Welcome back to our series on the history of makeup.

If the 1920s were a time of wild partying and dresses with lots of shiny fringe and people out there, enjoying life, unaware that many years later people would be throwing opulent 1920s Great Gatsby-themed parties with no sense of irony or whatever, then the 1930s was when everyone went, “Wait, wasn’t there a stock market at one point? Also, why is there all this dust in the air? We’re screwed, aren’t we?” There was a huge shift in makeup, too, with the predominant trend in North America/Western Europe going from the dramatic and more androgynous flapper-inspired look to a much simpler but quite feminine and glamorous look inspired by Hollywood, celebrities, and Art Deco styling. Budgets were tighter and luxuries were fewer and further between for the many people whose lives were deeply shaken by the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, and – in turn – makeup became simpler and cleaner, setting a tone that would continue on until the 1960s.

When people start thinking about “classic” North American/Western European makeup styles, the 1930s through to the 1950s are really the eras that people end up going to. While the 1920s were dramatic and edgy and had a lot of dark colors and masculine silhouettes mixed with overly feminine makeup, the 1930s was a time when the prevailing look softened dramatically. Eye makeup was lighter, lips were longer and brighter, blush was applied to the cheeks rather than the entire face, and eyebrows basically disappeared.

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Let’s start with eyebrows: They just kept getting thinner and thinner until they were basically just a single drawn-on line. With brow pencils becoming more user-friendly thanks to an increase in oils and pigments that made them less uncomfortable and waxy, they became a definite staple in many makeup kits. Arches were played down and everything was thin and rounded with the tails extended out. It’s the antithesis of the heavy power brow that has been so popular of late.

Greta Garbo

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When it comes to eyes (the gooey things underneath the super thin brows), they become much more subtle and softer at this point as well. Rather than the deep, all-around kohl look of the 1920s, the 1930s was an era of minimal liner lined tightly around the upper lash line and just on the outside of the lower lash line and eye shadow on the upper lid in blues, greens, purples, pinks, and browns, applied just slightly further out from the upper lid in a sort of pear-shape to make the eyes seem rounder. Shimmer and cream eye shadows were also introduced by brands such as Elizabeth Arden and Max Factor and became popular for nighttime looks. One slightly odder trend that was reserved mostly for daytime looks was to just smear a little petroleum jelly on the upper lid (sans shadow) for a shiny look. I remember this also being a thing in the early 2000s and it was kind of gross feeling then as well, although I did it with lip gloss so maybe I’m just doing it wrong because I was a young teenager and also an idiot.

Cake mascara was still very popular, although it was now mostly kept off the lower lashes and reserved for the top ones instead. Whether or not the mascaras of the era started to run once in came in contact with the Vaseline on people’s eyelids is another story, but I like to imagine that there was someone out there who got a little over zealous and ended up looking like a snail got drunk and passed out on their face after a night of hard partying. Either way, eyelashes were long and glamorous and done up with either black or brown cake mascara.

Aside from brows so thin you fear they may be blown off in a stiff breeze, a dramatic red or maroon lip was a hallmark of the 1930s. Rather than the overdrawn cupid’s bow present on flappers before, the lip of the 1930s was bright and elongated, usually with the whole upper lip slightly overdrawn to make it look fuller (called a “rosebud” mouth [OBVIOUS BUTTHOLE JOKE THAT I WILL NOT MAKE BUT COME ON, WE WERE ALL THINKING IT]).

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Lipstick was crazy popular at this time (this is where I give a nod to the contested “lipstick index.” Ok, the nod is done and I’m moving on!) It was so popular at this point that for every one lipstick that was sold in England in 1921, 1500 lipsticks were being sold in 1931. With budgets being tighter and people having to pick carefully what they would like to spend money on, lipstick was an easy way to brighten up a face without having to spend a lot of money or do too much primping and prepping. The 1930s also saw the introduction of the “long-lasting” (or “indelible”) lipsticks, as formulations began to include bromo acids (bromeosin), castor oil, and stronger pigments that gave lipsticks more shine, emollient qualities, and a better color payoff. Max Factor also introduced the first “lip glosses” onto the market, although they were more of a shiny lipstick than the tubed goos we use today. Basically, the 1930s could be summed up like this: LIPS. LIPS AND BROWS YOU CAN BARELY SEE.

