1930s Makeup: Historical Look With a Modern Twist

1930s MakeupThe 1930s marked a rather interesting time for fashion and the history of makeup.  Unlike the unbridled fun of the roaring 20s, or the glamor that the “Greatest Generation” brought us in the 1940s, the 30s bore the brunt of The Great Depression.  As a result, makeup was a luxurious commodity, and therefore used sparingly.  The look is noticeably more refined and elegant than the exaggerated lines and colors associated with the prior decade.

Certainly the 30s still brought us some iconic looks from lovely women such as Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich – some of the most flawlessly beautiful and elegant actresses of the silver screen.  With cosmetics companies such as Elizabeth Arden and Max Factor hitting their stride in the 30s, it really was a golden age of charm and grandeur.  This sophisticated look can be replicated today, using the following makeup styling tips.


Women in the 1930s were most attracted to foundations with names like “Ivory”, “Gardenia” and “Tea Rose”.  The lighter colors helped to emulate the coveted pale complexion of the times.  Regardless of skin tone, the goal of a good 30s foundation is to be uniform in color with a matte, or slightly glowing finish.  It may help to think of the bright lights and stark contrast used in the black and white films of the time.

You are more likely to get a good, even coverage with a liquid foundation.  Don’t be afraid to use a somewhat heavy hand for this step.  Women in the 30s were always after that flawless, porcelain finish.  Concealer can be used to cover over any breakouts, dark circles, etc.  Finish off with a translucent powder to help reduce extra shine.  The idea is to be looking at an allover uniform skin tone.

Eye Makeup

Women of the 30s often tweezed their eyebrows into thin, elegant arches.  If you don’t mind committing to this look, the thin brows are a good way to really emphasize the spirit of the decade.   This helps create a frame for the softer, more natural eye makeup worn by women of the era.  A light pencil can be used to better define your brows, but don’t extend them too far.  Remember, the goal is to look decidedly different that the costume cabaret essence of the flappers.  Also, no more heavy kohl liner like in the 20s.  The women of the new decade often used a small, triangular line traced from the tear duct, to the outer corner of the eye.

To continue with this look, choose a soft, natural eyeshadow.  Pinks and blues were popular, but a brown, violet, or soft green would be just as lovely.  Unlike modern styles, the crease of the eyelid is not highlighted as heavily.  Instead, apply color in a pear shape, with an upward sweep at the outer corner to create a wider look.  Blend your color outwards and upwards.  In the 30s, much more emphasis was put on a good mascara.  Use an even application of a dark mascara, and go ahead and curl those lashes for a more enhanced look.  Focus mainly on the top lashes.  The lower lashes can get either a subtle touch up, or be left without any mascara at all.

Lip Color

The 20s saw dark colors with an exaggerated, drawn-on “Cupid’s Bow” on the top lip.  The look in the 30s was far more subtle.  Women chose to instead outline the natural shape of their lips, emphasizing a horizontal fullness, with a subtle rounding at the corners.  Popular colors were still bright, but applied a little more sparingly than they were in the 20s.

Choose a shade like rose, bright red, raspberry or tones in the orange family.  Apply color following the natural shape of your lips, and only slightly exaggerate a fullness of the top lip. (You can add a more dramatic “rose bud” look for evenings.)  The bow in the middle should be defined, but subtle.  Flare and round the corners.  Matte finishes were favored for daytime wear, while glossy finishes worked well for night time.

Rouge and Facial Contouring

Rouge was used sparingly – it being an expensive commodity during The Great Depression.  Despite its price tag, the popularity of rouge (especially creme rouges) soared during this decade.  The trick became how to get the most bang for your buck.  Typically pale pinks were in demand, and they worked well for both day and night, and offered a subtle glow.

Using a light blush, highlight the natural contours of your cheek bones.  Apply just enough to the apples of your cheeks to offer a faint tint to your skin, while also keeping your look a little understated.  Use a makeup sponge to help smooth the edges of the color.  The goal is to make the rouge seem like it is your own, natural color.  Really play with lighting here to make sure you can get some lovely contouring.

Nail Colors

The 30s bore witness to a rather ingenious nail coloring phenomenon.  Rather than continually waste expensive nail polish on touching up chips and cracks, women applied nail polish only to the lower parts of their nails.  The half moon shape at the tip of the nail was left bare, therefore allowing significantly more time between touch ups.  As a bonus, it looks like a natural French manicure.  Popular colors were ruby red, pale pinks, peach, pearl, and cream.  Practical colors applied in a practical and sensible way.


To top off your lovely makeup, the overwhelmingly popular style of the time are those captivating “finger waves”.  These involve strategic sculpting of flat waves around the face.  Otherwise, styles favored shoulder length styles, often swept back off the face, with pin curls, soft waves, or ringlets.

There are always great makeup courses and tutorials available at Udemy.  Brush up on your cosmetics skills any time by checking out these other courses which may interest you:

Marie Claire Beauty Genius
Learn to Apply Makeup Like a Pro (all skin tones)