My Week Wearing Great Gatsby–Era Makeup

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When the Cut proposed a diary of Gatsby-inspired beauty routines, I pictured myself at a dressing room mirror, surrounded by experts wielding eyeliner and hot rollers, and thought, yeah! Then I realized I would be the one applying the flapper eyes and “finger-waving” my own hair. Since my beauty routine — occasional concealer and an undying devotion to Nars Laguna bronzer — has barely evolved since I read The Great Gatsby as an eleventh-grader, I thought getting into some Daisy Buchanan–ish beauty would be a worthy challenge.

Initial research told me flappers like Daisy were liberal in their use of makeup, and even put it on in public, inspired by inventions like the compact and the retractable lipstick tube. Apparently, everyone was so excited about those things that cosmetics were no longer preserved for showgirls and prostitutes. They also didn’t bother inventing silly rules about only emphasizing one’s eyes or one’s lips (lest they look like showgirls and prostitutes). No, they did both, those brazen flappers! I could barely wait to get started.

DAY 1

This afternoon, packages full of cosmetics from the Cut begin to arrive at my home office. I open a square white box and find a tiny glass bottle inside. It is not bootleg whiskey to loosen me up for my Prohibition-era look, but rather Shalimar, a Guerlain fragrance first introduced in 1925. I pull out the blue stopper, and can’t decide whether the powder-scented fragrance reminds me of a baby or a grandmother. Either way, it does not recall a free-spirited flapper, but I dot some on my neck and wrists.

Something about the scent makes me think of summertime, although it doesn’t smell like sunscreen. Much later, I remember Skin So Soft, an Avon product in an oily spray bottle we used to wear to ward off mosquitoes in the St. Louis summers. This seems very Gatsby-garden-party, and I’ll take it.

DAY 2

I get out of the shower and dot on my Shalimar, as if I have been doing it for decades. 

I decide skin and cheeks will be an easy place to start, and open a Nars compact of pressed powder. There appears to be a piece of paper stuck on top of it, which I attempt to remove several times before scratching it with my fingernail, gouging the surface, and realizing the opaque white thing is the powder. Writer Bruce Bliven described the typical flapper’s complexion as “pallor mortis” in The New Republic in 1925, and that is just what a swipe of this bright white powder around my nose provides. I am ashen.

Thankfully, even flappers had cream blush. But rather than using its blend-able texture to their advantage, they made bright circles on the apples of their cheeks, which they then accentuated with a layer of powdered blush. With faithful historical accuracy, I draw a circle of bubble-gum colored YSL Créme de Blush on each cheek with my fingers, and fight the urge to blend it in. As I brush on a layer of wine-colored Nars blush, I feel more like this person than a flapper. I finish off the whole thing with a dusting of Bare Escentuals Mineral Veil, and step into the afternoon sun looking like a circus performer.

“Look at you!” exclaims my friend Erin when she sees me. She adds charitably, "You’re wearing blush. That’s new.” During lunch, I can feel the powder sucking the moisture from my skin, and understand why flappers drank so much. Since my hair is in a high bun, I imagine everyone thinks I’m a ballerina who didn’t have time to wash off my makeup after a recital. This gets me through the long walk home, until I look in the mirror and see that I look splotchy and severe, as I have a bad case of Rosacea.

DAY 3

Tonight my boyfriend and I are going to a house party in Williamsburg, which seems like an appropriate venue for 1920s-era raccoon eyes. Armed with my shoebox of supplies, I bring my laptop into the bathroom and cue up a video tutorial, which I promptly ignore. My first attempt to draw little dots along my lash line using Too-Faced's triple-pointed liquid liner fails when I veer up my eyelid. I attempt to smooth it into a thick, black line, and then duplicate the result on the other eye. I look like I tried to do Katy Perry eyes in a moving car, so I soak a cotton ball with eye makeup remover, remove the mess, and re-attack with a Sephora kohl pencil. It goes on smoothly — probably because there is still oily residue from the makeup remover, but that seems historically accurate: Apparently flapper-era kohl contained goose grease. As in, poultry fat.

