Hollywood and the Cosmetics Industry in the Early 20th Century


This exhibit has been created to track the relationship between the bourgeoning cosmetics industry in relation to Hollywood and its celebrity culture in the early 20th century. From nearly its inception the film industry formed a symbiotic relationship with the cosmetics industry. Hollywood studios needed cosmetics to make-up their performers, and the cosmetics companies began to use their working relationship to market their products to the female consumer. Starting in the 1910s, as film became a more popular form of entertainment for the masses, cosmetics advertisements in magazines and newspapers began to grow in not only quantity but size, changing from small ads in the corners of the back pages to half or full-page advertisements. The amount of advertisements and actress endorsements of beauty products only continued to increase during the prosperous 1920s, as the film industry became increasingly popular. During the 1930s, cosmetics were cemented as essential for women, thus despite the Depression the market continued to prosper. By the 1940s, the new standard of femininity and female beauty centred around the use of cosmetics was solidified in American culture.

This exhibit will also explore the history of women as consumers of these beauty products. In the 19th century, the "painted woman" was a symbol of immorality, prostitution, and undesirability. The period studied in this exhibit covers the complete change in public opinion on women's use of cosmetics. It is important to note that the 'average American woman' that these companies were advertising to were by no means representative of all women across the United States. The primary consumer of these cosmetics, especially in the 1910s and 1920s as the mass market was being established, were white, American-born, middle and upper-class women. The consumption of cosmetics was also largely confined to large cities until the market reached a certain level of popularity and branched into smaller towns and rural areas in the 30s and 40s.

The ideal of the "New Woman" emerged at the end of the 19th century, but really started to take hold in the 1910s. The "New Woman" was more independent and pushed the boundaries of the male-dominated society. Hollywood's film stars were the role models for this new ideal, and became sources of inspiration and subjects for American women to emulate. As such, screen actresses became the beauty influencers of the period.


I am using Omeka to create this exhibit because it is the best tool to help me incorporate all of the visual sources I have found in my research. With a topic that is so centred around visual culture, using a platform that highlights visual aids is essential. 


Hannah Blundon