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Cosmetics: Safer, Handier, and Sexier

The new breed of woman who dominated the Twentieth Century Guest Post by Sarah Zama

Safer, Handier, and Sexier

The new breed of woman who dominated the Twentieth Century

The New Woman’s New Look Series

This guest post is by writer and blogger Sarah Zama. “Ghosts Through the Cracks” is her first publish novella. She’s also published the history book Living the Twenties, a look at the 1920s as a global experience, organized in alphabetical order.
She’s currently working at more historical fantasy stories set in the 1920s, and more books about the 1920s historical experience.

From the 1890s to the 1910s, Charles Dana Gibson created a series of illustrations that became the epitome of the Edwardian girl. They depicted feminine beauty as it was most appreciated at that time, girls who were as pure and ethereal as angels, whose looks were naturally elegant.

But at the beginning of the 1920s, the angelic Gibson Girl turned into the daring Flapper Jane… trouble ensued.

The Gibson Girl: the angelic queen of purity

Nice girls didn’t wear makeup still well into the 1910s – or paint, as it was then referred to, in case anyone missed the fact that it was bad. That kind of artificial beauty was used only by women who pursued a goal and led questionable lives: prostitutes, dancing girls, and movie stars.

The Gibson Girl didn’t need anything to enhance her beauty. That, it was implied, came from her demeanour and education, as well as her face and body. Men believed–or wanted to believe, or preferred to believe, or were led to believe–that their girls didn’t wear any makeup and their beauty was natural. Artificiality was most abhorred, especially where women were concerned.

The Gibson Girl was eager to use any trick available to her to enhance her appearance–but in secret, and only to a certain extent. Cosmetics vendors did abound, and beauty books were also available to teach how a girl could look beautiful without being artificial. A girl only had to use them wisely.

Besides, cosmetics differed greatly from paint. Paint was supposed to create an artificial illusion of beauty, whereas cosmetics would make a woman’s natural beauty glow, especially by highlighting the health and looks of her skin.

Like any woman in any era, Victorian women made good use of what little they were allowed. Powders, bases and waxes of very light colours were quite easily available, as well as the cold creams used to remove them. There was only one problem: cosmetics–not to mention paint–were dangerous.

Most of them contained toxic substances that could damage a woman’s health. Even the widely used whiteners, which made the skin look fairer and were therefore very popular, contained such dangerous substances. But this was true for many other cosmetics of the time. And anyway, cosmetics–paint even more so–were a mess to use and not very clean or precise.

So Gibson Girls were advised to use as little cosmetics as possible and instead take advantage of any trick. For example, beauty books of the era suggested biting their lips and pinching their cheeks vigorously before entering a room. Maybe not as effective as paint, but surely safer.

I’m beautiful, let me show it off

Then, as the 1910s turned into the 1920s, a few things happened.

Cosmetics became safer and easier to use, not as fussy, more precise and even portable, as the compact and the lipstick entered the market. And at the same time, youths’ attitudes toward makeup changed radically.

The freer interaction between the sexes made sex appeal much more important. Young people no longer looked for just a wife or a husband in their partner. They wanted a companion, and they wanted to choose them. This made the competition ferocious on both sides. Because free choice became so much more critical in the peer group, attracting attention became likewise crucial.

Make-up was a new tool in this new game where every girl became a star.

The popularity of movies exploded in the 1920s. Many films depicted the everyday lives of the new youth, thus becoming a complex game of mirrors, where fiction mimicked reality and reality ran after fiction. Young men and women saw themselves in those young actors and actresses who did what every young person did, but more intensely. Those young stars whose presence was pervasive in magazines and ads became the model–both in behaviour and look–for the new youth.

There was a very practical reason why actresses used makeup: it accentuated their features ‘on screen’, something necessary in the black and white era. That kind of makeup existed specifically to highlight their eyes and lips, and therefore their expressivity on screen, but it soon turned into a model for young girls who wanted to express themselves at their best and for young men who looked for just the special girl. Young people looked at their favourite celebrities to define beauty and learn how to enhance their sex appeal. It was a completely new way to understand and express themselves.

Flapper Jane: the stubborn pursuer or self-expression

Flappers were famous for applying lipstick and powder in public. Scandalous as this was before the 1920s, it now became fashionable and daring because of the sexual underline implied in the enhancement of sex appeal. It was a clear message that a woman had every right to use her looks to communicate her essence. This communication wasn’t entirely free from the pressures of the new consumers’ society, yet it broke sharply with any past convention.

The way young women used freely what was once considered scandalous and vulgar gave rise to a lot of protest from more conservative observatories who cried out for the lost purity of women. Such free use of cosmetics looked decadent to them. In fact, like many other new activities of the 1920s youth, it was carefully kept in check by the peer group.

It was the peer group that determined what was tasteful and what was excessive. Wearing makeup and even applying it in public was generally acceptable, but using too much or ignoring the etiquette distinguishing day from night makeup was normally sanctioned. Girls who exceeded in the use of makeup were made fun of. Slowly, a common ‘code of conduct’ took shape, which dictated what was acceptable, a code not imposed by elders, but one that youths created themselves.

It was just a matter of time before older women, then society at large, accepted makeup as normal in a woman’s life.

The Twenties were the death of paint and the birthplace of makeup.

Other guest posts by Sarah Zama on Sherilyn Decter’s Bootlegger blog:

  1. Shameless, Selfish and Honest – The changes in society that allowed the coming of the New Woman


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