A key sign of modernity in women was the wearing of cosmetics, particularly lipstick, probably the most significant issue marking the generation gap between mothers and daughters in the 1920s. (1)

Marion Nixon perfects her lipstick c. 1920s
Marion Nixon perfects her lipstick c. 1920s

According to Graves and Hodge in “The Long Weekend”, the fashion spread ‘from brothel to stage, then on to Bohemia, to Society to Society’s maids, to the mill grill, and lastly to the suburban woman’. But it was the influence of the stars of early cinema, Clara Bow, Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford and their like, which encouraged so many young women to start wearing make-up. Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden were among those who began to capitalise on this new trend. (1)

By the end of the First World War Arden and Rubinstein were already rivals. Both came from necessitous backgrounds, and they shared qualities of social ambition, commercial imagination and a steely determination that underlay their separate global success as entrepreneurs. (1)

Sales of cosmetics soared from $17 million in 1914 to $141 million in 1925. Both Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein managed successful cosmetics empires in the 1920s, marketing their make up and skincare products to a nation of female consumers longing for the last beauty-enhancing invention. (2)

Adolf de Meyer - Advertisement for Elizabeth Arden cosmetics, 1927
Adolf de Meyer – Advertisement for Elizabeth Arden cosmetics, 1927

The cosmetics industry boomed during the 1920s, and thousands of beautician schools and beauty parlours sprang up that sold make-up and face creams, astringents, lotions, and other products guaranteed to preserve or restore the bloom of youth. Prior to World War I, and American woman who visibly wore make-up, or “paint”, as it was often called, was immediately suspected of being immoral – a woman of “easy virtue”. (2)

Gif made by Fascination Street at

Greta Garbo, playing the part of the siren Felicitas in “The Flesh and the Devil” (1926), touched up her lipstick in church while the priest inveighed against her wicked ways as a woman. To woman raised in the Victorian tradition of ladylike modesty, the wearing of cosmetics was unacceptable. (1)

But during the 1920s, wearing cosmetics became not just fashionable but respectable. Inspired at least in part by the glamorous Hollywood movie stars who painted dark red lipstick on their mouths and applied heavy black mascara to their eyelashes, women of every age began to apply rouge, powder, lipstick, and eye-liner to their faces. They plucked their eyebrows into dramatic arches and then redrew them using eyebrow pencils. They accented their lashes with mascara and reddened their lips into the pouty, “bee-stung” look popularised by Clara Bow and Theda Bara. (2)

Clara Bow
Clara Bow
Theda Bara
Theda Bara

(1) Glamour – Women, History, Feminism – Carol Dyhouse, 2010
(2) The 1920s (American Popular Culture Through History) by Kathleen Drowne and Patrick Huber, 2004