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A Short History of Modern Beauty (and How it’s Shaped How We Look Today)

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Main image – Tanyadanilevich/Stocksy

As someone who literally wrote a book on the history of beauty, the evolution of our skincare and makeup is something I’ve always found fascinating. 

Just how we came to use the products we do- in the way we do- still seems to be an underserved topic in the wider media though, which is why I thought it was worth taking a quick trip through the last century taking a look at the inception of some of our favourite makeup essentials.  

Follow me over the last 100 years to see how the trends we tend to think of as cutting edge often started decades before we thought.

 


The emancipated beauty: 1900 – 1920s

Ever since the birth of cinema we have looked to the stars for beauty inspiration. Even before, it was dazzling actresses like Sarah Bernhardt who provided inspiration for the early Suffragettes.

Bernhardt had joyfully provoked gasps of horror when she dared to apply lipstick in public, and in defiance of such condemnation did it all the more. In the same spirit many of the early suffragettes risked social sanction and disapproval by using the controversial behaviour of enhancing their lips to make it clear that they had something to say and they would not be stopped from saying it.

 

Image – Amazon

 

Young women were becoming emancipated and they wanted to make a clear statement of their new status by shortening their skirts, bobbing their hair and wearing makeup as they went to the cinema to see beauty live and ten-feet tall. 

Never had beauty been seen in such detail and everyone wanted to wear the same makeup as their favourite stars. Cinema fan magazines were full of beauty tips and intriguing adverts like that for Maybelline Mascara available by mail order.

Named for Maybel, a lovelorn young woman convinced that her thin stubby lashes were ruining her chances of finding love, Maybelline was invented for her by her chemist brother. In 1917 he took out a patent for the block mascara which was dampened – usually with spit (yum!) – and applied with a tiny toothbrush style brush and was inundated with orders.

 


The tanned beauty: The 1920s

In the summer of 1927 the first Vogue cover featuring a tanned model appeared, and finally the classic complexion of the lily and the rose was challenged.

The fashionable set had been holidaying in the Riviera since the early 1920s and would no doubt have returned sun-kissed, but it took Coco Chanel to endorse the look. She made it fashionable to ‘go sunburn’ and soon cocktail dresses cut low to display a back tanned from swimming and tennis were très chic.

 

Image – Chanel

 

Tanned legs could go without stockings and in response shoe designers began to add sandals to their ranges, especially when they realised that women wanted to show off crimson polished toes with their tanned legs.

New technology from the automobile industry revolutionised the manicure and practically invented the pedicure. Prior to the 1930s the manicure was not unlike the ‘Clean’ manicure of today with the emphasis pushing back cuticles and defining the borders of the nails before buffing with a pink tinted nail oil to moisturise and shine.

The cellulose paints created for car manufacture inspired nail varnish, in rich colour that could be applied with precision and gloss. Colours were mostly pinks but red was the colour for pedicures even if fingertips were left neutral or decorated with daring blue or black.

 


Beauty in colour: The 1930s

Max Factor was the great Hollywood beauty innovator creating almost all the makeup looks for early film and creating the personal style for many of the great actresses including Jean Harlow and Rita Heyworth.

From the mid-1920s Max Factor products were regularly demonstrated in department stores to teach the public how to choose and apply the correct colours for themselves, tastefully and in perfect ‘Colour Harmony’ as the range was known.

 

Image – Wikipedia

 

It was another Max Factor innovation in answer to the advent of Technicolour that gave rise to foundation as we know it. Prior to that women had relied on a routine of washing with pure soap, followed by an astringent to clear blackheads and close pores and a cold cream to moisturise, which was then topped by translucent face powder to mattify.

On colour film every blemish showed and a pale complexion often looked sallow and dull. In the 1930s, in answer to the problem Max Factor invented Pan-Cake makeup, a powder cream formula applied from a compact in a variety of mid-range skin tones that became so popular and was so frequently stolen from dressing rooms that Max Factor had to immediately make Pan-Cake commercially available in stores. 

 


Cat-eyed beauty: The 1950s and 1960s

With the advent of liquid eyeliner and tube mascara such as the revolutionary Mascaramatic by Helena Rubinstein in the 1950s the cat-eye flick at last became mainstream.

