Colour Coordination

As brighter colours became fashionable during the 1920s, advice columnists encouraged women to add more colour to their homes and clothing. Much of this advice centred around two themes. The selected colours should reflect a woman’s personality and be harmoniously coordinated.

The average home has the same difficulty that the average individual has, in at least one particular—the home and individual both far too frequently lack color. And lacking color, they lack charm and graciousness and beauty as well. The color that you introduce into your home is as definitely a part of the personality of the home as the color of an individual, whether that color is happiness, charm, gaiety or beauty of soul.
Most people are afraid of color in the home. They hear, mysteriously, of color schemes, but they do not know what color schemes mean. They hear of colours that blend or complement each other, and that seems even more mysterious. The result is that because they are afraid to introduce brilliancy into their homes because they might make a mistake, they put instead, drab things together and it is not surprising when the whole effect becomes most uninteresting and dull.

(Gooson, 1926, p. 24)

Most professional advice about selecting and coordinating dress colours focused on harmonising them with the colour of a woman’s complexion, hair and/or eyes.

To give individual value to a woman’s complexion and figure, to her natural style and type of feminine charm, color harmony and logical design in dress are the first essentials. Every woman should know which colors and which lines are most becoming to her and, vice versa, which she should avoid.

 Colors influence the appearance of the eyes, hair, and complexion. Those colors which harmonize with the complexion tints improve them. Those colors which disagree with the hues of the skin, eyes, and hair, are responsible for a corresponding loss of beauty. Colors influence costume effect. Inharmonious colors associated in dress hurt the eye and make for harshness and vulgarity.

(Melrose, 1922, p.5)

To provide examples of suitable colour harmonies, fashion experts classified women into broad colour groups and then suggested colours for each ‘type’.

1925 Colour Chart from Womans World

Above: 1925 Colour Complexion Chart from Woman’s World with fabric colour suggestions.

Make-up in the 1920s

After gaining ground in the previous decade, make-up was became more socially acceptable in the 1920s and women were encouraged to use it to enhance their complexion, cover defects and dramatise their eyes and lips. However, its use should not be overstated. Many younger women were enthusiastic adopters but more conservative women still regarded it with a degree of distaste and most women in the general population used it sparingly or not at all. Powder and rouge were most commonly used but lipstick gained in popularity as the decade progressed.

Beauty advice on selecting make-up – whether it was from beauty experts writing articles in magazines and newspapers or from cosmetic companies – followed the path laid down by the fashion industry. They counselled that make-up helped a woman to express her personal style; that colours should be chosen that suited her complexion, hair and/or eyes; and that make-up should enhance, not overpower, a woman’s natural colouring and facial features.

The object of rouge and lipstick is, not to change the natural color, but to increase it without altering its tone. Thus if you have a red-violet coloring, a vivid orange rouge will not only fairly shriek its presence but will give you a harsh, hard look and usually clash with the color of your hair and eyes.
Powder should always match the natural background of the skin, which may be found on the neck and forehead. Remember that powder is not designed to change the natural color, but to give a soft velvety finish and to remove shine and other imperfections.

(Hempstead, 1929, p. 43)

Like their fashion counterparts beauty experts also used types to make shade suggestions.

See also: Make-up, Personality and Types

Selecting make-up to complement a woman’s colouring was not always easy in the 1920s. Make-up colour ranges were very limited and generally only suited to lighter complexions. This explains the porcelain appearance of many 1920s celebrities like Clara Bow, Billie Dove, Anita Loos and Louise Brooks.

Shade ranges widened when companies added deeper tones better suited to suntanned skin as the practice of sunbathing became more fashionable in the 1920s. However, as this example from Elizabeth Arden shows, available colours were still very restricted, particularly when it came to lipsticks and eye make-up:

Venetian Flower Powder: Shades: White, Cream, Maréchal Neil, Naturelle, Rose, Special Rachel and Spanish Rachel.
Poudre d’Illusion: Shades: Illusion shade, Rachel, Mat Fonce, Ocre, White, Minerva, Banana and Poudre de Lilas.
Venetian Rouge Amoretta: Shades: Light, Medium, Dark and American Beauty.
Venetian Lip Paste: Shades: Star and Carnival.
Venetian Arden Lip Stick (original): Shades: Light and Dark.
Venetian Arden Lip Stick: Shades: Bright, Medium and Maroon.
Venetian Indelible Lip Pencil: Shades: Dark and Light.
An Indelible Lip salve: Shades: Light and Dark.
Venetian eyelash cosmetique: Shades: Brown, Dark Brown, Black.
Arden Liquid Cosmetique: Shades: Dark Brown, Brown and Black.
Venetian Eyebrow Pencil: Shades: Black, Dark Brown, Brown and Blue.
Venetian Eye Sha-do: Shades: Blue, Medium, Dark Blue, Dark Brown, Light Brown, Gray Brown, Black and Violet.

