Old Hollywood's Beauty Tips: the 40s

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Welcome to the 1940s installment of my Old Hollywood Beauty Tips series! Find out which famous perfume both Rita Hayworth and Merle Oberon loved, how Lena Horne was the original glamour girl to start a cosmetics line, and more!

Rita Hayworth
"Who, me?" Rita Hayworth purrs as she flips her face into frame in Gilda. The red curtain of her hair is so perfectly coiffed that her tresses immediately fall back into place, unveiling and then framing the playful look on her face. It’s easy to see why Rita became synonymous with the 1940s pin-up girl ideal.

Rita's infamous hair was the result of a painful two year process that included electrolysis, bleach, and dyeing it red. Later, her then husband Orson Welles created a publicity blitz by inviting the press and photographers to document Rita's hair being bleached platinum blonde and then shorn for his film, The Lady of Shanghai (1947).

RIGHT: Rita Hayworth in an advertisement for Max Factor Face Powder Makeup LEFT: Rita with various perfume atomizers

Along with her hair, Rita was known for her warm red lips, painted with a lip brush into the "smear," the popular shape of the time. Since Rita arrived in Hollywood at age 18, she had been working with Max Factor Cosmetics, modeling their Pan-Cake foundations and Tru-Color Lipsticks. Beautiful ads showcase Rita wearing "Clear Red 1," and if you’re looking for a modern day dupe, Max Factor's Velvet Matte Lipstick in Desire looks like a similar shade.

A huge fan of fragrances, there are several photos of Rita surrounded by her own collection. Some of her favorites include the Old Hollywood classic Shalimar by Guerlian, Shocking by Schiaparelli, and Moment Supreme by Jean Patou. Legend has it, at the wedding reception for her marriage to Prince Aly Khan, a swimming pool was filled with gallons of fragrances, perfuming the entire event.

Lena Horne
"I loved to watch my mother bead her eyelashes," says Lena Horne's daughter Gail Lumet Buckley in her book, The Hornes: An American Family. "She used a little can of Sterno that made a blue flame. The liquid soot that congealed on the lashes, and made them spiky, was applied with a matchstick. My mother's bedroom and bath were awash in Chen-yu lipsticks, [and] Gurlain perfumes..."

Lena Horne was the epitome of 1940s glamour, but her career at MGM was cut short by racism and sexism. As an entertainer, Lena was electric, pairing her honeyed vocals with swaying movements. Her signature glossy red lipstick was paired with perfectly coiffed 1940s up-dos. In addition to films, Lena performed at famous nightclubs including the iconic Cotton Club and Café Society.

LEFT: Lena Horne at her dressing table RIGHT: An advrtisement for Lena Horne Cosemetics

In the 1950s, Lena created Lena Horne Cosmetics, a line with over 42 products including makeup (such as mascara), fragrances (with one called Silver Sheen), and collections for bath, hair and skin care, all housed in beautiful gold packaging with her name sprawled across in a dreamy 50s font face. According to Vintage Black Glamour author Nichelle Gainer, iconic actress Gloria Swanson was an investor for the brand.

Merle Oberon
Merle Oberon was a lighting and makeup pro on-set: the soft-focused luminescence she requested spotlighted her signature dark pin curls, arched eyebrows, and lips with a perfectly painted cupid's bow. It’s no wonder she starred in several makeup campaigns, promoting Maybelline eyebrow pencils and Pan-Cake makeup and lipsticks for Max Factor. She even hosted the grand opening of the first Max Factor Salon in London in 1937!

"Raven-haired and tan-complexioned, her eyes a striking shape, she looked unlike most leading ladies the industry had seen up until then," writes author Mayukh Sen for Film Comment. On her legacy, Sen continues, "Though the public had no clue about her mixed-race parentage [...], she is, to date, the only actress of known Asian descent to be nominated [for the Best Actress Oscar] in the 20th century, an embarrassing indictment of the Academy’s institutional blind spots."

Merle Oberon in advertisements for Maybelline and Max Factor

Wanting to learn more about Merle's sense of style, I uncovered clues that point to Merle being a fan of Elsa Schiaparelli's Shocking perfume: in Queenie, a roman à clef penned by nephew Michael Korda, the Oberon-inspired lead character's favorite fragrance is the Schiaparelli signature. And Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography cites Merle as a frequent patron of the Schiaparelli salon, one shopgirl bemusedly reminiscing that her "waves of perfume make [all the girls in the shop] faint."

Smelling a sample of the vintage Shocking fragrance today, I try to envision Merle wearing it as she exits taxis or poses for publicity stills: the heady scent, with golden honey and musk, feels like it's from another era, evocative of glamorous women in the past with silken dresses and stoles.

Who are some of your favorite actresses from the 1940s?

Sources and Further Reading:
Rita Hayworth: Indentifying Rita Hayworth's Perfume Collection - Fragrantica Forum, The Life of Rita Hayworth by Edward Z. Epstein & Joseph Morella

Lena Horne: Nichelle Gainer for Vintage Black Glamour, The Hornes: An American Family by Gail Lumet Buckley

Merle Oberon: Hiding in Plain Sight: Merle Oberon by Mayukh Sen, Queenie by Michael Korda, Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography by Meryle Secrest


  1. as usual, this is a wonderful article, and your insight and research is so precious ! I'm definitely going to be diving into the additional research you gave us ! I think you really captured the essence of 1940s beauty with some of its main characters, and it is so dreamy and so magical, thank you for this bit of beauty 💖

  2. love this series! and the part about Rita (possibly) filling a whole pool with perfume !!! the extravagance lol well done lovely <3


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