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1930’s Vintage Makeup
and Hair Styles of the Depression Era

The decade of the 30's was the beginning of makeup created for a particular purpose and purposefully applied. With the stock market crash of 1929, the Flapper era disappeared like the bubbles in a glass of flat champagne: the moneyed class that had fueled the fashion revolution was suddenly dead broke. Nobody wanted to party anymore.

With economic depression comes a re-evaluation of one's way of life, and women, were less fiscally secure than they had ever been. In a world where no one is working, women had only one thing to fall back on; marriage, preferably to someone solvent. The scary, independent woman of the '20s was supplanted in the nineteen thirties with someone softer, more traditionally feminine. There were husbands to catch, and frightened men run fast. Fashion themes softened, mellowed to reflect the general mood of the Depression.

Makeup and Faces of the Nineteen Thirties

But that was in the real world: the world of movies stepped in to help people forget their troubles. The five cent movie ticket allowed nearly anyone to spend the day at the cinema, and movies were glamorous spectacles designed to spirit the public to a happier place—if only for an hour or two. Movie heroes and heroines were not poor or hungry or scared; they danced, drank vintage champagne and swanned about in fabulous costumes of gowns and furs. Trends of the 1930s buried the deadly vamp look for softer, more appealing styles. Complexions were still pale, but a faint bloom of pink or peach made its way into starlets' cheeks. Dark colors were replaced with blushes of pink and lips of rose or raspberry. Eyebrows were high and long, smoothed and shiny with petroleum jelly. Nail polish was applied to the center of the nail, leaving the half-moons and tips bare.

Two Looks of the Era

There were two looks in the '30s—elegant lady or fresh-faced girl next door. Women's makeup and hairstyles reflected both possibilities, and made both choices possible for woman who wanted to switch roles for an evening—or a new lifestyle.

Max Factor was the man behind makeup: the hot lights of the movies created a need for something that could help stars look their best. Max Factor's salon on Hollywood Boulevard brought him clients like Bette Davis, Lucille Ball, Marlene Dietrich and Claudette Colbert. Credited with inventing cosmetic necessities like mascara and pancake, Max Factor was also said to have coined the term "makeup".

Depression Makeup and Hollywood Makeup Differed

With movie stars unashamedly made up, the concept of cosmetics moved into the mainstream. Ordinary women were no longer nervous about using powder, lipstick, mascara and rouge (blush). And makeup had another appeal during the Depression; for the price of a tube of lipstick, a woman could treat herself to something that would improve her appearance and her self-confidence. Whether her goal was to marry or to attempt to enter the workforce, women needed every advantage when it came to looking glamorous. With film becoming more accessible to more people, real women were exposed to the fads and fashions of Hollywood, with the result that makeup usage spread across the country. But nail polish was the toughest sell: early market research showed that women thought it looked cheap and tacky; it was fine for movie stars, but real women were opting out. It took a concerted effort by film studios and advertisers into the 1940s to get American women to paint their nails, but with encouragement from the day's greatest female stars, nail polish made it to the mainstream.

1930's Hair Styles Were Soft & Feminine

1930's hair styles also softened from '20's extremes. Hair was worn longer, often pulled into a smooth chignon for evening wear. Although hair was longer, styles were still strictly fashioned with tight, glossy waves and pincurls in set patterns that took time and skill to create. One popular hairstyle was the Coronet, where the hair was pulled back tightly and the head wound with braided hair. Haircuts were no longer a statement of rebellion—just a way to keep a style under control.

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