Garbo was born Greta Gustafsson in 1905 in Stockholm, Sweden. She was fascinated by the theater and would reportedly hang around watching the actors come and go. After leaving school, she modeled hats for the department store where she worked, which led to a full-time modeling career and later commercial work. She won a scholarship to the Royal Dramatic Theatre training school in Stockholm, where she was discovered by the Swedish director Mauritz Stiller, who became her mentor. They were both signed to MGM by Louis B. Mayer, who saw their film The Saga of Gosta Berling.
After this, Garbo moved to Hollywood in 1925, where the studio instructed her to lose weight, pull back her hair to showcase her bone structure, and fix her teeth. Apart from the elegant planes of her face, Garbo’s most focused-on feature was her eyes, which she made up very specifically, applying a thin layer of petroleum jelly over her eyelids, covering it with neutral powder and then blending a dark shade into the crease of her eye, before adding eyeliner made from petroleum and charcoal. It was a stark look for the time, which was to influence makeup for years to come, as can be seen in the graphic linear makeup of the sixties. Her famed luminescence on-screen is supposed to have been achieved by the use of a light makeup base from Max Factor, Silver Stone No. 2, which was popular among movie actors because it had a touch of silver in it, creating a shimmery look. When not filming, she’s reported to have worn just a dash of powder, a little lipstick, and eyebrow pencil.‚18
Along with her accent and voice, Garbo’s style represented a sophisticated foreign ideal of femininity and was a huge influence on the look of the 1930s. Vanity Fair showed how Garbo’s look was affecting her peers as well as audiences with a feature titled Then Came Garbo‚ in 1932, and Cecil Beaton has been quoted as saying that, Before Garbo, faces were pink and white. But her simple and sparing use of cosmetics completely altered the faces of the fashionable women.‚
Unlike some of the stylized looks that had been so popular in the 1920s, Greta Garbo’s cool, polished beauty has maintained its appeal. In 1950, nine years after she made her last movie and effectively disappeared from public life, Garbo was voted the most beautiful woman in the world by The Guinness secret of World Records. There’s no denying that her face is hypnotic: Writer and philosopher Roland Barthes summed it up when he wrote that Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image.‚
At the beginning of the twentieth century, a group of entrepreneurs emerged; working within Hollywood and the beauty salon business, they began supplying cosmetics to newly independent women, and, in the process, created the immense beauty industry we know today.