Last seen on beauty icons of the 1920s such as Josephine Baker and Theda Bara, the new formulas could be applied with subtlety as well as precision to create – along with a finely arched brow and a glossy red lip – what we think of as the iconic 1950s face of glamour. 

 

Image – Jack de Nijs

 

The Mods of the 1960s applied cat eye eyeliner with glorious abundance. Paired with slick strokes of white or silver makeup crayons like those pioneered by Mary Quant, they were able to create a graphic eye to compliment the sharp Vidal Sassoon bobs and Op-Art fashions of the day.

The model Twiggy provided inspiration for those who preferred a pretty doll-like look, with her lower lashes drawn on along with a bold eye-line and socket line contrasting with a nude lip. 

 


Frosted pink: The 1970s

Although a frosted pink nail colour had appeared in the late 1950s followed by frosted lip colours in pink and coral during the 1960s, it was the 1970s when the pearl-like shimmer came into its own.

The new cream formulas deepened the impact of shimmery white highlighter beneath a slender plucked brow and baby blue eyeshadow in the style of ABBA’s Agnetha. Natural shades of pink and peach were popular for lipstick, but a clear lip gloss was even better, especially a flavoured gloss with rollerball application.

 


Colour bomb: The 1980s

Princess Diana became a fashion icon from the moment she accepted Charles’ proposal. Her signature bright blue eyeliner along the waterline with navy blue lashes became a key inspiration throughout the decade. Along with stars like Toyah and Cindy Lauper, the airbrush art of Syd Brak on a million Athena posters encouraged the trend for bight multi tonal eyeshadows and vivid wedge shaped blush.

 


Contour baby!: The 1990s to present day

In the early 90s, the oversized colour pop of the 1980s was cancelled by the slender style of ‘heroin chic’ often worn with grunge makeup where a pale matt complexion and skinny brow were paired with copious amounts of black eyeliner and mascara and smudged out with black eyeshadow, or better still, slept in to create the perfect Grungey smudge.

Those still longing for glamour took a deeper new take on the classic bold red lip with brown or brick red. Lip gloss was also in favour but now layered over the natural lip in clear or an iridescent nude with lips over-lined with a darker pencil.

 

Image – Sarah Jane Downing

 

Perhaps as an antidote to all the glitter, the spray tan revolutionised body makeup from its inception in the late ‘90s to its boom in the ‘10s when everyone seemed to have an at-home spray tan machine. With a greater depth of colour came the need for a strong brow and those who had been tightly tweezing their arcs since before the millennium suddenly needed the new generation of brow builders and pomades to replenish them.

Nowadays we are more likely to look to the small screen’s parade of beauty influencers for inspiration, and again lighting plays its part as contouring works so beautifully to sculpt the face under a ring light. The contouring used today is the same technique as in the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood, except that where Hollywood MUAs would use a range of shades and highlights to perfect the individuality of a face, bringing the best points to light and concealing any flaws, the Instagram approach seems to favour striving for a singular style of beauty. 

Many other styles that debuted in the 90’s made it past Y2K with the stars that originated them including Britney, Christina and Paris. Shiny, shimmery, glittery formulas were everywhere in pastel shades of blue and lilac on lids, pink on lips and cheeks, and iridescent silver on the acres of bare skin surrounding crop tops.

 


The takeaway

The ‘perfect face’ is an ideal that most of us could do without. Instead the history of beauty should teach us that beauty is within the individual, that trends will always change, and that makeup instead can be a wonderful way to share your personality and creativity with the world!

 

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Freelance Beauty Writer

Sarah Jane Downing has written widely about the arts, contributing to national and local magazines and newspapers as well as five books: The English Pleasure Garden 1660-1860, Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen, Beauty and Cosmetics 1550-1950, Fashion in the Time of William Shakespeare and Pastimes and Pleasures in the Time of Jane Austen. Her new book Beauty and Cosmetics in the Time of Jane Austen will be published by Amberley Publishing in 2025.

Expertise: Makeup, haircare
Education: Coventry University
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