The golden age of 1930s Hollywood introduced the world to a new type of star whose breed of glamour was more of an attitude than a look. This new woman was empowered, strong, elegant, and grown-up. The glamour they personified was the true sense of the word and a far cry from the cheesecake pin-ups of the 1950s and modern day equivalents.
One of the most celebrated Hollywood film stars of this era was Marlene Dietrich who shot to fame in 1930 after starring in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, though she had been acting in Berlin throughout the twenties.
Dietrich came out of a world that was all about makeup for the stage, and she understood both its value and how to make it work best for her. She famously declared, Glamour is what I sell. It’s my stock-in-trade.‚ She knew the importance of makeup and lighting in creating and presenting the perfect image. Her grandson Peter has commented that she first discovered the power of makeup when she was performing in the cabarets of Berlin throughout the twenties.
Theater lighting underwent huge transformations from the end of the eighteenth century, evolving from kerosene lamps to gaslight, to the intense beam of limelight (the first form of spotlight,‚ which was in wide use by the 1860s, though it was first used in a theater in 1837) before being replaced by electric lighting.
When Dietrich started to work in movies, she was exposed to arc lights for the first time, which were extremely harsh. She noticed that her face became completely flattened, and that she needed to learn to bring the structure back by using stage makeup and altering the shape of her eyebrows, plucking them and painting in new ones. Even after coming to Hollywood, she alone was in control of her makeup (unlike other stars). In the same way that she designed all her costumes with Travis Banton, chief designer at Paramount, she collaborated with makeup artists and manufacturers like Max Factor to develop things that worked best for her.
It’s only logical that Dietrich is credited with introducing many makeup techniques to Hollywood. When she arrived in Los Angeles in 1930, makeup scion Ern Westmore noticed that she was using some unusual techniques and visited her trailer to ask about them According to Westmore’s younger brother, Frank, Dietrich explained that once, when von Sternberg was lighting her, he had pulled out a small vial of silver paint and drew a line down the center of her nose. He then adjusted a spotlight above her head to shine directly on the line. It was like a miracle, reducing the width of her nose by a third. Dietrich also showed Westmore another of her genius makeup tricks, taking the saucer from under the coffee she was drinking and turning it upside down. She then lit a match and held it under the saucer, and when she turned it over there was a black, sooty smudge of carbon to which she added a couple of drops of baby oil and mixed it together with her fingers. Then, starting just above her eyelashes, she gradually blended the smoky color across her eyelids, working up and out toward her eyebrows; keeping the darkest part of the mix closest to the lashes, the shadow gradually thinned and faded out at the brows.30 Everyone else was still using heavy black eye makeup, so this sublimely beautiful and subtle effect was a revelation, instantly beautifying the eyes and creating a wonderful three-dimensional look as the oil glistened in the reflected lights.
Contrary to popular belief, she never shaved her eyebrows. It wasn’t necessary, as she had fine brows naturally. She did, however, bleach and pluck them to make sure they conformed to the look she wanted sometimes pencil thin and other times slightly fuller and she also used false eyelashes. It wasn’t just her approach to makeup that was revolutionary, though: Dietrich was completely ahead of her time in her methods, plaiting her hair tightly to the scalp at the temples to pull back her skin and give a face-lift effect. When wearing wigs, she further enhanced the effect by wrapping her head in a special Spanx-like tulle fabric that she found in Paris. As she got older, rather than resorting to surgery, Peter explained, his grandmother made use of face-lift tapes (no different than the ones used today) to lift her facial contours.