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Welcome to a Bustledress.com Article Page

1870s- 1920s Beauty and Cosmetic Timeline ARTICLE by Lisa Schnapp on 01-14-2009


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1870s- 1920s Beauty and Cosmetic Overview Timeline

Original article and opinions by Lisa Schnapp of Bustledress.com. Original, written content/ text/ photographs are all copyrighted property of Lisa Schnapp, and are not to be reused without permission.


Article: 1870s- 1920s Beauty and Cosmetic Overview Introduction

Lillie Langtry Bustle dress Lillie Langtry will forever be known as one of the great beauties of the theater who once had an scandalous affair with a royal. But, at the time, Lillie was considered more of a celebrity, than considered singularly talented at acting. There were those who thought her not even particularly pretty, but she had bright, intelligent blue eyes, and she knew how to wear clothing that flattered her naturally svelte figure. Lillie had that elusive special "something" that often alluded to beauty to those beholding her.
Lillie Langtry 1880 Victorian FashionLovely Lillie shown left, in a c.1880 stock photo
Lillie Langtry 1901 Victorian FashionLillie Langtry shown right in a c.1901 stock theater photo, an early attempt at "vamping" it up for a photo shoot in a "wicked" "bat" themed Edwardian dress. As you can see, Lillie in appearance seemed a bit miscast.


The elusive nature of beauty has always been a valuable asset to attract love, dreams of happiness, respect or to attain power, and prestige. Women and men have been adorning, and beautifying themselves with the artful use of cosmetics, clever hair styling and wearing striking body fashions since the earliest recordings of time.

In the 1870s-80s, many fashionable American ladies liked to emulate the often-sickly appearance of the aristocracy, seen in idealistic and flattering gallery paintings and purposely overexposed, retouched "Rembrant" lighted photos made from glass plates, Caliotypes or tintypes. Rembrant lighting would result in a tiny shadow under the nose. Exposing a photo plate properly would give a full range of realistic tones, displaying such unflattering but very human conceived "flaws" such as wrinkles, under-eye circles, freckles or scars. Photographers soon discovered they had to spend less time and doing much less negative retouching and photo tone blending on lighter exposed photographs to remove these "imperfect" conditions to flatter each sitter!

Photographers also used darker retouching dyes on the photograph print to shadow or darken areas that could not be lightened with on a negative, such as darkening pupils, eyelashes or brows, or shading in the sides of a thick waist to make it appear diminished. Often, retouchers would add colored oils or watercolors to photos or tintypes to add flattering blush or color. Ladies took great pains to achieve this unrealistic ideal as many do today by restrictive diet, exercise, corsets, innovations in surgery, careful makeup, removal of hair, hair and clothing styling, including the new salon and "healing water" (both natural springs and sea waters were considered healthy for treatments) resort spa treatments. By drastically avoiding sun exposure, their unhealthful eating practices or dangerous medicines, tight lacing, and a myriad of exotic moisturizing potions, including many that were poisonous or overt quackery, unfortunately, many Victorian ladies paid the price for that coveted pallor.



Victorian Fashion Lillian Russell America's Sweetheart, Lillian Russell at left in 1903, was an expert at subtly applied cosmetics.
Some women carefully painted their pale faces stark white. Some ladies used dangerous bluish or violet-hued liquid foundation potions often containing dangerous lead bases. Victorian Ladies who painted, knew to avoid heat at all costs, as it made unstable waxes and oils liquefy or became rancid, shifting areas and running down artfully applied blemish covers, bleeding color unevenly, or caking into lines and cracks.

Other ladies used sheer, refined powders of crushed pearl, refined food starches for oily faces or perfumed talc, chalk, and flours, pounded then sifted the powder finely with perfume and alcohol added. The first powder blush, a matte pink, rose cented powder was blended in 1863 made especially for Moulin Rouge dancers, and is still in exsistance today- Bourjois's, "Cendre de roses brune." A vegetable-based, rosy tinted creme rouge was a few of the barely tolerated practices, but frowned upon if used more than sparingly to a semblance of good health. Lip salve was often made with a clear, carmine hue, and

Outside the theater, cosmetics weren't generally spoken of, as vanity was deemed a poor character trait, but eyelashes and eyebrows were commonly dyed with temporary or semi permanent dyes. Often, a mixture of walnut bark and alum, or drawn in with powders, colored beeswax pencils or with burnt cork cakes in tins used with sable brushes, or liquid dyes. Some women considered by "ladies" as "vulgar" sometimes used eyelid dyes, but that practice was considered deemed "unseemly" or "common."

