It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when my TikTok likes and Instagram saves became an homage to vintage beauty. Whether I'm glued to videos of women creating incredible retro looks (think Twiggy-inspired lashes and glamorous red lips) or poring over gilt makeup palettes sitting pretty atop dressing tables, I know that I'm not alone in my obsession.
On TikTok, videos with the hashtag #vintagemakeup have amassed an impressive 119.2 million views and counting, as users take to the platform to share clips of their retro cosmetics collections dating from the 1920s through to the '80s. You’ll recognise blush compacts, mascara tubes and eyeshadow palettes from beloved beauty giants such as Maybelline, L'Oréal and Dior, alongside items from brands whose luxurious products have not stood the test of time but appear utterly pristine all the same. The exclusivity only adds to their allure.
Throughout the various lockdowns it's safe to say that nostalgia has truly taken hold of Gen Z and millennials. From '90s Chanel outfits and accessories to the emo subculture, we can't help but immerse ourselves in a different time. The popularity of shows such as Bridgerton, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and The Crown (huge favourites during the pandemic) is proof. Vintage beauty provides a similar escapism and this 'treasure' sharing is just the latest trend in a flood of retro-appreciation.
One TikTok user embracing the splendours of beauty products past is Mako. Her entire TikTok account is dedicated to 20th century glamour as she shares her vast collection of lipstick bullets, palettes and makeup storage in bitesize videos over a background of era-specific music — think the dulcet tones of Louis Prima singing "Pennies from Heaven" or Louis Armstrong crooning "La Vie En Rose". To date, Mako has amassed 764.1k followers and 9.6 million likes. Her videos swatching vintage blush and lipstick are incredibly popular but '60s Max Factor compacts, 1920s Maybelline mascara and – my personal favourite – an ornate lipstick carousel that doubles as a music box are also winning over vintage beauty lovers. Mako says TikTok's vintage beauty collectors have created an online community where people can relive the glamour of days gone by, and it's safe to say we could all do with a little of that right now. "Collecting is a treasure hunt and each item is a piece of history," says Mako. "I started with one compact and my collection just grew. For me, modern products just don’t have the same charm."
From the soothing instrumentals to the glint of golden compacts and ASMR-esque swatching, it's easy to be drawn into this dreamy world. On the surface at least, it was a simpler time. In reality, we know each decade had its own problems but the retro aesthetics remain utterly enchanting. This is something TikToker Laura and her 37k followers know well. Laura's vintage rouge pots, embossed compacts and perfume bottle collection are unrivalled. She was introduced to the vintage beauty world by makeup artist Lisa Eldridge, who often takes to YouTube to show off her own retro beauty buys. "I was instantly hooked," says Laura, "and I then started visiting antique stores for ‘compact hunting’. I still buy the majority of my pieces from antique stores rather than online, because I enjoy tracking them down." Laura started her TikTok account just after the pandemic hit. "I had more time on my hands and since I haven’t been able to go to antique stores, TikTok has allowed me to focus on the pieces I already own." Like modern-day makeup brands and influencers, Laura even does giveaways to share pieces of her vintage beauty collection with her followers, who it seems can't get enough.
With our ability for joy so restricted at the moment, seeing people delight in sharing their prized relics is truly captivating. The phrase 'they just don’t make them like this anymore' is evidenced in Maybelline global makeup artist Erin Parsons' personal collection. Her jewel-clad lipstick dolls and luxe gold chair compact (the seat lifts to reveal a pink powder puff) are the stuff of dreams. Erin explains: "Being able to see the products and packaging evolve throughout history is fascinating. They are art in their own form." While it is not recommended to actually use vintage makeup products, Erin has given some lipsticks and eyeshadows a go in the past. "There were so many reds in the '30s, '40s and '50s — every shade variation you can think of," she says. "My new office’s main attraction is actually my vintage cosmetic collection and I've accidentally created a museum of sorts." Erin says that during the pandemic, she didn't spend money on anything except vintage items. "I had time to scour every website and auction house," she says. "I bought a lot of my collection in 2020 because there was a feeling of needing to grasp onto history — perhaps due to the time we're living through now."
The trend for vintage cosmetics might have taken off during the pandemic but world-leading makeup artist Lisa Eldridge began collecting over 30 years ago. "It definitely wasn’t a thing back then," she says. "Powder compacts were a collectible extension for perfume bottle collectors but buying old mascaras, lipsticks and eyeshadows was not a popular hobby." From gaming to baking, plenty of us have used lockdown to find new pastimes and diversions, and it seems vintage makeup definitely qualifies. "I’ve got a collection that ranges from the Northern Song dynasty in China over 1,000 years ago to 20th century classics, like a lipstick in the exact shade that Jackie Onassis wore and the iconic gold lipstick holder made by Cartier for Audrey Hepburn," continues Lisa.
