Throughout the late 1800’s and until the present, cosmetics and skin care have been important in the lives of
women in America. Certain trends have come and gone, just as some have remained. In the past 100
years, the roles and lives of women have changed drastically, but their cosmetics have always been around.
Charm books along with step-by-step manuals give us today a look into the past. Advertisements are also a
great source of history. Using these means, central themes in cosmetics can be determined, almost simply.
Throughout the past century, pleasing your man, looking natural, and being a sophisticated, contemporary
woman with a fresh young look, have been important to the cosmetic companies and to their female
In the late 1800’s, cosmetics were being produced and sold to college-aged women and older. However, a
large hypocrisy was occurring. Women were being told that it was necessary to wear cosmetics, however,
it was vain to wear noticeable make-up. It was quoted from St. Paul’s Magazine that, “If a girl has the trial
of a complexion so bad that the sight of it gives one a turn, it is simply a duty for her either not to go into
society at all, or, if she does, to conceal it?you have no right to inflict your misfortunes on everybody-it is
an unpardonable offense against good taste” (Williams 113).
The women of this time were being bombarded with mixed messages. Their problems with this
hypocrisy were settled to only wearing a light powder and rouge. Colors worn were usually corals and
peaches because brighter colors would not provide the appropriate image that the woman was trying to
convey. Their goal was to convey a natural glow that healthy women possessed. There were the years
when women were slapping their cheeks and biting their lips to draw ‘natural’ color to their face.
It was also quoted that, “Every college girl’s room should be fitted with a mirror, so that even when
immersed in her studies the young lady should not be negligent of her appearance” (Williams 113). Even
100 years ago, women were being forced to be aware of their appearance at all times.
The early 1900’s brought about a slight change in women’s cosmetics. Lipsticks were the norm
and mascara and eyeshadow were emphasized as necessary for eveningwear. This came about after the
First World War. Also, in the 1920’s, class lines were being broken. The flappers came out smoking
cigarettes, cutting their hair, and wearing cosmetics that “did not harmonize their facial make-up”
(Williams 134). Many other women followed parts of these trends and it was no longer possible to tell a
woman’s social position from her appearance.
Then again in the 1930’s, women went back to more natural and softer hues. Women were being
told that the older they were, the more make-up they were using would help them look their best (Williams
147). The goal at this time was to keep your man guessing if your complexion was natural or not.
Depilatories were used to remove unwanted hair sprouting from the face and bleaches were used to fade
aging spots. Here, pleasing your man and reverting back to youth play an important role in the cosmetics
being used by women.
In the 1950’s, charm and the essence of being a ‘perfect little woman’ were important. Inner
beauty was seen as one’s charm, where outer beauty was their passport to the world (McLeod 37). Step-by-
step charm books gave women the instructions to be pretty and popular. Never forget, “perfect make-up is
date bait” (McLeod 52). Home skin care remedies were used as well as following a strict daily regimen,
including diet, hair care, and housework. Following a regimen was seen as good for one’s health (McLeod
On into the 1960’s, skin care was a big issue. However, many misconceptions were going around.
Women were told that oily skin resulted from their improper mental attitude and improper breathing, just as
dry skin was caused by poor function of the master gland (Jones 8). In the 1960’s, the art of camouflage
was necessary to perfect one’s facial features and provide a natural look (Jones 32). Since skin care was
such a big issue, determining one’s skin tone was a must. Women were instructed to go to a window with
bright light to determine if they had pink, cream, or olive undertones. But if they were pale and had come
to no conclusion, they were to compare their face to a piece of fresh white typing paper. Finding one’s skin
tone was essential for perfect make-up application because, “college boys frown on a paint job” (Jones 12).
In the 1970’s, the contemporary woman evolved. It was her goal to survive in the ’70s
professionally and personally. She was to be natural and youthful with a lot of energy and charisma. It
was her turn to step out into the world and show she was ready to handle it. Fashion was extremely
important and their cosmetics had to reflect their lifestyle. Making-up was seen as an art form and many
advertisements used nature and natural images to attract women of the 1970’s.
In the 1980’s, bright colored cosmetics were the trend. Cosmetics were packaged together for
convenience. Even though bright colors were popular, a natural-looking appearance was still crucial.
Colors packaged together were supposed to complement each other for ease.
On into the 1990’s, we revert back to the same ideas that were out in the ’70s. Youthful
appearances along with beauty from nature are in style. The ‘clean’ look is what women aim for.
Maybelline’s ad illustrates the natural concept. “Maybe she’s born with it-maybe it’s Maybelline.” This
brand of cosmetics falls into the theme of trying to keep the outsiders guessing if your look was something
you were born with or not.
Also in the late nineties, a trend came about that utilized the bright colors of the 1980’s. It was a
total break from the norm of cosmetics. Outrageous colors combined with sparkles and frosts for lips, eyes,
and nails became the trend of many popular cosmetic companies. The goal of these cosmetics is to be
yourself and almost anything goes. Girls are seen wearing glitter on their eyelids at all times of the day,
any day of the week and even older women have opted to the new hues of nail color (dark maroons, bright
blues, and yellow-golds). Women have the choice to wear whatever colors they wish. The colors worn are
seen as a reflection of their creative style and personality. Even though this may possibly be a
breakthrough in the repetitive land of cosmetics, many women still choose the natural look.
A century of cosmetics shows a variable amount of change. It shows how make-up changes with
the changing culture of a society. However, central themes are easily recognizable through each decade.
The natural look of perfection continues in the year of today, as with the goal of restoring youth and
looking younger. Trying to please men with women’s looks does not cease. Also, trying to find a new
trend, but reverting back to old ways seems to occur frequently.
Cosmetics have played an important role in the lives of women throughout the century. From the
late 1800’s, when women were told what make-up fit the standard of society?and on through the nineties
where anything goes, we have been given mixed signals and we have solutions that are tried and true.
Though the central themes have been a kind of ‘downer’ in the times of female revolution, finally in the late
’90s cosmetics have given women the go ahead to be creative, wear what colors they want, and in the words
of designer Calvin Klein, “just be.”
Jones, Candy. Finishing Touches. New York: Harper, 1961.
McLeod, Edyth Thornton. Charm, Beauty, and Personality for Success.
Scranton: Laurel, 1952.
Williams, Neville. Powder and Paint. New York: Longmans, 1957.