Eyebrows were sometimes lightly tweezed, shaved and trimmed, to retain the natural effect, but any hairy excesses between brows, or a downy upper lip was often, but not always removed. Buttermilk and lemon juice were said to help "bleach" freckles and lighten an undesired tan. Surgery was even utilized as an option for "unsightly" moles.

Mousy, dull or gray hair was sometimes walnut stained, dyed and harshly bleached (considered a detested practice) or hennaed with dangerous concoctions to "restore" hair's vitality and color." Hairstyles were often stiffened with thinned waxes, rum or alcohol based pomades that helped styles retain the look of elaborate curled wet sets and curling iron styles, but drying to the hair. They lasted from a day, to a week or more depending on the lady's need or desire for change, as hairspray was not discovered until the mid 20th century.

Most women had very long hair that took hours to dry, so many ladies would only wash their hair once a week. But, in the interim would "distribute" oily scalp oil and flakes by a nightly regimen of a hundred strokes of a boar's bristle hairbrush.

Many women suffered with parched feeling, crisp, dry, "cotton hair" from repeated uses of dehydrating, alkaline PH, borax or lye soap based shampoos. (6.0 PH, not a 4.5-5.5 PH- which is the natural acidic PH level balance of the skin and scalp. We'll talk later about PH.) Or, sometimes hair dryness was caused from hard, mineral based water, or well water, or just naturally dry hair.

Ladies would sometimes overcompensate for the coarse, "crunchy" feeling texture of their hair by using heavy oil based pomades or "hot oil" conditioning treatments in which the hair would seem softer at first with coating the shaft. Ultimately, using oil treatments would usually strip the hair of more of its natural moisture balance, often making a small problem worse as oil does not cure underlying dryness. "Hair invigorators" made of bay rum, alcohol spirits, ammonia and tincture of cantharides was mixed at home and was supposed to assist the growth of hair. Most of these claims were false.

Although it was common that most hair of the era felt dry and wasn't frequently washed, the flip side was that by not being too silky soft or had oily roots, styling efforts held better not being washed too often. (Soft water or humidity often holds too much weight in water and so can become limp.) The same holds for today- silky or virgin hair untouched by perms or color processes is in most situations (some exceptions are well water, chlorine from swimming pools or the use of strong medications.) tends to be harder to hold a structured, curled style without additional effort. Being shiny and soft, this hair is likely (although not always) difficult to retain a lasting bend in the shape, so often a curl will "fall flat" from moisture retention.


Besides items found at the druggists or pharmacies, home recipes for beauty treatments abounded. Rich, oily almond paste recipes for dainty hands often boasted beeswax and spermaceti, to greasy bear grease or mutton tallow. Oils of almond cold creams often were greasy, utilizing such fare within as castor oil, olive oil or glycerin and mineral oil mixed with beeswax and rose or orange blossom water.

Nails were buffed with finely ground pumice, sweet oil and chamois buffers for a delicate sheen, and usually shaped in short or slightly longer, oval or rounded effects. Paul Poiriet started the trend of nail polish after WW1, and use became widespread in the 20's. At first, nail color was pinkish clear, and then became a flesh colored nail center and two pale moons were painted at the moon and again at the tip.

Steaming the face with a bowl of hot water, herbs like mint, rosemary, or lavender and rose petals were tossed in with a towel over the head is still done for moisture today.I have a 1906 "dry" shampoo bottle that was supposed to foam up and smell like flowers, but as 40% grain alcohol was used as the active ingredient, it's hard to say how much it foamed! Thank goodness we've come a long way in beauty products since then!

The 1870's had an abundance of feminine hairstyles that rose to the crown from the sides. Hair loops, and false hair braids and falls were favored (although many people detested the use of false hair) as were corkscrew curls, and hair picks, tortoiseshell combs and other hair jewelry with dainty dangled earrings.

