Vintage Cosmetics Maven Gabriela Hernandez Knows Her Makeup History

The Bésame Cosmetics founder walks us through the changing face of beauty from the 1890s to the 1990s

When she was a little girl in Buenos Aires, the beauty rituals of Gabriela Hernandez’s older relatives fascinated her. The Burbank-based artist spent years studying vintage cosmetics and after graduating from Art Center College of Design, she began designing makeup packaging. Digging deeper into the history, she wrote the book Classic Beauty: The History of Makeup, and in 2004 she created her version of a 1920s lipstick and started her company Bésame Cosmetics. Today the company manufactures mascara, lipstick, and powders; offers period beauty classes; and runs a boutique where patrons, including makeup designers on period films and TV shows, can immerse themselves in the charms of earlier generations. The ingredients, design, and packaging are drawn from a century of techniques and products. Hernandez shares with us the evolution of painting faces.


“There are people who want a cleaner and simpler product with less ingredients like a cake mascara, which has been around since the late 1800s when it was called ‘mascara,’ with an ‘o.’ It was mainly used by men in barbershops to darken moustaches and sideburns. It’s a solid cake that you revitalize with water. The founder of Maybelline saw this product and thought it could work for women, too, so he repackaged it in a smaller case and called it ‘mascara.'”


“The aristocracy in Europe was wearing all kinds of things from India and China like blushes and a product called Spanish leather. They would soak a very porous piece of leather with Carmine powder, which comes from the shells of the beetle and it makes a very red dye. It absorbs the pigment and lasts a very long time. They rubbed it on their cheeks for that Marie Antoinette look. They put the dye on the leather and sell that in a little box. I could make it if somebody asked me for it, but would anybody buy it?”

Vintage Princess Pat powder from the Bésame collection

Photo by Bésame Cosmetics


“This is when cosmetics went from being made up in a batch at the pharmacy to being made in a factory. Most of them were in New Jersey because the meat plants were there, and whatever they couldn’t sell as meat they sold to the cosmetics industry. Bones and cartilage were raw materials. Pork fat and lard were used in skin care products. They didn’t have foundation, so women would put on cream, which would cause stickiness, and they would put powder over that.”


“I would say in this period we first saw the widespread use of lipstick. Kings used it in the 1700s but this is when we saw wide use by women. My first product was a lighter, brighter red worn during the day called Bésame red. We also have a noir red, which is very deep and would have been used by a person who wanted to make a statement—women who were going to the speakeasies, who worked and were self-sufficient, and not married, or they were independently wealthy.”

Vintage Max Factor Pan-Cake advertising from the Bésame collection

Photo by Bésame Cosmetics


“Max Factor made Pan-Cake Make-Up in 1938. He was trying to solve problems for the movie industry. Before this they had grease makeup, which was oil-based. When the movies wanted to film in Technicolor it required a lot of light and the grease makeup would just melt right off. He came up with a type of powder that has some oil in it, but it’s also emulsified with water. When you put it on it’s bone dry like a porcelain doll. It didn’t melt and it made people look very nice on film. It has titanium in it that would bounce back light particles and actually create a halo effect on film so everybody was in soft focus. The actresses loved it. I love it! It not only helped the movie industry, but it established Max Factor as a consumer brand.”

Vintage WWII-era advertising from the Bésame collection

Courtesy Bésame Cosmetics


“There were quite a few problems with shortages during WWII. Most of the factories were commandeered to make greasepaint for camouflage. They would pour several stripes of color, like brown and green and khaki, in a tin, and a guy would rub it on his face to blend in with the foliage. Elizabeth Arden was commissioned by the government to make one lipstick and give it to enlisted women with their uniforms. It was called Victory Red. Bringing lipstick back boosted morale.”



“Women had been very much constricted by the war rationing and couldn’t get makeup or fabric to make dresses. Everything went ultrafeminine in the ’50s with flouncy dresses, poodle skirts, and bullet-shaped bras. Wing eyeliner that goes past your eye and goes up was done primarily with liquid eyeliner and painting darker thicker lines on top of the lashes. Cream mascara doubles as liner. The thicker top liner gives you those come-hither eyes like Marilyn Monroe. Her thicker lines make her look kinda dreamy and feminine.”

Vintage false eyelashes from the Bésame collection

Photo by Bésame Cosmetics


“False eyelashes have been around since the 1700s. They were used on performers and made by hand. The Japanese would make them with real hair and natural glue from trees. They were very expensive and hard to make, and people would clean them and reuse them. By the ’60s we had polyester, and artificial lashes became very inexpensive and accessible to all women who wanted that ingenue look. It made you look like an androgynous child. Maybe people wanted to go back to being children because they didn’t like what was going on politically.”


“You start getting a counterculture, and you have the disco people coming in and grungy rock ‘n’ roll and types, and people are getting fragmented. Before that you had more of a consistency where a lot of people adopted something and said, ‘OK, this is the look and everybody should sort of look like this.’ Maybelline and Revlon were very big at the time; a lot of powder blushes and earth tones, a lot of dark brown. Sometimes you’d see people experimenting with three or four different shades at the same time; purple, gold, and brown all together. You might see a stripe down the side of the face. It was not subtle.”


“Women were more in the workforce and in positions where they wanted to compete with men. That’s where all the shoulder pads come from. The makeup was very neutral with a lot of nude colors and not calling attention to itself. No ‘Hey, I’m a woman, I wear pink.’ There wasn’t anything feminine about it. Products were coming out that included silicone. In older products the textures are chalkier and more coarse, but silicon is slick, so once they figured out that consumers liked the feel of it they put it in everything: foundations, lipstick, eye shadow. We try not to use it because it builds up and doesn’t let your skin breathe.”


“Techniques became a lot more sophisticated and you saw a lot of new materials like holographic paint for example. There are some shadow materials that are microscopically small coated glass. They act like prisms and reflect back all these techy materials. There were products that changed color from blue to green or looked like solid gold or solid silver. It’s now considered vintage. To young kids it seems like so long ago, but since I lived through it, it seems like yesterday.”

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