‘I’ve got to put my face on,’ my mother would always say before preparing to go out for the evening. As a child, this expression confused me. Surely she had a face already? And how different she looked when she kissed me goodnight in her sticky pink lipstick, feathery false eyelashes and the scratchy silver face glitter that matched her silver wig and lurex maxi dress. This was, after all, the late Sixties in Swinging London.

As an adult, the phrase still fascinates me. In fact, ever since I was asked to write a book about compacts and cosmetics from the Victorian period to the present, I have thought about little else. It is ironic that given the vast amount we spend on beauty products (£16.3bn in the UK in 2008), you can wander round the fashion collection of the V&A without coming across so much as a single lipstick case. Posh frocks and no make-up? That’s only half the story! And so, to uncover the secrets of dressing tables through the decades, I’ve had to create my own collection, searching out vintage cosmetics everywhere from Bond Street dealers to car boot fairs and eBay.

Filmy foundations

The word make-up originated in the theatre and the overtones of make-believe and deception go some way to explaining the ambivalent attitude of men towards cosmetics. Too much ‘slap’ (a theatrical term, deriving from slapping on the greasepaint) and a girl is branded a ‘slapper’. In the 18th century - when women blanched their complexions with white lead and hid pock marks under decorative patches - men’s fear of deception was so real that, in 1770, Parliament passed an act decreeing that any woman who betrayed a man into marriage by ‘scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool (rouge), iron stays, high-heeled shoes, bolstered hips and like misdemeanours, shall incur the penalty of the law in force against witchcraft and that marriage shall stand null and void.’

Reacting against the excesses of the 18th century, the Victorian lady was expected to be entirely cosmetic-free, her naked face reflecting her inner virtue. But you can’t keep a good woman down (let alone a bad one), and a nice girl’s dressing table was anything but empty. Cold cream and skin whiteners were de rigueur and the second half of the 19th century saw the establishment of major brands such as Pond’s, Vaseline and Boots.

Lack of make-up was compensated for with elaborate hair care. Hair was curled and crimped to within an inch of its life and, by the 1860s, Britain was the world’s leading importer of human hair, used to create wigs and hair pieces, or ‘rats’. Any injection of colour into the complexion was a clandestine operation. Victorian girls secretly rouged their cheeks with a red ribbon soaked in brandy and tinted their eyelashes with elderberry juice. By the 1900s however, women were agitating for new freedoms. American suffragettes wore bright red lipstick as part of their campaigning battledress – but, for the right to vote and the freedom to apply make-up in public without censure, it would take a world war.

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Flapper faces

‘Men and women are becoming every year more indistinguishable,’ observed Vogue in 1922 as a new generation of jazz-dancing, cocktail-drinking flappers bobbed their hair, shortened their skirts, and took to wearing make-up in public. In 1923, American James Bruce Mason patented the swivelling, metal lipstick tube and, once lipstick was safely and prettily packaged, there was no stopping it. Manufacturers experimented with novelty designs, from matchbooks that opened to reveal disposable, lipstick-covered sticks to bracelets with hidden lipstick compartments.

Eyes were another area of emphasis. Chemist TL Williams developed a new mascara made from coal and Vaseline, which was applied with a little brush. He trialled it on his sister Mabel – whose boyfriend Chet had fallen in love with another woman – with startling results. Thanks, allegedly, to her enhanced peepers, Mabel married her beau and, in 1915, Williams founded Maybelline, combining his sister’s name with Vaseline. New looks such as the ‘It Girl’ and the ‘Vamp’ were popularised by Hollywood movie stars.
Cosmetic entrepreneurs Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein, Max Factor and Charles Revson (founder of Revlon), built up multi-million pound businesses telling us how to cleanse, tone and moisturise – and how to paint our nails in rainbow colours, thanks to the new the nitrocellulose paint, originally developed for the automobile industry.

War Paint

By the outbreak of World War II, wearing make-up wasn’t just a pleasure, it was part of a woman’s patriotic duty. ‘There must be no surrender to circumstances, no giving ground to careless grooming,’ urged a 1942 Yardley advertisement in Churchillian tones. ‘Never should we forget that good looks and good morale go hand in hand.’

Typically, however, cosmetics were in short supply. Lipstick machines were commandeered for making shells and bullets, while firms such as Coty found themselves producing army foot powder and camouflage make-up. Women met the shortfall by embracing the same ‘make do and mend’ attitude that they applied to their clothes. Beetroot juice served for cheeks and lips, boot polish for mascara. A favourite Christmas present was a homemade powder puff sewn from rabbit fur. If you could manage to get hold of real lipstick (perhaps from an American GI), bright scarlets, with such stirring names as ‘Patriot Red’ and ‘Fighting Red’, were the favourite wartime tones.

Post-war beauty

When men were demobbed, women had to leave their wartime jobs and go back to home- and baby-making. The 1950s saw the return of ostentatiously ladylike make-up and sparkly powder compacts. The favourite cosmetic phrase of the decade was ‘perfect grooming’. In the 1960s, the teenage revolution shook up make-up along with everything else. The new advertising buzzwords were ‘natural’, ‘youthful’ and ‘translucent’. Mod-style white lipstick replaced the sensual scarlets of the 1950s. False eyelashes created the big-eyed look most famously modelled by Twiggy, and gilded compacts were cast aside in favour of Mary Quant’s bright yellow tin of wax cosmetic crayons.

Whether it’s Biba in the 1970s, or Poison perfume in the 1980s, every decade has beauty products that somehow capture the spirit of the times. Over the past months I have managed to track down many such items, resulting in what my friends like to refer to as ‘Madeleine’s Museum of Beauty’, with rather undue emphasis I sometimes feel on the ‘Mad’. Yet they all love my collection and many have added to it with items of their own. And as for me, though I might have finished my book, the story of make-up goes on and, for the moment at least, so does my collection.

See Madeleine talk about her book Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Day on this video