Posted in Historical Hair and Make-up, History, Vintage

1940s and 1950s Hair and Make-up

The Glamorous 1950s Look.

Before the War, my grandmother ran a successful hairdressing and beauty salon in Mayfair, London. Her skills were much in demand among society’s elite. She had a large movie star clientele too, being chauffeur driven to assorted penthouses and beautiful houses across the city to tend their coiffures. Some of her memories of this period are just incredible, however, she was always discreet which is why I will never publish here, any of her salon tales. I have inherited her love of hairdressing and beauty, although I never trained professionally or pursued this career path, a choice I often regret, I do have her skill and confidence when it comes to creating period hairstyles.  This posting will focus on 1940s and 1950s hair and make-up trends.

Despite austerity measures experienced during the Second World War, looking good was still as important as ever to women.   Instead of discarding lipstick ends, they were melted down, moulded into pots and re-used.  When a lipstick ran out, solid rouge was used on lips.  Soot and charcoal were often used as eye-shadow and rose petals steeped in water produced a liquid tint that would effectively colour the cheeks.  Even boot polish was used as an eyelid-darkener.  Cold creams and make-up removal creams disappeared off the market as the War continued.  Sometimes,  a small amount of lard was used on the face to remove stubborn make-up traces.

Christian Dior introduced his ‘New Look’ in Paris on 12 February, 1947.  The antithesis of wartime utility dress.  The shoulder line was softer, waists were nipped in, and skirts were long and voluminous involving lavish use of fabric which would have been impossible to have achieved during the war.  Beauty houses correspondingly produced a wide range of “New Look” cosmetics to complement this fashion.   Cosmetic advertisements at the end of the decade show an emphasis on colour and novelty packaging.  Elizabeth Arden produced a wide range of matching lipsticks and nail polish colours.  Rimmel introduced an ingenious lip colour palette which incorporated a mirror and brush.  Goya were known for their ‘Thick and Thin’ lipstick, two metal lipstick containers, one slim and one thick, joined together by a delicate chain.

Setting lotion was also difficult to obtain, sugar water was sometimes added to dampened hair before setting.  Hairpieces were popular, false braids, fringes on combs and falls of curls.  Curls remained popular until 1947. Perms were all the rage, particularly the new cold perm method.   In the mid 1940s, the topknot or doughnut emerged.  The hair was put-up all the way around from the roots into a mass of curls at the top.

Early 1940s

  • there were fewer shades, powder and lipstick was dry and flaky;
  • shortages of alcohol meant more perfume and less cologne;
  • shortages of fat, oils and the complete dearth of glycerine resulted in products with no emollients;
  • Boots No. 7 began in 1935 and continued to be popular throughout this period;
  • nail polishes were made with film scrap instead of nitro-cellulose;

Late 1940s

  • a ‘fresh young-natural look’ emerged which was less harsh.  Lipstick shades became lighter and emphasis began to shift away from the lips to the eyes;
  • Pan-Cake by Max Factor was extremely popular, it came in 6 shades and first appeared in 1947.  Max Factor used film stars for his advertisements and top French models were employed to promote his cosmetic range;
  • artificial eyelashes, fluid eyeliner, cake eyeliner, eye shadow sticks, cream shadow, waterproof creme mascara.  Eye make-up remover was now available in pads;
  • eyelash curlers began to appear;
  • Coco Chanel introduced her lipstick range;
  • beauty spots came back into fashion.

During the 1950s, the range of face powders and foundations was matched by an equal variety of lipstick, eyeshadow and nail varnish colours.  Paler lipstick tints appeared designed to enhance and contrast with the beauty of a summer tan.  Gala added titanium to their lipsticks to give them a bright white appearance on application, ‘Italian Pink’ was a favourite colour in this range.  They also manufactured a large number of mid-tone colours, ‘Sari Peach’ was one of the most popular shades. At the lower end of the price scale, Woolworths produced a more affordable lipstick line.

  • softer coloured lip shades made the mouth less noticeable and attention was now drawn toward to the eyes;
  • the range of eye shadow colours was vast.  Eye shadows were sold in cream or compressed powder which would be applied with water and brush.  Some eye shadows resembled colour crayons and were sold in metal holders.  Glitter eye shadows were created by adding fish scales to the powder;
  • colour combinations in make-up were bold, violet mascara, blue eyeliner, silver eye shadow, copper mascara with green frost shadow was popular;
  • the upper lid of the eye was emphasised by a thick black line applied using the newly fashionable liquid eye liner. The eye decoration resembled that seen in ancient Egypt;
  • natural brows were accentuated with dark pencil;
  • Audrey Hepburn’s ‘urchin’ hair-cut was very popular in the early 50s.  This drew the attention to the face’s bone structure and eyes;
  • soap ceased to be rationed in September 1950 and this made-way for all kinds of shampoos, hair tints, hair dyes and setting lotion.

Forties and fifties inspired fashion continues to dominate current British fashion trends.   The playsuit teamed with wedgy espadrilles, floral prints and tailored dresses with full skirts, flared trouser suits with halter necks all can be seen on both the catwalk and the high street.  Pattern companies are delving into their archives, recognising the obvious commercial potential of re-issuing patterns from the 40s, 50s and 60s.   Original patterns from this period are also at a premium and can be expensive.  I know this as I have recently purchased a 1952 blouse pattern and want to buy more but not at the inflated prices that some retro-retailers are charging, cashing in on the trend.  I think it is time to have another rake around my mother’s attic and see if I can find any pattern gems hidden away in a forgotten, dusty corner.

  • For more information on life in 1950s Britain, together with lots of lovely images to inspire you from the decade, then you may find my four part series on the subject to be of interest. Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four.
  • In the Summer of 2010, the concept ‘Vintage at Goodward’ was launched, a blend of 40s, 50s and 60s fashion and popular culture.  For further information click here.
  • One of London’s top notch Vintage Fairs is ‘Clerkenwell Vintage Fair’ held at The Urdang, The Old Finsbury Town Hall, Rosebery Avenue, London, EC1R 4RP, 11am-4.30pm. The next three Fairs take place on Sunday 25th September, Sunday 25th October and Sunday 13th November.  For further information, click here.




Social historian, based in the UK.

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