It was in 1920 that Max Factor, a pioneer of Hollywood movie cosmetics, began selling his line of Society Make Up to the public. This ushered in a new era of acceptance for lipstick, and cosmetics in general – even his blatant use of the word “makeup" was then new. Before the decade was out, he had also invented lip gloss (1928) and introduced the first commercial lip brush to the public (1929).
Joan Crawford with a lipstick in the handle of her purse, c. 1929.
Indelibility was the major problem that plagued lipstick manufacturers during this era. Lipsticks had a tendency to turn bluish or purple after application, and made the wearer look ghastly. Almost all lipstick makers claimed their products to be indelible, non-drying, and creamy, but the first truly indelible lipstick would not be created until the end of the 1930s – again with Max Factor, now headed by Max Jr., – leading the way. His Tru-Color Lipstick came on the market in early 1940, but was heavily advertised in 1939.
The cosmetics industry may have expected sales to plummet after the Stock Market crash of 1929 and the subsequent economic downturn. But, just as women of World War II would cling to their lipstick as a sort of “red badge of courage,” so would Depression era women hold on to their lipsticks, if they could. One popular drugstore brand, Tangee, claimed its sales were better than ever. “1931 a year of depression?” read one ad from 1932, “Not for Tangee, the World’s Most Famous Lipstick and Rouge! More Tangee was used in 1930 than in the prosperous days of ’29, and even more last year than ever before!” High end companies like Elizabeth Arden, reported similar increases.
Tangee ad , 1931
Tube shapes varied by manufacturer. Some were tiny, bullet shaped. Others were long and crayon-like. They often came in a variety of sizes, at equivalent prices. Cases were metal. Early tubes had a sliding lever to raise the product, invented in 1915. This was soon replaced by the swivel technique still used today. A number of compact sets were sold as “trios” of powder, rouge and lipstick, all refillable.
Above: Clara Bow.
Below: Call her Savage! Many lipsticks claimed their color lasted, but it was the bunk before Max Factor's Tru-Color in 1940. Savage, a drugstore brand, in “jungle shades” with “thrilling perma-color,” 1939.
In the late teens, Max Factor created a lip style that came to be called “vampire lips” “rosebud lips” or “bee-stung lips” (depending on the type of character being played) for silent stars like Nita Naldi and Mae Murray. He made the lips this way: he blotted out the actresses’ natural lipline with greasepaint, then dipped his thumb into the lip pomade and made two impressions with it on the upper lip, and one upside down thumb print for the lower lip. The lips were then refined and perfected with a lip brush. He did this because the pomade of the time would melt under the hot studio lights and bleed onto the greasepaint of the actresses’ faces. We’ve used this technique to achieve a perfect, "early 20s lip" shape.
Mae Murray, 1923.
Below: Jeanette MacDonald beautifully demonstrates the “hunter’s bow” lip, 1932.
As with nail colors, while red dominated, it was not the only choice available. There were also pinks, corals, tawny and rose shades, besides a wide spectrum of reds. In This Way to Beauty (1936), Helena Rubinstein suggested choosing rogue and lipstick colors to harmonize with your costume: with black or brilliant red, she suggested Chinese Red lipstick; with white, Red Geranium; for yellow, Red Poppy; with gray or green, Red Coral lips; for beige or brown, a Terra Coral lipstick; and with blue, purple, or wine red, Red Velvet or Red Raspberry lipstick.
Detail of a black & white ad for Coty’s new lipstick, 1925, from a high-end fashion magazine catering to wealthy women, called Modes & Manners. The 1939 color ad for Coty’s “Flying Colors” shows its newest shade, Magnet Red, “a dashing red, the makeup accent that your fall frock needs.” Other colors that year: Bali, Gitane, Dahlia, and Light.
Lablanche’s subtly advertised lipsticks, also from Modes & Manners, 1925. This was the year Lois Long began writing a column for The New Yorker under the pseudonym “Lipstick.”
Charles of the Ritz' Bonfire red, “A blaze of autumn color for your lips,” 1930. So that explains why our lips are burning!
This 1932 ad for Tangee confused us at first. Who is being quoted here – him? Or her? Oh, it’s him. Well, it was an honest mistake – after all, if she’s wearing a lot of “paint,” he appears to be auditioning for The Mikado. But we think they’re both overeating – he looks ready to punch her, and she says “I could have killed Tom…” Tangee used the tendency of the period’s lipsticks to change color to its advantage – it started out orange in the tube but unlike the others, “deliberately” changed color on application to harmonize with the wearer’s “natural, individual coloring.” It also claimed to stay on all day. Tangee is still available through the Vermont Country Store.
Cutex, primarily a nail enamel manufacturer, introduced the concept of matching lip and nail colors when they began selling lipsticks c.1934-35. Their 1936 colors came in Natural, Coral (warm), Cardinal (tawny) and Ruby (sophisticated).
1935 Tussy ad. Tussy lipsticks claimed to be not only indelible but scented. Did they get the idea from Hips, Hips Hooray?
Tattoo lipstick in “South Sea” hues, 1937.
Dorothy Gray’s “indelible” Daredevil red for fall 1939.
As we discussed in our Manicures post, Revlon did not enter the lipstick market until 1940. The company began advertising their new lip colors in late 1939, such as this ad from Vogue. Like Cutex, their colors were designed to match nail colors. Those first few colors were: Shy, Windsor, Sun Rose, Bravo, Jueltone, Red Dice, Chilibean, Tringar, and Mahogany.
Max Factor's Tru-Color being promoted in late 1939.
Basten, Fred E. Max Factor’s Hollywood: Glamour, Movies, Makeup (1995).
----Max Factor: The Man Who Changed the Faces of the World (2008).
Ragas, Meg Cohen and Karen Kozlowski. Read My Lips: A Cultural History of Lipstick (1998).
Rubinstein, Helena. This Way to Beauty (1936).
Tobias, Andrew. Fire and Ice: The Story of Charles Revson, the Man who Built the Revlon Empire (1976).
Turudich, Daniela, and Angela Bjork. Vintage Face: Period Looks from the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s (2001).
Woodhead, Lindy. War Paint: Miss Elizabeth Arden and Madame Helena Rubinstein: Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry (2003).
Various period magazines, including Ladies Home Journal, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, New Movie Magazine, Photoplay, and McCall’s.
Top illustration: detail from a Judge magazine cover, May 1931, titled "Most Likely to Succeed"