Lisa says she is fascinated by the historical context of each piece as it tracks our ever evolving relationship with makeup. "It gives so much context to the role it has played in social history," she says. Our recent collective obsession with vintage beauty is especially interesting as most of us have ditched makeup products during the pandemic. It could be argued that makeup has become something to marvel at rather than wear, as the comments underneath Lisa's YouTube videos prove. "This deserves a whole Netflix series," wrote one viewer. "After all this time I still get a thrill when I add new rarities to my collection," Lisa says. Her vintage collection has influenced aspects of her own makeup and jewellery ranges, too. "The pigments and colours have inspired some of the shades. The lipstick in Velvet Jazz, £26, for example is a 1930s lipstick in my collection. When designing my ring boxes, I was drawn to a particular rouge pot from 1910 and I was obsessed with creating a puff to go inside that looked exactly like my vintage one."
Alongside the artistry of shell-shaped compacts, engraved palettes and tubes adorned with mother of pearl details and filigree designs, our 21st century #shelfies suddenly appear second-rate. Filled with plastic, which will most likely end up in landfill, they don't come close. Vintage makeup collector Mitbrodt champions the lasting quality of retro packaging. "I liked that brands used milk glass and metal instead of plastic," says Mitbrodt. "I showcase my pieces, including a large collection of vintage Avon perfumes, on my YouTube channel and I feel as though it's my own digital museum." Similarly, Poetrie considers vintage beauty a lifestyle, not a passing trend. Her TikTok video of a 1940s makeup minaudière went viral and she has found a smart way to repurpose her pieces. "I recently refilled my '40s makeup compact with a current brand’s powder, giving it another lease of life," she says. The video already has 37.2k views and counting.
Historically, consumers had less disposable income and so cosmetics were lovingly cherished indulgences. For Laura, this aspect is fascinating. "People would refill their metal compacts instead of throwing them away," she says, highlighting the problems with lots of today's beauty packaging. "So many of these pieces have held up incredibly well after close to 100 years and that speaks to their quality," Laura adds. "Today, it's all about fast beauty and consumers are constantly searching for something new." Laura hopes that we can take heed from vintage beauty, especially at a time when sustainability is becoming more important to many of us. "High quality, slower releases with refillable items could be something we return to," she anticipates.
Alongside the collection scene, beauty looks with the hashtags #vintagegirls and #vintageaesthetic are trending, too. There’s a beauty tribe for every era, from Regencycore to '60s swing and all the way back to 18th century opulence. The retro beauty sphere is a place for connection, which has become especially important during the past year, with feelings of isolation rife. Vintage beauty is also challenging the narrative of this decade's beauty ideals. Thanks to younger generations, the vintage beauty scene has taken steps towards diversity and inclusion. Instagrammer Serena explains: "As a Black woman participating in the vintage scene, we have less examples of how our hair and makeup would have looked, but vintage makes me feel beautiful in a way that’s true to who I really am." Serena continues: "I choose my battles, though. I don’t look for reproduction makeup shades (direct copies of vintage products) because I would be completely excluded. Instead, I shop for modern makeup that looks good on me."
Bésame Cosmetics, UOMA Beauty and Pat McGrath Labs are a handful of popular brands serving up retro-inspired shades and compacts for all skin tones. For vintage fashion and beauty enthusiast Eccentrik, the aesthetic is completely natural, even though she is opposed to the values of the period. "As a Black woman, the vintage period provides very little representation but some people are unable to separate the cultural values of those times from the aesthetic."
During a year in which our freedom has been taken from us, dressing up has offered an escape and evokes the glamour our daily lives are lacking. We need this frivolous celebration now more than ever: the extravagant colours and outfits, big hair and unapologetic femininity. TikToker Morgan agrees. "I enjoy the element of exploration," Morgan says. "Vintage styling makes me feel glamorous, daring and somewhat rebellious. It challenges the norms of modern beauty, consumerism and fast fashion." TikToker Scarlett seconds this: "Glamour was a part of everyday life for women in the '40s and '50s. Now, we don’t often do things to make us feel good for the sake of it. If we do, it’s deemed as being 'too extra'. In my eyes there’s nothing wrong with that. I love making an effort and feeling glamorous for myself."
As I pore over the TikTok videos and Instagram posts I've saved, one thing is clear: celebrating the past through beauty offers optimism, connection and escapism. If previous generations can survive the challenges of forgone eras, maybe we too can rise from the ashes after a year like no other — best face forward, ready to re-enter the world.
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