We often compare the “modern” ideal of beauty to those of earlier ages, but we rarely notice changes in our ideals of beauty from one decade to the next. 

Join us as we review ideals of beauty and makeup trends by decade, as embodied by 10 beauty icons of the 20th century.

1900s Beauty Icon: Gladys Cooper

The actress Gladys Cooper perfectly embodied the Edwardian ideal of beauty – pale skin, full brows, deep-set dark eyes and pearly pink lips. To obtain that pale complexion, Edwardian women used enamel and rice powder or pearl powder. To apply it, they used papier poudre – thin sheets of powdered paper, which could be applied discreetly without the need of a mirror. They stained their lips with geranium and poppy petals. 

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1910s Beauty Icon: Theda Bara

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One of the most mesmerizing beauty icons of the 20th century, Theda Bara first rocked what was to become the “Vamp” look – pale white skin, heavy eye makeup (inspired by Middle Eastern makeup techniques) and dark red lips. Certain makeup innovations contributed to this look. 

The 1910s saw the first mascara, produced by a certain TL Williams, who named it Maybelline after his sister Mabel. Legend has it that Mabel used to make her own mascara from hot beads of colored wax, which inspired her brother to develop a serialized version. Max Factor launched the first commercial eye shadow, made from henna extract.

1920s Beauty Icon: Louise Brooks

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With her pale skin, bow lips, signature crop and daring style, Louise Brooks is one of the timeless beauty icons of the 20th century and the perfect embodiment of “flapper chic”. Women keen to rock the flapper look wore natural-looking powder and dark eye makeup, created using kohl and cake mascara. Lipstick was applied as a “Cupid’s-Bow”  to the upper lip.

1930s Beauty Icon: Carole Lombard

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With her high cheekbones, bright eyes and full lips, Carole Lombard perfectly illustrated the ideal of beauty of the 1930s. Women abandoned the heavy kohl eyes for pencil thin eyebrows and brightly-colored eye shadow. In lip makeup, the bow look was replaced by a finer horizontal shape. The decade also brought the innovative idea of facial contouring, i.e subtly changing one’s face shape through makeup.

1940s Pin-up Beauty: Rita Hayworth

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Rita Hayworth, one of the most seductive beauty icons of the 20th century, became the ultimate embodiment of 1940s pin-up beauty. The highlights of the 1940s pin-up look were fuller brows, understated eye makeup (muted eyeshadow, thin eyeliner, jet black mascara) and full bright red lips.

1950s Beauty Icon: Marilyn Monroe

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One of the timeless beauty icons of the 20th century, Marilyn Monroe both embodies and transcends the ideal of beauty of the age. An exaggeration of the 1940s pin-up look, the 1950s look aimed for a pale, mask-like complexion, highlighting the eyes and lips. The ‘mask effect’ was created using liquid foundation and heavy powder. The eyes were highlighted using winged eyeliner makeup, while the sultry red lips were made to look fuller by over-drawing the top lip.

1960s Beauty Icon: Jean Shrimpton

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Jean Shrimpton remains, for many, the “poster child” of the 1960s Mod style. The 1960s Mod look highlighted the eyes, using winged eyeliner and false eyelashes, while lips were naturally defined and painted in pale or pastel shades.

1970s Beauty Icon: Farrah Fawcett

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Farrah Fawcett perfectly illustrates the slightly contradictory ideal of beauty of the 1970s, from its worship of fit, tanned bodies to the glam taste for shimmery, glittery products.

1980s Beauty Icon: Madonna

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One of the most versatile beauty icons of the 20th century, Madonna is a style chameleon, but, in her 1980s avatar, she perfectly illustrated the ideal of beauty of the age – full-on makeup, heavy blush, blue eyeshadow and neon colors.

1990s Beauty Icon: Cindy Crawford

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Cindy Crawford embodied to a fault the ideal of beauty of the 1990s. The decade saw the return to a more natural look: pale, matte skin, matte or neutral eyeshadow and matte deep red or dark brown lips.