Cosmetics: Women’s Freedom in a Tube

Elizabeth Arden advertisement, Pinpoints, 1939.

Elizabeth Arden advertisement, Pinpoints, 1939.

The inter-war period signalled a time of change for many women as they were granted more responsibility within society. As more women inhabited the office as a place of work during the 1930s, a new sense of freedom was also occurring. Women were now smoking in public, going to parties at weekends without a chaperone and increasing numbers were using makeup. As a result, the interwar period was a turning point for women, with regards to their changing appearances as well as role within society.

Women were wearing and purchasing makeup on a wider scale to change and perfect their appearances during the 1930s. Although widespread availability of make up and other beautification products were available during the flapper era of the 1920s, by the 1930s makeup had become integral to self-expression. Furthermore, as Kathy Peiss highlighted, makeup also contributed to the belief that identity was a ‘purchasable style.’ The number of cosmetic advertisements dominating the pages of fashion magazines during the inter-war period contributes to this idea of a purchasable identity. In the Courtauld’s History of Dress archive, there is a rare fashion journal from 1939 called Pinpoints. The magazine’s first issue documented how its inception was based upon the need to widen the ‘closed circle of fashion,’ as well as the aim to ‘prove itself as an independent, amusing and original step towards the ideal.’ In this respect, the ‘ideal’ woman embraces the necessity of using and purchasing makeup. The accompanying image is an Elizabeth Arden advertisement from 1939. The image is a black and white illustration portraying a fragmented sculpture of the head and neck. What is especially unique about this specific advertisement is how the viewer can physically interact and engage with it. The reader is encouraged to turn the wheel on the page behind the advert in order to display alternative colour groupings of rouge and lipstick, altering the colour combination shown. There is a sense of what the vital ingredients for constructing a fashionable and proper identity of the face are in Elizabeth Arden’s eyes. In this respect, the aim of the advertisement is to reach out to Arden’s target market by highlighting how separate looks can be constructed with different coloured groupings of cosmetics. The missing pieces of the sculpture highlight the fragile nature of faces and consequently reinforce the need for a beauty regime, which will preserve and take care of the face’s appearance. The fragmented sculpture also aligns ideas of craftsmanship and construction with the use of makeup on the face. Women have the freedom to build a lasting identity for themselves by purchasing cosmetics.

Yet, by purchasing additional cosmetics, a woman’s identity can also be altered in order to keep up-to-date with changing and seasonal trends. In this respect, the altering of identity is demonstrated through how women chose to decorate their faces with cosmetics. As a result, women changing and controlling their appearances through the use of cosmetics demonstrated their newfound freedom in the 1930s.

Sources

Peiss, K. Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture (Metropolitan Books, 1998).