If you want a look into (a slightly more luxurious take on) 1930s skincare, this is a great thing to watch if you are interested in skincare but also feel like you need more satin nightgowns in your life. Seriously, I don’t even look that good going out to formal events, never mind just waking up and going about my day. Also, she has so many creams on her face pre-bath that it’s like I’m reading one of those guides to 10-step Korean skin care. Seeing as my current steps consist of “put Nivea on face, fall asleep, dream about corgis”, I am clearly not the intended market for this. Favorite quote: “Lots of women think cream rouge is hard to use, but maybe they’re just lazy.” You don’t know my life, I think as I lie on my bed, braless and in a giant old sweater with soy sauce stains on it. Oh wait, maybe you do.

Skincare started to change too, with one of the biggest moments being the creation of a commercially available sunscreen (one created in 1932 by Australian chemist H. A. Milton and the other created in 1936 by the founder of L’Oreal, Eugène Shueller). Although pale skin was still very popular, the tanned look that was popularized by Coco Chanel was starting to become more and more widely acceptable. “Sun therapy” was the new bloodletting and was the cure for everything from chicken pox to the flu. With the first suntan oil being released in 1927, the trend continued onwards through the 1930s, although makeup still tended to prefer a pale face over a tanned one. Faces were now more naturally flushed than in the 1920s (remember the whole “hide my dark circles with more blush” thing? That was insane but I also secretly kind of want to do it and it has actually become a small trend in Japan, known as “byojaku”, which translates to “sickly” or “me no shita chiiku”, meaning “under eye blush”, but I digress). Blush was focused into a triangle shape higher up on the face, which was meant to give the face definition and a healthy flush (if you want to check out a slightly weird video on how to measure your face with what appears to be knitting needles so you know where to put blush on, then go here). Blush and rouge colors ranged from bright pinks at the start of the 1930s to deeper reds and even browns as the decade continued on. As for the face itself, powders were still quite popular and most women would powder their face to create a nice semi-matte canvas. Later on in the decade, Max Factor released their most popular product yet, the Pan-Cake face makeup, which was mixed with water and dried to a powder finish. It replaced heavy powders and greasepaints until the 1940s, when more moisturizing and less drying formulas were released.

The 1920s and 1930s also mark a time when several US business owners and brands started producing products made for black women. While mainstream brands still did not produce products designed for women of color, entrepreneurs like Annie Malone (who created Poro Products), Madame N. A. Franklin (who created one of the first lines of cosmetics meant to highlight black skin, rather than lighten it), and Sarah Spencer Washington (who was named one of the “Most Distinguished Businesswomen” at the 1939 World’s Fair). Many of these women sold their products through networks of salespeople or through their salons and – while focusing predominantly on hair care – were the first larger-scale companies to market to women of color at a time when popular culture was incredibly whitewashed. Other brands such as Hi-Hat sold face powders in colors such as “Teezum Brown” or “High Brown”, though the packaging depicted light-skinned women with straight brown hair. On the flipside, skin whitening/bleaching creams also became quite popular at this time, with brands such as Lucky Brown advertising creams that’ showed illustrations of dark skin being turned light. For women of color, the market was still pretty empty and popular brands avoided the demographic of “ladies who aren’t pale and white” until the 1970s (PLEASE NOTE: Skin lightening also has a long and varied history in Asian countries, but I will be focusing on that in a later piece).

Me, in ‘30s-inspired makeup.

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The 1930s was a time when makeup in the West started to slowly grow with new brands and new formulations popping up throughout the decade (other brands that were created during the 30s include Almay, Suave, and Boots No. 7). The trends established at this time would evolve and carry on through the 1940s and 50s, until the 1960s when everyone decided to just go crazy and draw on everything with eyeliner and wear white lipstick. For now, it was all about glamour and femininity as people rode out the Great Depression, only to then be immediately thrown into World War II. NEXT TIME: The effects of WWII on makeup and why you should probably stop including winged liner in your 1940-style makeup looks.


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