The majority of American women did not wear visible makeup throughout most of the 19th century. Makeup was primarily reserved for two professions: stage actresses and sex workers, neither of which was considered a respectable vocation for young ladies. Workers in both fields wore a painted face to project something artificial. Kohl eye shadow, eye liner and painted lips were for those women.
Skin cosmetics—creams, lotions and dyes whose purpose were to moisturize, tighten, “whiten” and smooth complexion—were however in frequent use among Anglo-Americans, who wanted their skin to appear as porcelain and unblemished as possible. The whiter and more pearlescent the skin, the better: a particularly distressing 1903 advertisement for the Richmond-based Crane & Co. featured “A Wonderful Face Bleach—Will turn the skin of a black or brown person four or five shades lighter.” Scented powder was pressed into papers and used to blot an oily forehead; a tired face might receive steam therapy; zinc sulfate cream was used to bleach freckles; violet extract was used to treat dark spots on an aging hand.
As photography became more accessible to the general population and Americans were able to take photographic portraits, opportunities for criticism of one’s own appearance increased as well. As time passed, sitters began to request retouching and tinting of their images to appear younger, thinner, less flawed. Some demanded their photographers apply cosmetics for the portrait sitting—but only for the sitting, never to be worn in public.
At the dawn of the film industry in the 1910s, attitudes shifted. When films featured close-up shots projected large, faces required a made-up appearance more nuanced—as least, relatively so—than would be allowed by the greasepaint then used in opera and theater settings. In the next few years, social rules relaxed and modest “face-painting” began to be embraced in public and in certain women’s style magazines as well.
As women began to enter the U.S. workforce in greater numbers, their income and sense of self as consumers advanced. Gradually, tinted face powders and lightly colored lip balm became more available at stores and salons. First-wave feminism and the fight for suffrage allowed women to define what feminine self-definition meant. While detractors claimed that “aids to beauty are only shams,” the rise of such products did lead to many social changes. Women became chemists, inventors, makers and distributors of beauty products, an industry in which they were seen as experts and leaders, yielding even wider product assortment and accessibility.
First-wave feminism and the fight for suffrage allowed women to define what feminine self-definition meant… Women became chemists, inventors, makers and distributors of beauty products, an industry in which they were seen as experts and leaders.
Increased product availability naturally led to marketplace competition. More and more, consumers saw advertisements promising dramatic, magical transformations to their visages. Fear marketing also became more prevalent, with many ads promising to protect skin against damage from the sun, city air and imperfections due to advancing age. Some products were accompanied by small brochures pointing out where one’s face might become too oily, or spots where wrinkles were likely to form. Helen Sanborn asked in an advertisement in a ladies’ journal, “Are worry wrinkles starting and your features beginning to look disfigured?” Susanna Cocroft inquired, “Are there discolorations or blemishes in the skin, which symbolize imperfections within?… Don’t be ashamed of your desire for beauty.”
Many new specialty cosmetics companies emerged during this time in addition to those of Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. Max Factor, originally specializing in makeup for film, first capitalized on the glamour of Hollywood and began manufacturing lighter creams and rouges, inspired by those worn by starlets, for everyday use. Maybelline launched a new line of mascara; Revlon started out simply selling colored nail polish; Hazel Bishop invented and sold non-smudge, “kissably soft” lipsticks.
In the 1920s, at the dawn of mass media image advertising, corporations encouraged female consumers to free themselves of the constraints of their past by using makeup, and proclaimed cosmetics were symbols of a social and political shift into the image of the “New Woman.” Celebrity endorsements reached far larger audiences, and in an age of celebrity they meant more, suggesting that accomplishment had as much to do with fabricated beauty as anything else. Photographic images and larger viewing audiences reminded women that they were on display and subject to judgement of their beauty, youth and fresh-facedness. In 1936, Mademoiselle magazine created the cultural icon of the makeover—using cosmetics, they turned scores of ordinary women into beauties, with greater hopes for happiness and acceptance.
Many of these same advertising techniques are still in place and working in the market today. Earlier in the 20th century, consumers used how-to booklets to perfect a movie-star look. Today consumers turn to YouTube for makeup tutorials, many of them sponsored by cosmetics companies. Still, the psychology of the industry remains the same: when appearance is everything, when looks matter, use the tools of face-painting to create an illusory visage, one which reflects the “you” you desire, not necessary the one you are.