I draw back and forth above my lashes, and at the outside corners of my eyes, and grab reinforcements in the form of two matte MAC eye-shadow pots: Carbon (black) and Scene (grey). Based on a vague notion of Louise Brooks, I use a brush to draw black along the outside corners of my eyes, which I soften with grey along the top. I have never worn this much eye shadow, but I keep piling it on, alternating with the grey and black shadows until I’m afraid to continue. Then I take a black liquid liner and trace a reinforcement line along my lashes. I’m sure this is the improper order of operations, but I’m a carefree modern woman! I exit the bathroom and my boyfriend jumps up and says, “Wow!” in a way that is entirely subject to interpretation. I pull on dark jeans, a navy shirt, a tie-dyed scarf, and an army jacket. My eye makeup makes me self-conscious, and suddenly all my clothes feel like a “look” straight off a “what to wear to a house party” page from In Style.

Later my neighbor Sarah doesn’t say hi until I’m six inches from her face, then confesses she wasn’t sure who I was.

DAY 4

With a post-party headache, I enter the bathroom to find I did not successfully remove all of my makeup from the night before. Rather than fighting it, I reinforce with more smudged kohl liner, which feels like a flapper-ish approach to the morning after. I wear my sooty eyeliner all day as I do Sunday activities like read the paper and plant flowers in window boxes. The same neighbor who didn’t recognize me last night stops by and says: “See, today it looks awesome.” 

DAY 5

Tonight I decide to go full-face flapper to report at a movie screening and after-party, with Mia Farrow’s Daisy Buchanan from the 1974 film of The Great Gatsby as my muse: soft grey smoky eyes, deathly pale skin, and apricot cheeks and lips. I am amazed to find someone has uploaded an instructional video to YouTube titled, “20s makeup inspired by Mia Farrow in the Great Gatsby.” I watch the video, and let its classical spa soundtrack relax me as I note how to apply four different shades of shimmery eye shadow with paint-by-numbers precision. I faithfully execute each eye-shadow step, and pat on a little pink cream blush and translucent powder. Even if I don’t exactly resemble Mia, I’m satisfied that my makeup is sufficiently dramatic — maybe even feverish. When I arrive at the screening, a Style.com reporter says, unprompted: “Your hair looks different.” I want to push him.

DAY SIX

From the Smithsonian website (a surprisingly useful beauty resource), I learn red was the most popular lip color of the era, and that the desired look was a heart-shaped mouth with two distinct peaks above the upper lip — often above one’s actual lips — and color-concentrated in the center. (This is often referred to as a “Cupid’s Bow,” as if that’s a visual reference we see all the time. Think Betty Boop lips.) To achieve this, I first trace my lips with a Kiss Me Quick a bright red lip liner from MAC. I look like Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show until I take Tom Ford's velvety Scarlet Rouge lipstick and make my red lips official. It looks like someone else’s mouth has been placed on my face.

That night, I wear my twin-peaked red lips to a party at the old Domino Sugar Factory. The bathrooms are fancy outhouses, but outhouses nonetheless, so I avoid them until I can no longer hold it. When I finally go in, I see that my lipstick has faded, but my liner — which, as per history, is slightly above my lips — has left two points above my mouth, as if I’ve been attacked by a vampire.

The Smithsonian also tells me that the 1915 invention of the retractable lipstick tube made it acceptable to do touch-ups at the table, which I vow to do next time.

DAY 7

After seven days, I can no longer ignore the hair products and tools piled in the corner of my office. I spend what feels like 40 minutes trying to discern the difference between finger waves and Marcel waves (named for the French hairdresser who invented them), and even stay focused when Marcel the Shell appears in my Google results. I decide in both cases the desired result is a squiggly wave stuck to the side of one’s head, but that finger waves must be done on wet hair with copious amounts of mousse, and Marcel waves can be done with dirty hair and a curling iron. Marcel waves it is.

