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These Ingenious Makeup Tricks of Old Hollywood Gave Stars Their Signature Looks

We love watching old movies. The film stars are so glamorous and their look really sums up each era. What would the 1950s have been without Marilyn Monroe? What would the 1920s have been without Gloria Swanson? They visually defined the times with their unique looks. But, they had a few tricks up their sleeves in order to get the look. In the days before makeup products catered to every possible situation and taste, actors and makeup artists had to be extremely creative with the products and knowledge they did have. Add to that imperfect and changing film colors, and you end up with a particular set of tricks to tackle the beauty problems most vexing to stars and starlets of the era. This explains why so many makeup artists closely guarded their beauty tricks and went on to produce their own product lines!

Off Colors

It’s no secret that film depictions will appear washed out in the final product. It’s one of the reasons that film makeup is so heavy handed. But, what you may not have known is the type of film dramatically changes how one must apply their makeup. Early black and white film caused colors to show up wildly different than they did in real life. This was because the orthochromatic film used in the early days of the movie industry was sensitive to blue. That meant that reds appeared nearly black while purples read as something faded, like something the viewer could imagine as a pink. Of course, the viewer needed to imagine all kinds of things while watching an early silent film. But, the makeup used could help to tell that story only if it read properly on camera.

1919 Koadk Eastman book The Photography of Colored Objects

Example of how colors actually appear when filmed on orthochromatic film, 1919. Via/ Internet Archive

You can see from this chart that colors were changed dramatically by the film. Another flaw of early film was that it caused some colors to appear darker than they were. This led to pale foundation color and bleached hair in order to make the actors appears closer to their real life appearances. It wasn’t until panchromatic film came on the market in the 1920s that more realistic makeup could be displayed on screen correctly.

Lip Shape

Lip shape has long been a hot topic in Hollywood. Before lip-plumping kits and advanced cosmetic surgery, starletts had to cheat their lip lines the old-fashioned way. Different eras also each had different “ideal” lip shapes which could be mimicked through overdrawing the lips.

By over drawing whichever parts of the lip needed to be fuller, actors achieved their ideal looks and sometime created their signature styles (think Joan Crawford and Vivien Leigh). It wasn’t only the outer line that got a bit of help. Marilyn Monroe’s signature red lips were created using several shades of red that was built up in layers, with the lightest colors towards the middle of the lips to create a plump look.

Vivien Leigh

Via/ Flickr


While many starlets had their eyebrows shaved off entirely during the 1920s and 30s, some used the soaping method. A mixture of glycerine soap and a tiny amount of water is applied with a brush to the eyebrows. This technique basically takes the place of a brow gel today, except that the hairs are completely flattened against the brow bone. This is then covered with some concealer or grease paint, becoming a blank canvas. After that any shapes of style of eyebrows can then be drawn on.

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