Vintage Makeup for darker skin tones during the Atomic Age 0f the 1950s

For this installment of the Vintage Makeup for Darker Skin Tones series, I am exploring makeup during the Atomic Age, mostly taking place during the 1950s. To know more about this series, please read my disclaimer.

The Atomic Age, or Atomic Era, began in 1945 when the U.S. detonated the first nuclear bomb, Trinity, and subsequently used nuclear bombs against Japan to end WWII. This ushered in a new way of viewing what humans could accomplish technologically and it started an era of change. If you haven’t seen Atomic Cafe, add it to your Netflix queue this instant.

Because this era started before 1950 and lasted into the early 1960s, you will see some crossover in where the material for this blog post comes from. Hair changed over this time period, but the makeup style was pretty consistent.

The basic 1950s style of makeup is the look that we most associate today with the “pin-up” look. In the 1940s it was fashionable to add a small amount of eyeliner at the end of the eye to elongate it. This became more popular and exaggerated in the 1950s. The “cat-eye” liner look got longer and thicker as the Atomic Age continued. This line for most of the 1950s had soft edges like Dorothy Dandridge’s makeup in the featured image above, but by the late 1950s and 1960s, it was popular to define the line edges more.

This Tan magazine cover from February 1960 features famous African-American model Helen Williams wearing the popular cat-eye look.

Tan Magazine Cover 1950s Vintage African American Makeup

Eyeshadow color recommendations were still based on either your eye color, hair color, or outfit color. Eyeshadow colors were much like the colorful pastel kitchens and couches of the Atomic Age. Iridescent shades were becoming more popular as well. Blue eyeshadows included colors like Opal, Midnight, Sky Blue, Sea Blue, and Pastel. Purples came in Amethyst and Fresh Violet. Green eyeshadows were Pistachio, Emerald, Green Frost, Sea-Green, and Evergreen. Also eyeshadows were Mauve Frost, Amber, White, Silver and Gold. Brown eyeshadow was still very popular as well and recommended often for brown eyes.

1950s eyeshadow colors

This Maybelline advertisement from the mid-1950s mentions iridescent jewel-tone eyeshadow in stick form.

Maybelline African American Makeup Advertisment 1950s Atomic

If a woman did apply eyeshadow, she was only suppose to apply a small amount near the upper lash line and blend it out. She then applied her eyeliner on the upper lash line with a little wing at the end. As far as eyeliner on the lower lash line, some women did that, but more often not. In this image of Helen Williams you can see a faint blue eyeshadow as an accent to her blue blouse.

Helen Williams African American Makeup 1950s Atomic eyeshadow

In this next image, model Dolores Grigsby sports the Mandarin make-up style. “The outer ends of the eyebrows were entirely plucked out and new brows pencilled on in a great upward and outward sweep. The eyes were lined with an upward sweep at the out corners, following the line of the brows.” (2)

Hue Magazine December 1955 Cover Dolores Grigsby African American vintage model

Max Factor is credited with saying that, “A woman who doesn’t wear lipstick feels undressed in public, unless she works on a farm.” (3) By 1948, 80-90% of adult American women were using lipstick.

Lucky Heart Cosmetics Advertisement African American Vintage Makeup 1950s 1960s

Factor’s cosmetic company produced a booklet for many years with directions and color recommendations for makeup. In the 1950s “The New Art of Make-up” recommended the top Colorfast lipstick that a brunette should wear was Cheery Cherry, followed by Coral Spray, Brighter Red, and Golden Flame. 

The Westmore cosmetic company recommended a brownette with light olive skin wear Rose Red lipstick and Brown or Midnight Blue mascara. Women with olive or dark olive skin should wear True Red lipstick and Midnight Blue or Black mascara.

If you were a brunette with light olive skin, you should wear Pepper Red lipstick and Midnight Blue or Black mascara. Brunette’s with medium or dark olive skin, they suggested True Red or Garnet lipstick, which is more of a wine color. (1)

Women still used rouge, but only faintly and it was still suppose to coordinate with your lipstick. By the 1960s, rouge had reached pale to the point of disappearing.

In the late 1940s, the first pencil lipliners came about. From Gala of London there was Lipline. House of Rimmel had a lip pencil in Dangerous Red. (2)

See more from the Vintage Makeup for Darker Skin Tones series.


Read more details about the early days of makeup in the book, Retro Makeup: Techniques for Applying the Vintage Look.

Retro Makeup


  • 1 Westmore Beauty Book
  • 2 Fashions in Makeup
  • 3 Time Magazine June 16, 1958

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1 Comment
  • Brandan klodig
    August 15, 2016

    wow, old is gold. Vintage style is forever, loved each of the hair style. Thank you for the information.