Make-up and the Silent film era…

(Originally blogged September 29, 2010)

Left: Orthochromatic Right: Panchromatic

I always assumed that silent film actresses wore a lot of eye make-up and lip rouge to accentuate their expressions on film as well as pale powder to set off the contrast of their eyes and lips, but apparently that was not the case. Actresses and actors did wear make-up, that practise began in the theatre in the 18th century, but the only face powder used was normal pancake to smooth out the complexion. It was actually the film stock that over-accentuated the contrast between light and dark on the silent star’s faces.

Left: Orthochromatic Right: Panchromatic

Until 1922 orthochromatic film stock was used for all films. Orthochromatic film is not sensitive to subtle tones or all colors of the spectrum. It tended to wash out skies and faces, red (as in lipstick) and yellow registered as black, and blue registered as white. A superior panchromatic film stock was available as early as 1913 but it was costly and unstable. Kodak began offering a better quality and cheaper panchromatic film in 1922 (the Headless Horseman starring Will Rogers was the first feature filmed entirely on panchromatic stock), but it was not until 1926 that panchromatic began to become more commonly used and it was not until the early 1930s that orthochromatic film stock was abandoned by the film industry.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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3 Responses to Make-up and the Silent film era…

  1. Michael Savidge says:

    Thank you so much for this article! Do you mind if I use this as a reference for my silent film?

  2. Pingback: CTO Corner: Light in Artwork Worlds - Nanoleaf

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