She was called the “Flapper” and was known as the New Woman. A product of the Great War, she was of the new generation of women who had been liberated from the past but the upheavals of the War. Her first act of assertion had been to take over the jobs of men, absent and fighting on the battlefields of Europe. Her second act of rebellion was to divest herself of the long skirts that swept the streets like brooms. She tossed away the umbrella sized hats and went to work in factories. She pulled on trousers and plunged her feet into boots and strode into the fields of the farms, becoming a “Land Girl.” Face covered with soot, she descended into mines and hauled out carloads of coal. She braved convention and volunteered to work as a nurse, caring for the wounded and exposing her so-called “delicate” sensibilities to horrific sights, sounds and smells. She held the hand of the dying and helped the wounded learn how to walk again. She lost her husband, her father and her brothers. And yet she came out of the Great War a stronger human being aware of her capabilities. The New Woman was born and would not go home again. 

Long hair, once her defining beauty, was a burden, so she ruthlessly cut it off. This simple act of re-definition created a new identity for this New Woman, announcing that she had changed, not just inwardly, but outwardly as well. She marked herself as “modern,” re-designing herself through an act of will. But now her face, once overshadowed by a puff of hair and veiled by a large millenary concoction, was exposed and seemed bare and unadorned. Make-up existed but, before the War, it was worn with the greatest caution and discretion by respectable women. After the War, “respectable” became an antiquated term and the New Woman demanded a strong face to suit her strong personality. Cheryl Buckley and Hilary Fawcett discussed the social and political discourse between the wars in their book, Fashioning the Feminine: Representation and Women’s Fashion from the Fin De Siècle to the Present. “During the 1920s and 1930s, the fashionable female body was the focus for a range of contradictory ideas about the nature of feminine identity. The broader context which framed this was women’s shifting social and cultural roles, particularly their experience with modernity and their relative positions within inter-war patriarchy. Images of the sexually and socially emancipated lifestyles of specific groups of women were to be found in a number of popular cultural arenas. Fashion, in particular, was influential in representing some of the changes which had shaped and continued to shape women’s lives. It was one of the ‘welter of experiences and images that presented a world beyond family, domestic service and the locality.’ It provided both working-class and middle-class women with a means to represent themselves as feminine, and in this respect fashion was a critical tools in defining identity as gender was renegotiated throughout the inter-war years.” 

In these years, the importance of men diminished, reflecting their diminished numbers due to the casualties during the Great War. Women could no longer depend upon men to support them financially and sought to live more independent lives. The economic necessity for female emancipation was often overlooked by the opponents of the New Women, who were now cut off from family influences which were supplanted by images floating across the mass media. In place of outmoded rules that had governed women’s lives, advertising and films taught women how to dress, how to live and what kind of face they needed to present to the world. Cut loose from the per-war world of their mothers, women re-made themselves, redesigning their faces in the process. 

Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture by Kathy Peiss described the socially perceived difference between the late nineteenth century words, “cosmetics” and “paint,” as being “a fundamental distinction between skin-improving and skin-masking substances. The word cosmetic usually referred to creams, lotions, and other substances that acted on the skin to protect and correct it. Paints and enamels, in contrast, were withe and tinted liquids, mainly produced commercially, that covered the skin..Paints, however, masked Nature’s handiwork to hide expression and truth behind an ‘encrusted mould,’ a ‘mummy surface.’” Until the twentieth century, a stigma was attached to “paint,” but women whipped up their own “cosmetics” at home, using ordinary household products and foodstuffs, most of which were safe and harmless, some of which, like lead and arsenic, used for lightening the skin, were deadly. By the end of the century, drug stores intervened and sold safer products in convenient packages and jars, laying the ground for the twentieth century and the huge business of “concealment.” Mass media advertising began to market not just products for the skin but also a variety of items which could change the natural look of the female face, from lipstick to mascara to rouge.  

Springing into the vacuum between the kitchen and the drug store, an entire industry in make-up and cosmetics arose to accentuate the eyes, the brows, the cheeks and the lips. For the first time, the face, whether plain or pretty could be changed by make-up. The plain woman could pluck unruly brows and her thin lips could be reshaped, thanks to lipstick, to the desired “bee-stung” design. For decades, some form of lip color had been applied by women, but only by those of ill repute and never restored to by respectable matrons. Now lipstick came in convenient tubes and could be applied in public, if one were daring enough.In less than a decade, all fashionable women began to wear full make up, enhancing every part of the face. The  new brows could be reshaped and redrawn, arching up and outward, emphasizing the newly black lashes. 

The bare face disappeared and beneath those arching brows, the eyes became prominent by darkening light lashes with the next innovation—mascara. The most popular brand–designed by a man–was called “Mabelline,” after his sister, was a simple cake of dark color that could be moistened and applied with a brush. It would be decades before the modern mascara wand slipped into a tube of color would be invented. But the darkened lashes were such a great improvement that women were willing to go to any amount of labor to enhance their natural features. Foundation, a thin coat of color applied to the entire face, covered any blemishes and disguised problem areas. The now uniformly colored face was sculpted by applying previously forbidden rouge to the once pale cheeks. 

Many of these new businesses, dedicated to the beautification of women were founded and run by women, such as Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein. Vogue’s beauty editor intoned that, “No two things are more closely allied than a woman’s fashions and her cosmetics.” Women began to dominate the hair salons, becoming owners and beauticians.  The words “make up,” referring to coloring the face, written in the past tense to “made up,” implies an act of self-creation in which each individual become the new woman, separating herself decisively from the past as she moved confidently into the future. 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
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