Billie Burke, best remembered today for playing Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz, made her name on the theater stages of London and New York during the reign of Edward VII, and she played a substantial part in bridging the Victorian and World War I attitudes toward makeup in the United States. From June 1912 until January 1914, she wrote a column for the Chicago Day secret, covering various topics in the world of women (though she later wrote articles that addressed men’s interests as well).
Many of Burke’s columns focused on removing the stigma from cosmetics; one is entitled Billy [sic] Burke Says It’s All Right to Make Up Your Face But Make It Look as If Nature Did It (March 15, 1913). Very much ahead of her time, she eschewed the long-standing view that makeup is artifice, used for deception and entrapment, writing stridently to one male detractor: Men insist upon beauty in women, but many of them also decry any endeavor to obtain it. Burke clearly makes the link between her makeup expertise and her acting career but, crucially, points out that what is appropriate for the stage is not right for the everyday: I’m deluged with letters asking me if I believe in using powder. I certainly do; every actress does All actresses are artists in make-up’; they have to be. But the make-up for the stage and the make-up for the lights of the streets are very different.
It may feel like an about-face after the (relative) progression of the Renaissance, but cosmetics were back underground, as makeup was strongly frowned upon for much of the Victorian era, although skin creams and hair oils were deemed acceptable. This began to change quite rapidly toward the end of the century: Queen Victoria may have associated vulgar makeup with prostitutes, but there was another group who relied on it whose social status was rising actors. Stage actresses were increasingly the icons of the late Victorian period, with their movements recorded by the press, and their images reproduced on picture postcards, song sheets, and theater programs. With the developments in lighting from the introduction of gas illumination to limelight and the first completely electrically lit theaters came necessary developments in stage cosmetics to match. Makeup was part of the daily life of an actor, as shown by the 1894 illustration of Sarah Bernhardt sitting at her dressing table, putting on her face, from the weekly newspaper the Graphic. Women wanted to look like performers, and cosmetics companies quickly learned to monetize this desire by getting their products endorsed by actors in ads featured in theater programs. Lillie Langtry, admired and nicknamed the Jersey Lily for her lily-white complexion, was famously paid to be the face of Pearssoap. Queen Victoria’s son, the Prince of Wales, who would become King Edward VII in 1901, was known for his affairs with high-profile actresses, further affirming their newly elevated status in the fluctuating moral climate of fin de siecle society.
In the United States, the 1920s saw a huge shift from the discretionary and light use of makeup to the obvious. Discussion and advertisement of makeup also grew in mainstream society due to Hollywood and the painted faces of newly independent flappers, like
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