Face Value: Vintage Beauty Advice– Part One

I’ve always been fascinated with beauty and fashions from different eras. Whether it was the 40s femme fatales on TV matinees or ladies in old Woman’s Weeklys matching their lipstick shade to their star sign—I wanted to know how they did it.

Prior to the internet the main way to find out was to search out old magazines and the books published as ‘beauty guides’. Luckily there were many such books published in the 20th century—there has always been a loud chorus telling women what to do with their bodies! Just as interesting to me was always the admonitions on what Not To Do – what could women be wearing that would cause clergymen to write to the papers or movie stars be enlisted to make public service announcements?


This won’t be a comprehensive survey by any means… but if you want to hold my hand we will take a peek into boudoirs from times past… and maybe even come away with some secrets that still hold up today!


She looked a perfect lady, in style and manner too
She wore the latest hat, and a patent leather shoe
But let this be a warning to young men near and far
You can’t judge the marmalade by the label on the jar!

‘She Looked a Perfect Lady’ by A.J. Mills & Albert Perry

First up in our little time-jaunt lets look in on the ladies in the first two decades on the 20th century– think music halls, the ladies of Downton Abbey, and Gibson Girls.

lily elsie

The popular ideal of Edwardian beauty can be summed up in one name—Lily Elsie. A British stage actress who become world-famous with her Westend hit in 1907 ‘A Merry Widow’ Elsie was little and round, with dark hair and eyes and “the most kissable mouth in all England… she possesses the Cupid’s bow outline with the ends curving upward delicately, all ready for smiles….”  (Atlanta Constitution newspaper in America, writing in 1915)


Lily Elsie was the most photographed woman in England during the 1900s and 1910s—which is probably why I knew her face long before her name. In fact my mother had found her picture in behind a family photo in a frame belonging to my Great-Great-Aunt and her mysterious presence there was a bit of the riddle for mum and me. Probably she came with the frame—but I like to think it was her spell-binding looks that stopped Aunty Helen from tossing her picture!

In Edwardian times a woman was supposed to be petite and yet soft and dimpled, with an ample bosom and a tiny waist.  This was generally achieved through clever corsetry, although the impossibility of this ideal did not go unnoticed by women of the time–

“they expect you to have a nineteen inch waist and a thirty-eight inch bust and just hips enough to make your skirts set prettily, and slender hands with plump arms, and a swanlike throat, with a chest that hasn’t a bone showing.  And who has all these things, I’d like to know?  If you wear a twelve-inch collar your chest is bound to be bony and your bust flat and your arms like sticks.  And if you have dimpled elbows and a boneless neck, you’re almost certain to have a double chin!” (The Complete Beauty Book)

Elizabeth Anstruther’s recommended stance for breathing exercises.  It is unclear whether you were supposed to put this outfit on just for the deep breathing or if you could keep it on for doing the housework as well.

One of my favourite books from this era is The Complete Beauty Book by Elizabeth Anstruther.  Anstruther takes a firm line on things women should not do—which seems to be anything that might be modern.

She is especially opposed to The Grotesque Walk that arises from over athleticism—especially playing golf. Deep breathing and housework are the ideal exercise for women. Also out are cosmetics and (shudder) hair dye—most particularly bleach. “Women have been known to dye their hair for decent reasons, but bleached hair is inseparably associated with the courtesan class”.

It wouldn’t really be until the 1930s that platinum hair gained such favour that women started en masse boarding the clorox train with a one-way ticket to whoresville, but obviously enough had started doing it in 1906 that it warranted a warning.


So what was permissible? Apart from deep breathing and good posture, Anstruther suggests you put your faith in fanning your hair and whitening your hands with almond-meal mixed with lemon juice. Apart from that you should really be focussing on your character.

In actual fact, although cosmetics were not really considered ‘nice’ (despite Kate Winslet’s full face of slap in Titanic—arghh my eyes! It burns my nerd brain!) they were available and in fairly wide use. The main items would have been pots of rouge which could be used on cheeks and as a stain on lips, and powder; either loose or in the form of papier poudre. These would have been either purchased at the chemist or made at home—although commercial cosmetic producers were working hard to make ready to use products the norm.

If you want to try concocting a little Edwardian glamour yourself, why not turn your hand to a little cosmetic D.I.Y.?  This recipe comes from the 1910 book Health and Beauty Hints by Margaret Mixter.  

Homemade Rouge:
Carmine, one-quarter drachm;

Sweet almond oil, one half drachm;

One ounce of Powdered magnesia or Rice powder.

To mix, mingle the carmine and powder, and then slowly work into the oil. the preparation should be forced through coarse muslin cloth several times, pressing out the lumps. It will be in powder form, the oil being absorbed.

A drachm is an old-fashioned term apothecary’s term– it translates to about one eighth of an ounce, or 3.5 grams.  Carmine is another name for cochineal– the red colouring that comes from insects and is still used in food colouring.

A translation of this recipe would be–1/4 teaspoon powdered food colouring, 1 teaspoon almond oil, 1/4 cup rice powder.

Mix and push through muslin as above.  You are now ready to blush like a beautiful Edwardian rose!


Auckland ladies would have been able to consult with Helena Rubinstein herself in 1909 when cosmetic queen made a flying visit (direct from London and Vienna) to her ‘Valaze Depot’ in Queen Street.  Cosmetics pioneers like Rubinstein, Elizabeth Arden and Max Factor were making huge leaps in the development of makeup in these decades.

helena rubinstein

Some of the major innovations were the invention of ‘pancake’ foundation – introduced by Max Factor in 1914 and the push-up lipstick tube—whose inventor is debated but which were widely available by the end of the 1910s.

Max Factor was working in Hollywood and helped to design the heavily kohl-ed ‘Vamp’ look that became movie star Theda Bara’s trademark and which heralded the heavier eyeliner that would come in the 1920s.

Theda Bara in make-up for her role as Cleopatra.

So now we know what they were putting on their faces– how were they taking it off?  Although products proliferated during the twentieth century, women’s skincare routines actually remained pretty similar throughout the first half.  The main steps were cold cream, toner and skin food.  

Cold cream was a fat-based cream that was slathered on and used to dissolve dirt and oils.  A common way of making it was to simply press flowers like elderflowers or violets into lard that had been clarified. A less disgusting recipe is to simply blend wax with oil and flower-water.


Homemade Cold Cream

Put 4 oz of beeswax in a heat proof bowl above a saucepan of water over a low heat until the wax is soft enough to beat.  Add 8ozs almond oil and 4ozs rosewater (a couple of drops of rose geranium oil makes a nice addition at this point) and beat until nice and creamy.  Pop into a nice pot. To use– put a decent layer all over the face and then wipe off with a warm wet face cloth.  Follow with a toner made from witch-hazel mixed with rosewater!

I use a cold cream like this as a make up remover– as oil dissolves oils it works really well!  If you don’t feel like making your own Lush’s Ultrabland is a very similar product.

A sassy Irish gal sporting the popular Gibson Girl pompadour hairstyle.

I hope this little journey has been as fun for you as it was for me– tune in next time when I mine the 1920s for beauty tips and things get really wild!

2 thoughts on “Face Value: Vintage Beauty Advice– Part One

  1. What a delightful jaunt around the cosmetic traps. Make-up seems to have made a rapid transition from dangerously sluttish to an obligatory component of getting dressed up. I guess Helena Rubenstein, Max Factor, etc. plus the roaring 20’s had parts to play in this.

    Liked by 1 person

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