Beauty Through the Decades

Makeup and beauty standards have changed drastically throughout the past 100 years. Starting with the 1920s flapper age, the increasing popularity of moving pictures led many women to emulate the makeup looks their favorite stars wore on the silver screen. We still do a version of this today, copying the beauty looks we see on our favorite celebrities on the red carpet or Instagram. Take a look back at the defining makeup trends of each decade, the history of the decade that might have influenced these looks, and the biggest icons of the era. We’ll also take a look at how the ideal of beauty has shifted for both Black and white women. Let’s get into it!

1920s: Smoke Screen

An age of the flapper, decadence, and opulence (just ask Gatsby). Contrary to the previous decades where a light amount of makeup was the norm, women made their makeup noticeable in the ‘20s. Focus was on the eyes, which were dark, smoky, and heavy on the mascara. Inspired by their favorite stars from films, which were now more widely accessible, this look became the go-to for evening. Brows were thin, deep red lipstick was a must, and hair was cropped short. 

Black women of the age sported similar cropped haircuts in finger waves, which were achieved using the fingers to style instead of a heating tool like Marcel waves. The legendary performer Josephine Baker was known for slicking her edges and popularizing the trend, so next time you lay your baby hairs you know who to thank! 

It Girls: Josephine Baker, Clara Bow, Gloria Swanson 

1930s: Razor Thin

In an effort to escape the harsh reality of the depression, people fled to the movie theater, which kicked off Hollywood’s Golden Age. Focus shifted to the brows as eyebrows were tweezed or completely shaved off and overdrawn back on to achieve a barely-there brow that elongated the eye. Pastel shadows and blush were all the rage, and hair was a bit longer than the 1920’s, but no longer than bob length. 

Black women still straightened their hair into the ‘30s in similar styles with looser curls. Wigs and hairpieces were also used to achieve the Eurocentric straight style.

It Girls: Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, Mae West, Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard, Anna May Wong

1940s: Bare Faced

America was at war and, as a result, fashions began to use less fabric. Rations were placed on everything from wool to nylon, and silk, which came from Japan, was outright banned. Cosmetics were also rationed, so makeup became equally understated. The ‘40s were also a monumental time for women as they joined the workforce in droves, which meant more practical looks were called for. This era saw the rise of the pin-up girl, who was used to exemplify the beauty waiting at home and boost morale for soldiers. The focus was on bright red, full lips, but shadows, mascara, and blush were kept light. Hair became longer, but still coiffed in light waves like Lauren Bacall and Veronica Lake. Hairstyles with curls were popular among Black and white women.

It Girls: Veronica Lake, Lauren Bacall, Lena Horne, Rita Hayworth, Ingrid Bergman

1950s: Glamour Girl

After the rationing of WWII, women were free to unleash their beauty expression with a full face. Winged eyeliner was all the rage after Marilyn Monroe popularized it in the film The Asphalt Jungle. Monroe also made the beauty mark famous. Creamy foundations were preferred instead of powders and were usually paired with reddish-pink lipsticks and pastel or neutral tones on the lids. This is the era we generally think of for “Old Hollywood Glamour.”

Black women continued to straighten their hair to conform to Eurocentric standards of beauty, but with a new wave of Black nationalism, the topic was up for debate.

It Girls: Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor

1960s: Get the London Look

Due in part to the baby boom at the end of WWII, the “youthquake” and counterculture dominated this decade. Short skirts, mod style, and free love, the Swinging Sixties were all about the eyes, specifically the lashes. The U.S. looked to the U.K. for its makeup inspiration, like thick black liner and cut creases, heavy mascara, and extra-long false lashes on the top and bottom lids, done best by Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton. These bold eyes were paired with white shadow and bare lips. Mary Quant Cosmetics is credited with helping to create and popularize the mod look.

The natural hair movement, which was largely inspired by actress Cicely Tyson who wore a short afro on the show East Side/West Side, coincided with the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s. The round ‘fro reigned supreme as a rejection of Eurocentric beauty standards and symbol of rebellion; however, some still opted to straighten their hair.

It Girls: Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, Cicely Tyson, Brigitte Bardot

1970s: Au Naturel

The exaggerated makeup of the ‘60s was traded in for a more natural face. The women’s liberation movement was underway, which challenged traditional beauty standards. Light mascara and shadow were on-trend as well as long, straight à la Cher. Farrah Fawcett popularized feathered locks. ‘Fros became more a fashion choice than a political statement by this time and was famously sported by the likes of Pam Grier on screen and Diana Ross. 

It Girls: Diana Ross, Farrah Fawcett, Cher, Bianca Jagger, Pam Grier, Ali MacGraw

1980s: Bigger is Better

The ‘80s were a time of excess and a surging economy, so it makes sense hair was big and makeup choices were equally loud. Eye makeup was in highly saturated colors like brilliant blues, purples, pinks, and neons. Pink was the go-to blush and lipstick shade. Brooke Shields made thick brows a thing after Blue Lagoon. Loose curls were in by the ‘80s, especially the Jheri curl, which gave Black women (and men) a “wet” looking style with these type of curls.

It Girls: Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Donna Summer, Brooke Shields, Debbie Harry

1990s: Minimal Makeup

The fresh-faced look came back into style in this decade. This meant neutral shadows and blushes, light mascara, and lips in pink or brown tones. Kate Moss’ waif-like figure made her an international star and her minimal makeup look was endlessly copied. Eyebrows were also plucked thin. Box braids saw a resurgence in the ‘90s after Janet Jackson’s iconic look in Poetic Justice and baby hairs were laid.

It Girls: Kate Moss, Janet Jackson, Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, Alek Wek, Winona Ryder, and Gwyneth Paltrow

2000s: GLOW

Long, full, look-at-me lashes were all the rage. Makeup that gave you that shimmer and glow was equally as important and frosted lips were a must. The natural hair movement hit a resurgence in the 2000s with celebrities like Alicia Keys opting for cornrows. Straight styles were also still in fashion for Black girls. 

It Girls: Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Jennifer Lopez, Alicia Keys

2010s: Game Changer 

The girlies stepped their makeup game way up in the 2010s. Contours, highlighters, powders, full lashes, and filling in eyebrows were all essential for a beat face. British model Cara Delevingne came onto the scene with her bushy, luscious brows and immediately the trend switched to fuller brows.

The natural hair movement continued with Black celebrities wearing all manner of natural and protective hairstyles everywhere from the red carpet to ad campaigns to Instagram. Wash-and-go’s, twist outs, box braids, and faux locs are just some of the many styles that we still see today.

It Girls: Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, Rihanna, Cara Delevingne, Lupita Nyong’o

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