1920s Makeup – The Silent Era

Clara Bow wide
In the early movies of Hollywood’s silent era the actors faces communicated all of the emotions that their words could not. With the absence of dialogue, acting was hammed up to extremes to ensure the audience knew exactly what was going on. Silent movie makeup had its origins in the theatre where a mask of pale skin contrasted with dark features to instantly show the characters facial expressions and emotions. The eyebrows were painted dramatically onto female and male actors’ faces alike to communicate their ever changing emotions. Eyes were large, dark and rounded and lips were often small and curvy.
Max Factor (1904 - 1996) advising actress Renee Adoree (1898 - 1933) on a new kind of rouge. Photo: Getty

Max Factor (1904 – 1996) advising actress Renee Adoree (1898 – 1933) on a new kind of rouge. Photo: Getty

 Max Factor was central to the style and development of makeup products from 1914 onwards. Having moved to Hollywood in 1904 to sell cosmetics to the burgeoning film industry, Factor became unsatisfied with the crude greasepaints he was selling for the theatrical cosmetics brands Leichner and Minor and began developing his own range of flexible greasepaint. His innovations worked and Factor gained an impressive list of clients at his salon near Hollywood Boulevard. He designed makeup looks for many Hollywood starlets, using his range of “Colour Harmony” powders to alter skin tones, designing colours and textures especially for famous actresses and altering their brow, eye and lip shapes to give them a signature look. Max Factor eventually launched his self named brand in 1922 and the company continued to create innovative products for decades.
Early Max Factor flexible greasepaint and powder set.

Early Max Factor flexible greasepaint and powder set.

 Although there were common threads in most makeup looks from this era, subtle changes helped to communicate things about each character, with the turn of a lip signaling the actress’ moral purity or the curve of an eyebrow revealing their emotional termoil. Youthful and morally pure characters, played by actresses such as Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford, wore a muted colour palette with stained lips and cheeks, blonde fluffy hair and lacey ruffles.
Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish were stars in the earliest silent movies from the 1910s onwards

Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish were stars in the earliest silent movies from the 1910s onwards

The racy and fun loving Flappers such as Colleen Moore and Clara Bow had wide round eyes rimmed in dark colours, small neat mouths and sad downturned eyebrows.
Colleen Moore and Clara Bow, fun loving flappers!

Colleen Moore and Clara Bow, fun loving flappers!

The more morally corrupt a character, the more stark the colour contrast. Vamps like Louise Brooks and Pola Negri revealed their dark nature with jet-black glossy hair, mysterious smoky eyes, cruel dark lips and vampy talons all set against an immaculate alabaster complexion.

Louise Brooks and Pola Negri

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