In the 1880's utilized less complicated hairstyling techniques, the predominant style being tightly slicked back topknots and new frizzled bangs, as not to compete with complex new drapery in gowns. Woolen undergarments had fallen out of favor, but the rise and fall of ballooning shoulders were the decade's stellar change in the bodice plus a new and simpler, less detailed, "A" line skirt that didn't hamper leg movement as much as the previous few decades of clothing.
When the mid 1890's Charles Dana Gibson Girls took the rein on the new modern vitality look of beauty, women were taking healthier, increasingly proactive and independent roles in life by active exercise. Bicyling, golf, driving motorcars, plus other outdoor hobbies with many ladies also entering the workforce changed the women's outlook on the world.

Camille Claudette was the famed embodiment of the ideal all-American girl of the Edwardian era, although she was born in Denmark. With clean, freshly washed dewy skin, flushed, rosy cheeks, full, arched eyebrows, Gibson Girls abounded with pouting, rosebud lips, and a pert, upturned nose. A waving side bang with a fuller chignon topknot was the rage, until the hair began to fill out the sides by the late 1890's with added false hair "frizzettes" or foundations and wigs for those with fine hair. Camille had a womanly look, a full bust, a wasp waist with curved hips, with long skirts draped around her ankles. The camera loved the look of her curves. And so did the nation.

In 1906, The M. Stein Company for Theatrical greasepaint makeup had become sophisticated with skin greasepaint colors. 15 grease face colors, and perfectly matching powder colors graced their line, not including black or dark brown wax eye pencils, burnt cork and carmine lipstick for actors and actresses to use onstage, so many actresses used these artful paints to be photographed. Level color 1 Blanc (or white) was most common for paleness or highlighting, but theater cosmetic makers had darker levels of face paint intensity such as: level 2 Light Pink, 2 1/2 pink, 3 dark pink, 3 1/2 darker pink, 4 flesh, 5 brunette, and 6 dark brunette. (Brunette colors added more yellows and orange hues.) 7 cream, 8 juvenile flesh, healthy old age, 10 sunburn, 10 1/2 dark sunburn, 11 sallow old age, 12 olive, 13 Othello, 14 Chinese, 14 1/2 Japanese, 15 Indian. As you can see, makeup colors were already on their way to becoming sophisticated.


Corsets became less constrictive overall to accommodate women's new, active lifestyle, becoming less round, but flatter in front with less complicated boning and bending to the mono-bosom "Pouter Pigeon," "S" silhouette into the early portion of the 1900's.

The new "Pompadour" hairstyle popularized by Charles Dana Gibson and Harrison Fisher was often rolled rag curled overnight, into a nightly wet set or braided wet, pomaded, and marcel waved by irons placed on a hot stove and back combed at the roots. Less fussy curls than the previous decade, hair became fuller all around, curled or waved, teased hair that often utilized "rat" padding. (Or, clean but hair shed, then removed from brushes) that had been collected from brushes and put into dainty containers for creating formed foundations or crimped cushions underneath styles. Cushions or wiglets previously made of the ladies own cut hair (or purchased hair) was usually required to achieve the zenith of fullness at the crown for the less endowed heads of hair.

Dresses became increasingly simpler in styling details, with sophisticated tailoring and straighter in form by 1912. Woman's hair needed to be large in forehead width to support and accommodate the new enormous "Merry Widow" hats with "weeping Willow" Ostrich plumes that often surpassed 22" long. Hatpins grew in proportion.

By 1910, the hair was beginning to part at the center, and side fullness was retained and expanded, becoming wavier until again, the back knot made a return, and didn't mover until toward the end of the decade.

Clothing evolved toward the more comfortably wearable, with popular stylists going new directions such as Paul Poiret, Fortuny, House of Worth, Madeleine Vionnet, Lady Duff Gordon (Lucille designer and Titanic Survivor), Liberty of London, to name a few, plus many others. Styles became more liberated from constraints, having less foundation, boning and thick, complicated layers and closures. Clothing became filmier and often diaphanous. Women rejoiced other innovations, such as using floaty bias fabrics on skirts or the ease of slipping a gown over the head instead of having help!

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