Everyone knows about fringe dresses and slicked bobs, but there are many beauty trends from the 1920s that haven’t made it into the mainstream. The decade was a wild time, where speakeasies were the place to be on a Friday night, women were finally allowed to vote, and more and more ladies got nine to fives and paychecks.
With this new kind of autonomy and freedom, beauty trends began to change to fit the new, bold woman better. The times of the Victorian were over, and women wanted to express themselves with their cosmetics. While history remembers the highlights — like cupid bow lips — a lot has been forgotten.
From putting blush on their knees to loving half-moon manicures and vampire makeup, ahead are a series of unknown, quirky, and even dangerous beauty practices from the Gilded Age!
Written by Marlen Komar for Livingly.
While watching “Chicago,” you might have caught the lyrics, “I’m gonna rouge my knees, and roll my stockings down. And all that jazz.”
That’s not just a weird lyric — it was a major fad during the Roaring Twenties to rouge one’s knees. While dress hems would hit flappers below the knees, that part of the leg would usually expose itself while they Charlestoned inside dance halls. So by rouging them and rolling their stockings down, it only brought more attention to that illicit flash of skin.
Shoe Compacts For Flappers
Seeing how makeup was only worn by promiscuous women in the 1800s, putting on makeup in public was still seen as very taboo a few decades later. Sure, people knew women powdered their noses now, but they didn’t want that fact thrown in their faces.
Knowing that, flappers loved to put on their makeup in public. But since their fast dancing made it hard to carry a purse, shoes with special compact-holding buckleswere invented.
Friend’s Portraits Painted Onto Nails
In the early 1900s, one’s manicure was a status symbol. Working women had rough hands with chipped nails, whereas ladies of leisure had soft hands with long pointed nails. To take it a step further, some socialite women took to getting their friends’ portraits painted onto their nails as a way to show they were at the top of the social ladder. No working woman would go through such a long nail appointment only to chip her manicure while washing the floors the next day.
X-Ray Beauty Treatments
When X-Rays were invented, beauticians didn’t see it as a tool to only spot broken bones, but as a tool to burn off hair! It became a popular hair removing technique until doctors began to notice that their patients were coming back severely sick.
Radiation-Based Beauty Products
Radiation-based beauty products were all the rage during the turn of the century, where beauty lovers thought they were using the next scientific breakthrough in anti-aging and skincare.
“An ever-flowing Fountain of Youth and Beauty has at last been found in the Energy Rays of Radium!” announced a 1918 advertisement for Radior cosmetics. “When scientists discovered Radium they hardly dreamed they had unearthed a revolutionary ‘Beauty Secret.’ They know it now. Radium Rays vitalize and energize all living tissue.”
Of course, women who used these radium products (which were in everything from toothpaste to lotion) saw a slew of terrible health complications years later.
Heavy Eyeliner Thanks To The Egyptians
Thanks to the exciting discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, people became obsessed with everything Egyptian in the 1920s. From the accessories to the Egyptian-like bobs found on hieroglyphics, to the tunic-like dresses flappers loved, the interest took over the fashion and beauty world. That’s partly why flappers loved to wear their eyes heavily kohled — it reminded them of the ancient Egyptians and pharaohs.
Vampy Makeup Was Supposed To Mimic Vampires
Women had something of a gender liberation during the ’20s, where they no longer wanted to be confined to the stereotypical “parlor ornament” roles that their mothers had. They were newly independent, working, educated women, which meant that — for the first time ever— they had agency.
This directly translated into “vampy” makeup. Vamp was short for vampire, and the idea was that women wanted to turn themselves into femme fatales, where they used men on a whim, sucked their bank accounts dry, and moved onto the next victim once they grew bored. It was both an exercise in sexual freedom, and seen as a rightful punishment for men who had used and abused women for centuries prior.
Coco Chanel Made Sunburns Popular
Women tried to avoid tanning as much as possible prior to the 1920s, mainly because only working-class people who worked outside had tans. But when Coco Chanel fell asleep on her yacht when she was sailing on the French Riviera, her sunburn immediately came into vogue. People decided that a tan symbolized a person was wealthy enough to go on vacation — whether that was to Florida or France — and makeup brands started putting forth fake tanners to meet that demand.
