Makeup artist Lisa Eldridge’s new BBC2 series, Makeup: A Glamorous History, explores what the beauty looks of three iconic moments in British history tell us about each era. Episode 3, Britain in the Roaring 20s, looks at 1920s flappers and how the look reflected young women’s new freedoms in the postwar age.

This was the era when cinemagoing boomed and everyone wanted to look like their favourite film star. Eldridge visited the BFI National Archive to find out from our curators what impact technical innovations in filmmaking, such as lighting and the close-up, and the search for the ‘film face’ had on the development of makeup products. Plus how the projection of film star glamour in the popular cine magazines took this makeup from the big screen to beauty counters on every high street.

Portraits from BFI Special Collections. Click on individual images for captions.

Along with costume and makeup, the film studio portrait photographer played a crucial role in the projection of glamour and the artifice of screen beauty. Commissioned by the studios to create portraits of leading men and women, they helped to take a star’s look out beyond the cinema auditorium and into print. The photographer’s skill with lighting, and their work in the darkroom during post-production, produced striking images to help promote a film star’s image. The portraits were often created as close-ups, mirroring cinema technologies and lighting to give the face a luminous glow. Early pioneers of British film studio portraiture included Fred Daniels and Eric Gray.

Publicity photograph of Clara Bow circa 1926
© Paramount Pictures/BFI National Archive

Popular film magazines like Picturegoer were a window into the world of British and Hollywood film stars. The readership of the magazines, primarily young women, dramatically increased through the 1920s and 30s, reflecting an appetite for stories about the leading stars’ glamorous lifestyles, fashions and the latest advances in beauty and makeup. 

When Paramount Pictures cut Clara Bow’s hair in 1926 so she had a short, bob-style haircut, they were promoting a radically modern look. The ‘It Girl’ emerged. Other Hollywood stars, such as Theda Bara, were sent to New York for styling, to then be captured by leading photographers such as Elmer Underwood and Bert Elias Underwood. The photographs were then mass produced by the Hollywood studios and shared with the adoring public, often as postcards or small reproductions that could fit into a packet of cigarettes: eminently portable talismans of their favourite stars.

Portraits such as these, which are preserved in BFI Special Collections, provide a tantalising glimpse back to the glittering world of the roaring 20s screen idol.


Makeup: A Glamorous History – Britain in the Roaring 20s will be broadcast on Tuesday 4 May, 9pm, BBC2

Piccadilly (1929) and Shooting Stars (1928) are available to rent on BFI Player.


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