I take big gold clips from Ricky's — awkwardly called “Rubbers,” according to the package — and use the point of one to trace a deep side-part in my long, straight hair. I section off a piece of hair and spray it generously with something from Oribe called Soft Lacquer. It is now extremely sticky. Carefully following instructions from the Internet, I clamp the curling iron horizontally across the top of the section. There is a sizzling sound and my hair emits a little puff of steam. I release it after about fifteen seconds and am pleased to see the first curve of my wave, but displeased with a kink at the top of it. Just below the curve, I clamp the curling iron again, this time on the opposite side of the hair. (Stay with me.) The spray seems to stiffen with heat, and I continue working my way down until the hair section resembles a wide, squiggly ribbon. Rather than doing my entire head – which would take hours and probably end badly – I decide I’m only going to wave the front and will tuck a loose, low bun under my hair to fake a twenties-style bob. This still requires waving three more sections on the right side of my head and twenty minutes.

Instead of the shiny, slicked, S-waves I pictured, my waves are a little fluffy, and the kink at the top of each one looks awkward — like I’m a naturally curly haired person with badly straightened hair. I’m disappointed until I flip over my head and re-part my hair in the center. I spray it with Dry Texturizing Spray and the front of my hair now has my best beach waves ever. The back is still straight, but I don’t even care. I put on some Nars Laguna to celebrate.

DAY 8

I invite my friend Bridget over for a final flapper beauty bonanza. This time, I decide I’ll try to achieve Josephine Baker–style finger waves by combing and shaping them into place in my wet, Rock Hard Gel–saturated hair. When my hair insists on obeying gravity and hanging straight down, I grab three long clips and clamp a wave in place on my forehead. While we wait for that to dry, Bridget patiently Marcel waves the rest of my hair. Although we think we are continuously spraying it with Soft Lacquer as we go, we have confused our products (because there five of them) and are using Dry Texturizing Spray. Soon, the entire apartment is fogged.

While my wave “sets,” I move onto makeup, with a photo of Joan Crawford as my guide. To Bridget’s glee, I start by smoothing liquid concealer all over my borderline-bushy eyebrows, to approximate the thin, arched brows that were popular in the twenties. “Whoa. It’s kind of working,” says Bridget. My brows are greyish in tone and the hairs are glued onto my face. Their edges have disappeared, so they actually do appear to be thinner and drawn on, which I reinforce with MAC Veluxe Brow Liner.

I trace outside my upper and lower lash lines with a kohl pencil, and then draw a blurry border of matte grey shadow on top of my line. I blot pale, translucent powder from Estee Lauder's After Hours Slim Compact on my cheeks, chin, and forehead to hide a slight suntan, and am surprised to see that it blots out some freckles. Joan Crawford, my spirit flapper, appears to have extremely dark lips, so I apply the darkest red lipstick of the bunch, Revlon's Certainly Red, to my fastidiously outlined mouth. My pale skin, the blood-red lips, and grey-rimmed eyes look totally extreme, but I’m surprised to find the effect more girlish than goth.

Bridget, who is a fair-skinned brunette, goes with a soft brown smoky eye, and a slightly pearlescent, paler red lipstick from Revlon called Rich Girl Red. She Marcels (we’re using it like a verb now) the front of her long, naturally wavy hair like a champ, and pulls it back loosely. She looks like she stepped out of a sepia-toned photograph.

I blast my single clamped wave one last time with the spray and blow dryer, and when I release the clips, the hair still falls perfectly straight. But it’s nearly 10 p.m. and we haven’t had dinner, so I pull it into a low bun and we walk to Extra Fancy. There, we order Manhattans — up, rather than on the rocks, for lipstick preservation — and drink a second round during dinner. After we pay our check, the bartender places two more drinks in front of us, explaining they were sent by the guys at the end of the bar. Bridget is married and I live with my boyfriend, but we accept the drinks anyway, with red lipstick smiles.  

Click through the slideshow to see pictures of the products used, as well as Jenni Avins's best flapper face.