(Elizabeth Arden, 1928)

As well as selecting make-up to harmonise with a woman’s colouring women were counselled to coordinate their powder, rouge and lipstick.

A visitor to France states that the Parisienne today is careful to have her lip-stick, rouge and powder exactly to tone. If she be a brunette (despite the temporary preference for blondes) she will have a more orange touch to her lip-stick and a darker shade to her powder and rouge. The great secret is that they must have the same tone shade.

(The American perfumer & essential oil review, 1926, October)

Nail polish

Women who took up suntanning noticed that their darker skin suited more vibrant colours and began to replace their pale or pink-coloured nail polish with something brighter and more obvious. This, in turn, led to the vogue for matching nail polish with clothing and soon more outlandish colours, such as blue, green and purple, became popular with the fashionable elites, both on the beach and elsewhere.

For some months Mayfair has been discussing it. Was it really true that smart Paris women were having their finger-nails coloured to match their gowns, that in Biarritz not only red finger-nails, but gold and purple and rainbow tinted ones, were seen every evening? And even so, would people like it over here, or would they think it outré?
Now it has passed the stage of discussion; it is a definite fashion. You may take it or leave it as you like; for there are definitely two camps over the question. Many smart women declare emphatically against it; many more, equally smart, demand it with every manicure.
Those who do, go round to Hanover Square and ask Francis, who has a range of twelve shades, to match their finger tips to their evening gowns.

(British Harper’s Bazaar, 1930)

Although fashionable society women might adopt brightly-coloured polish, women in the general population generally stayed with clear or light pink (natural) if they used it at all. If red nail polish was applied then coordinating it with clothing and lipstick was still fashionable.

Red can look most seductive if it completes a colour scheme of lips and beads, or lips and a red frock. Here great care is necessary. If the nail lacquer does not exactly match the lipstick the result is a disaster. Let us be soigneé in our daring details or else eschew them altogether.

(British Harper’s Bazaar, 1930)

Compared with other forms of make-up, nail polish did well during the depression and the use of reds increased as the older transparent polishes gave way to cream or opaque types.

See also: Nail Polishes

Through the 1930s, nail polish companies continued to push the idea that polish should match clothing as it encouraged women to buy different shades of polish for different outfits, thereby increasing sales. In addition, when companies like Cutex and Revlon added lipsticks to their range they promoted the fashion of matching lipsticks with nail polishes as it helped ensure that women would purchase two matching items.

See also: Cutex (Notham Warren) and Revlon

As sales of red nail polish grew, coordinating lipstick and polish became so widespread that many cosmetic companies without a nail polish in their range – such as Charles of the Ritz, Richard Hudnut and Dorothy Gray – added one to maintain sales of their lipsticks.

Make-up in the 1930s

As with other commodities, the sale of most cosmetics fell during the early years of the Great Depression and many beauty firms increased their shade ranges so their make-up lines were more competitive.

Like the development of skin-care routines – which recommended that women to use more than one item to get the full benefit – cosmetic companies endorsed the idea that make-up colours should be colour coordinated as it encouraged them to buy their lipstick, rouge, face powder and nail polish from the same source.

When you choose your make-up select it with an eye toward your ensemble, just as you do with your costume. Every smart woman knows that it is not enough for each hat, bag, dress, shoe to be chic. They must be combined in a harmonious ensemble.
Yet so few of us realize that make-up should have the same careful color-scheming. In a word you must ensemble your make-up as well as your costumes. Then only will you be seen in your best light, your eyes colorful and starry; your cheeks gay with a youthful blush; your lips a warm, inviting accent.

(Harriet Hubbard Ayer, c.1938)

1934 Le Code des Fards

Above: 1934 Le Code des Fards. Coordinated make-up shades suggested for different beauty types.

Naturally, women who wanted to combine make-up from different brands got very little help from cosmetic companies on how to do this. Magazines sometimes came to the rescue here, providing information about equivalent colours across a range of companies.

1935 Votre Beaute colour chart

Above: 1935 Chart from the French magazine ‘Votre Beauté’ listing colours from a range of cosmetic companies that go well with different fabric shades.

As shade ranges increased during the 1930s, providing clear and concise information on how to coordinate powder, rouge, lipstick and other forms of make-up became an important marketing tool. Unfortunately, cosmetic companies increasingly adopted another idea used by fashion designers and began giving their new make-up shades dramatic rather than descriptive names. This meant that recognisable shade names such as light, medium and dark or geranium, crimson, cherry and raspberry were replaced with something that would capture more attention but had no intrinsic meaning.

Shade charts

Colour cards could be used to give customers an idea of the shade ranges a company produced but they did not explain how the colours were to be combined.

See also: Colour Cards

Although colour wheels and colour fans were used, the simplest and cheapest way to show how to colour coordinate make-up was to organise it into a shade chart. These listed different make-up items – rouge, powder, lipstick etc. – against set beauty types, enabling women to quickly identify the best make-up shades for their particular colouring. The charts varied depending on the beauty types the company used, the make-up items included in the chart, and the number of shades they came in.