To Get A Bob Was A Massive Deal
While nowadays we see the bob haircut as a flirty style that the flappers came up with, during the 1920s it was seen as an epidemic. It was the equivalent of every woman shaving her hair off bald today — it was shocking and, more than that, it was symbolic.
Hair was seen as a symbol of womanhood and wanting to distance themselves from the stuffy gender roles of their Victorian mothers, flappers hacked off their hair to show that they were independent and modern. People were so terrified of this kind of societal restructuring that they started lashing back — doctors began publishing studies that “proved” getting a bob would lead to serious back aches or baldness, husbands started divorcing wives who went to the parlor, and employers like Macy’s and Aetna began firing workers en masse. (The employment manager of Aetna went on record, saying, “We want workers in our offices and not circus riders!”)
The Permanent Wave Machine
With the bob taking over salon chairs, beauty magazines, and just about every woman’s head in all 48 states, hair dressers needed better tools to help give their clients the permanent waves that they were demanding. Enter this terrifying permanent wave machine, which had a hundred tubes coming down from the ceiling and hooked up directly to a person’s head.
Round Blush Cheeks
Whereas nowadays it’s all about contouring and making your cheekbones pop into sharp angles, in the 1920’s blush was used to make the face appear fuller. That’s why it was applied in round circles just at the apples: people thought it made them look healthier.
Hid Powder Puffs In Their Stocking Tops
Another way women brought their makeup with them to dance halls was to hide powder puffs in their stocking tops. Not only did this leave their hands free by going sans purse, but it also brought attention to their legs when they took the puff out to powder their nose.
Chained Vanity Cases
For those who weren’t brave enough to flash some thigh to take out their compact, there were evening compactsdesigned to look just like elaborate clutches. They were chained vanity cases made out of silver and elaborately carved, and were sold in all the most stylish boutiques. Putting on makeup in public became such a fad that cosmetic cases were literally being turned into evening wear accessories.
Cupid’s Bow Lipstick
Just like how not everyone is skilled at using liquid eyeliner today, not everyone was gifted with drawing on cupids bow lips in the 1920s. In order to help those girls, Helena Rubinstein invented a cupids bow stencil to ensure a perfect pout every time.
The half-moon manicure was one of the most popular nail looks, where women would paint their nails but leave the white arch by their cuticle blank, creating a lunar-like effect.
Hairdryers May Or May Not Kill You
Hairdryers first came onto the scene in the 1920s, helping women fix their hair in half the time. But like any new prototype or invention, the Hairdryer 1.0 had its kinks.
One of which was that it could possibly kill you at one point. Using wonky electrical connections, the dryers tended to overheat and spark, causing electrocutions, burns, and even deaths.
Washing Away Fat With Soap
The garçonne look was very popular during the 1920’s, and one of the requirements to pull it off was to have a boyish, reed-thin shape. Because of it, women became obsessed with their weight, and a ton of wacky beauty products made their way into the mainstream. One of such being fat soap. There were different brands of body washes taking over pharmacy shelves that promised to literally “wash away” your fat like dirt!
Deodorant Became A Thing
Prior to the Gilded Age, body odor was seen as a natural and unavoidable thing. Deodorant was seen as a doctor’s territory, and most people didn’t worry about getting their pit stains or smell under control.
Things changed in the 1920s, though, when a high school student decided to build an empire out of Odor-o-no, her new deodorant product.
Creating an ad that played out a melodrama, she knew that the only way to sell her product was to market it to women as a beauty staple, not a prescription. And more than that, she needed to hit them where it hurt most: their love lives.
The ad painted a picture of a woman falling in love with her beau in a moonlit garden, but just as he gathered her close to kiss, he was hit with the smell of her B.O. and recoiled away. It was every woman’s worst nightmare.
And just like that, the fear of stink entered society.
Shaving one’s armpits prior to the 1920s was the equivalent of shaving off one’s eyebrows in 2018. It seemed totally unnecessary and even a little bit weird. The trend all started thanks to Gillette. The brand was the official razor of the US army during WWI, and when the war ended they wondered how they could keep their sales up. The answer was to sell to women.
