOWN, IT WASN’T A THING AT THAT POINT. Have you put it down yet? Good, because the trend at this time was like a sort of proto-grunge look. Kohl was used all around the eyes and gently smoked out. Eyeshadow colours that were popular at the time included greys, greens, and blacks, generally applied along with said kohl liner. Cake mascara was also big at this time and would be applied with a finicky little brush to the lashes. If you were feeling super duper fancy and really wanted to draw attention to your eyelashes, you could try beading the ends of your lashes, a technique that involved heating beading makeup in a pan and then applying it to the tips of your lashes with a small stick. Stage actors looking to play up their eyes generally used this in place of mascara, but – like dramatic contouring and the overwhelming desire to burst into song – it eventually made its way into the public sphere, meaning that anyone who was willing to put burning hot molten makeup on a stick near their eyelids could do so in the comfort of their own home (until they eventually burned it down because that shit is bananas).

When it comes to brows, they were thin, arched, and usually downward sloping. Again, it’s a sort of weird proto-grunge thing happening here where brows are plucked within an inch of their life and then filled in with black or brown pencil, sloping down towards the cheeks.

As push-up tubes of lipstick had recently been invented (in 1915, but patented in 1923), lips became incredibly shaped and dramatic. The most obvious trend was that of Clara Bow’s “cupid’s bow”, where the sides of the lips are played down while the top and bottom are emphasized to give the wearer a sort of puckered look. Helena Rubenstein sold a “self-shaping lipstick that forms a perfect cupid’s bow as you apply it.” Some cosmetic companies even sold lip-shaped metal cutouts for people to use to draw on the perfect bow. Color-wise, the biggest shades were deep reds, plums, and browny-reds, while berries, orange-reds, and light pinks became more popular toward the end of the decade. By the close of the ’20s, lips were starting to become thicker, redder, and focused on the upper lip, leading to the overdrawn look of the 1930s.

Last but not least, nail polish was also become a thing in the 1920s. Interestingly enough, French makeup artist Michelle Ménard was originally inspired by – of all things – car paint, which led to the question of whether or not a similar product could be created for women’s nails. It’s really quite an obvious leap (if you’ve been huffing car paint fumes, I guess). The style was to paint only the middle of the nail and leave the tips and lunula unpainted, creating a “half-moon” effect. The first nail polishes were made by the company that would eventually become Revlon in the 1930s, along with polishes being put out by several other companies in reds, corals, pinks, and oranges.

The 1920s is really the antithesis to current makeup trends: Pencil-thin eyebrows, puckered lips, matte skin, and blush up to your eyeballs. As the decade wore on, the lips got wider, the eyes got softer, and the brows got even more thin, until you end up with the trends of the 1930s, a decade of Hollywood glamour and the kind of red lips people dream about. More on that next time!

Enjoy these sources:

Alex Nursall is a makeup-obsessed writer, illustrator, and photographer based out of Toronto.

Photos via the Duke Archive, The Library of Congress and Alex Nursall.

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