1934 Harriet Hubbard Ayer shade chart

Above: 1934 Harriet Hubbard Ayer shade chart.

The charts could be simplified by using common shade names for similarly toned and coordinated lipsticks, rouges and nail polishes, a practice that was widely but not universally adopted.

1939 Dorothy Gray colour chart

Above: 1939 Dorothy Gray shade chart with lipsticks and rouge using the same shade names.

Generally speaking, company shade charts aligned make-up shades with beauty types and with most making little or no reference to fashion colours. However, this did not mean that cosmetic companies did not take fashion into account.

Fashion and make-up

Unlike fashion colours that changed from season to season and year to year, lipsticks, rouges, face powders and nail polishes were sold in the same shades over long periods of time. Although limited, the colour ranges available in the 1920s and 1930s generally included vivid colours for evening wear and enough shades to enable women to make some allowances for different outfits and/or accessories like brightly-coloured jewellery.

In applying rouge, powder, lip stick and eyebrow pencil be sure to place your mirror so that the light falls squarely upon your face. Be sure, too, that it is the kind of light—sunlight or electricity—in which you are later to appear. This is very important because light influences color and controls effect. A shade of rouge that is distinctly “off” for daytime use may be entirely right and charming in the evening. The same thing is true of powder.
The safest way to proceed is this: first be sure that your light is right, then place near you the gown you have decided to wear, and then experiment until you have achieved exactly the right effect.

(Richard Hudnut, 1927, pp. 28-29)

In the 1930s, recognising that make-up, like hair dyes, could change a woman’s ‘natural’ colouring, Elizabeth Arden and others went further, suggesting that make-up could enable women to wear a greater range of fashionable colours than her natural colouring might otherwise suggest.

ELIZABETH ARDEN proves that, with the clever use of her Assets to Beauty, you can style your face to harmonize with the new colors, and be charming in all of them.
WITH WHITE—a slightly darker shade of your powder foundation … a richer shade for your rouge … Poudre d’Illusion in Banana or Rachel … and a very vivid lipstick, possibly the new “Chariot.”
WITH SKIPPER BLUE—which has a tendency to throw deep shadows up into the face—a clever eye make-up is necessary. Wear a light make-up … a light shade of rouge … powder with a dash of pink in it, and a bright lipstick. Your Eye-Shado should repeat the blue of the dress. For eyes that are blue try finishing the lashes with light blue Cosmetique tipped with black.

(Elizabeth Arden advertisement, 1931)

Make-up used in this way made allowances for, or enhanced, fashion colours – with its seasonal and yearly changes of colour – but new shades were not generally developed as an intrinsic part of the fashion cycle.

In the late 1930s, Charles Revson took a different approach. He treated Revlon nail enamels as fashion items, introduced new nail shades each spring and autumn, and then coordinated these with Revlon lipsticks and rouges when these were introduced in 1939 and 1940 respectively.

See also: Revlon

This idea encouraged women to buy new make-up items on a regular basis simply because of a change in colour. This increased sales and other large cosmetic companies followed suit and soon were introducing new shades on a seasonal basis.

Although Revlon kept an eye on colour forecasts its make-up was not overtly coordinated with them, nor did its shades specifically target beauty types; the suggestion being that they were suitable for everyone. However, other cosmetic companies made specific references to both. For example, in 1945, Helena Rubinstein introduced her Color-Spectrograph system which combined fashion, complexion and personality. It provided make-up and fashion colour suggestions for four beauty types – Blonde, Medium-Brown, Redheads, Brunette and Silver-Grey – with coordinated colours supplied for Self-Harmony, Complementary, Dramatic and Subtle looks.

1945 Helena Rubinstein Color-Spectrograph

Above: 1945 Helena Rubinstein Color-Spectrograph.

Some later developments

Leaving to one side the increased used of hair dyes in the 1950s – which could affect a woman’s overall colouring – two developments in make-up in the 1950s and 1960s should be mentioned: the introduction of new types of foundation and the growth of eye make-up.

Foundations: After the war, new tinted foundations gradually replaced the use of face powder. By the 1970s, these came in shades that could be matched to most complexions which resulted in a natural-looking film of colour on the face. The wide range of formulations – compressed powder, cream, stick, liquid – also meant that most women could find a foundation that suited their skin type. This meant that most women could find a make-up base that matched their complexion.

Eye make-up: Through the 1960s, make-up placed more emphasis on the eyes. When eyeshadow was used it was often highly coloured and not coordinated with lipstick so the combined effect could be gaudy. Although some women embraced colourful eye make-up others dispensed with it altogether and only used black and brown mascara, eyeliner and eyebrow pencil. This emphasised the eyes and avoided colour coordination problems with other forms of make-up, hair, skin and eye colour as well as colour clashes with clothing or accessories; a solution many women still adopt today.

Updated: 20th October 2017


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