So teaming up with fashion magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, they began peddling the idea that the new sleeveless fashions of the 1920s called for women to buy razors and start shaving off their underarm hairs!
The Eton Crop
While women loved to bob their hair in the Roaring Twenties, not all haircuts were the same. There were many reiterations of the bob, but the most drastic was the Eton crop. Based on the look of Eton schoolboys, it was a boyish chop and the shortest bob you could get.
The look wasn’t invented for women who wanted to look a little more masculine though, but rather so one’s hair could easily fit under the ever-popular cloche hats.
There Were Different Colors Of Powders
Women started to dabble with contouring as early as the 1920s, where they would buy different powder colors from the general store, and try mixing their shades to create different hues that they could swipe onto different sections of their face. Jonteel — a well-known beauty brand during that era —even had green powder one could buy. We’ve been color correcting for decades!
Brows Were Thin Because Of Movie Stars
The 1920s saw an emergence of thin, elongated brows, but do you know why they came into vogue? It’s all thanks to Hollywood. Silent movie stars had to rely on their faces to convey emotion since they couldn’t use words, and so they shaved off their brows and penciled them in to create more expressive shapes.
Clara Bow was well known for her brows, and since women looked up to her, they wanted to embody her. And thus a new trend started.
Green Or Blue Eye Shadow
It’s hard to tell from black and white photos and movies from the era, but the 1920s loved gaudy eyeshadow. The darker and more garish, the better. Top favorites for an evening look were green, blue, purple, or gold eyelids.
Nose Job Contraption
Modern day plastic surgery was technically invented during World War I, where sophisticated war weapons left many soldiers maimed and disfigured, but not necessarily dead. (There was a difference between getting shot close-range by a musket like in the Civil War, and suffering severe burns from chemical gas like in WWI. In one you would die instantly, in the other you could survive.)
Realizing that they couldn’t just bandage these men and send them back to their lives disfigured, doctors began to experiment with plastic surgery. Once the war was over, some of these doctors brought the new practice to the mainstream, and beauty contraptions like the “Nose Shaper” started to sell en masse.
The nose job contraption wasn’t the only plastic surgery device on the market — there was also the chin reducer for women who weren’t entirely happy with their profile.
Rubber Chest Flateners
Speaking of the garçonne look, big chests didn’t fit in with that waif-like aesthetic, so rubber bras were invented to help women sweat their boobs away. The ad said that a person’s body was 85 percent water, and one could simply perspire their size away — including their bust!
Racist Whitening Creams
While the 1920s gave us famous and much-celebrated black entertainers and celebrities like Josephine Baker and Louis Armstrong, that didn’t mean society had set aside its racism and accepted people of color as equals.
The lighter you were, the more opportunities you got, and because of that many whitening and bleaching creams hit the market. Their names and adverts made it very clear that whitening one’s skin was directly linked with prejudice, where the brands had names like “Black-No-More” and ran ads that showed frazzled-looking black women being transformed into polished white women.
While many African American newspapers and women’s magazines opposed the practice of bleaching and what it symbolized, just as many people chose to partake in it in order to improve their quality of life.
Lipstick Smear Guards
Since dark, vampy lipstick was now the look du jour, women needed to find a way to avoid getting it all over their collars while changing clothes. Enter the clever lipstick smear guard invention, which was technically just thick paper put between the lips as clothes went over a woman’s head.
Using Actual Bleach To Color Hair
Changing one’s hair color was seen as very risque back then, especially considering only prostitutes and chorus girls would bleach their hair. Dying one’s hair was very closely linked with being a promiscuous woman, but for those who did want to go blonde, they had some precarious concoctions.
Jean Harlow, for example, was once rumored to have died from her iconic white locks at age 26. She used used peroxide, ammonia, Clorox bleach, and Lux flakes to achieve her platinum blonde look. When bleach and ammonia are mixed together, it produces a noxious gas that kills. Though the rumor about her death was later debunked, her beauty routine was most definitely a dangerous one.