From Chanel No. 5 to Vaseline: The beauty secrets of old Hollywood

Even years after many of their deaths, there’s no denying that we’re still very much obsessed with the glamour of old Hollywood stars – particularly when it comes to their appearance. And while modern day beauty techniques have never been more advanced, we can all stand to learn a lot from the sirens of yesteryear.

These women pioneered looks as simple as red nail polish and as bold as graphic feline eyeliner without batting a (perfectly painted) eyelash – and many of the products they knew and loved from the 30s, 40s, and 50s are still at our disposal today.

From skincare secrets to favourite fragrances, we’ve taken a walk down memory lane to look at the beauty tips and tricks we can steal from iconic actresses – as well as some we’d rather leave in the past.

Marilyn Monroe

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‘Five drops of Chanel No. 5,’ screen icon Marilyn famously purred when asked what she wore to bed each night – she is even said to have spiked her bathwater with the scent. It has become the comment which sparked a thousand purchases, with the crystal Chanel bottle consistently appearing on bestseller lists ever since.

Her signature cat-eye was drawn on with Elizabeth Arden Show Stopper pencils – try the brand’s Beautiful Color Precision Glide Eye Liner for a modern equivalent – topped off with a slick of Helena Rubenstein mascara.

To achieve a true Marilyn flutter, however, false eyelashes are essential – when her beauty bag was auctioned by Christie’s for $1 million, there was a set of Glorene of Hollywood lashes inside. Her trusted make-up artist and close friend Allan ‘Whitey’ Snyder would snip the strips in half, before applying to the outer edge of her eye only to enhance the almond shape.

When it came to moisturiser, Marilyn was a devotee of Elizabeth Arden’s Eight Hour Cream – although she also used Vaseline or white Nivea Creme under her makeup to keep her skin soft and primed.

And when she went for a red lip, she apparently favoured MaxFactor’s Ruby Red – a shade which you can still get as part of The Marilyn Monroe Lipstick Collection, a range of four reds launched in her name in 2015 and still available on Amazon now.

Audrey Hepburn

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Few modern make-up masters would condone Audrey’s artist’s trick of using a pin to separate each lash – but there are other ways to follow in her doe-eyed footsteps.

Renowned hair stylist Philip Kingsley created his Elasticizer pre-shampoo conditioning treatment after she sought his advice at his London clinic in 1974, concerned that her hair was in bad condition due to over processing and constant styling on set. She loved the balm – which restores manageability, strength and shine to tired locks – so much that she even ordered pots to be sent to her in Switzerland so she never ran out.

It wasn’t the only beauty icon crafted in Audrey’s honour, either – Givenchy’s first ever perfume, L’Interdit, was a tribute from Hubert de Givenchy to the actress, and Creed’s Spring Flower fragrance was created for her alone, and only made available for the public to purchase her death.

In a personal note to Estée Lauder written in 1992, Audrey wrote ‘I start and end my day with you’ – thought to be a nod to her love of the brand’s skincare line.

Grace Kelly

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Grace was another lucky recipient of a Creed perfume – Fleurissimo was custom-made for her wedding day to compliment the flowers in her bouquet.

When it came to make-up, her iconic red lip was painted on using Rouge Dior (vivid crimson 999 was one of the original colours, and therefore widely said to be the best match.) The Princess of Monaco also used blush to contour her features, selecting one shade to use underneath her cheekbones, and then dusting a darker shade on the apples.

According to beauty expert Peter Lamas, who worked directly with the star, Grace was also obsessed with applying hand cream, because ‘a woman’s age shows on her hand much quicker than anywhere else.’ It’s not known which formulation she favoured, but we’d put money on a rich, nourishing cream like L’Occitane’s Shea Butter Hand Cream.

Mae West

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Mae West’s soft, flawless skin was all-natural – she ‘talked at length‘ about the benefits of putting coconut oil on her face (rather ahead of her time, as the balm is now much buzzed-about in the world of ‘clean’ beauty for everything from make-up removal to hair conditioning).

She was also a proponent of Vaseline, applied sparingly over a good shadow, telling Max Factor in 1934: ‘During the day I use very little mascara on my lashes and just a touch of grey eye shadow on my lids. My secrets then is to dab a teeny speck of Vaseline over the shadow. It not only is good for my lids but adds a lovely soft look.’

Her curvy body shape inspired the hourglass bottle of Schiaparelli’s (sadly discontinued) Shocking perfume, a heady, musky blend of of magnolia, patchouli, and vetiver.

Sophia Loren

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In 2006, after being quizzed by the BBC about the secret to her eternally youthful beauty, Sophia put her glamorous appearance down to taking ‘the odd bath in virgin olive oil’ – that, and a love of ‘life and spaghetti.’ If drizzling oil in your bathtub sounds a little messy, you can harness the same benefits from an olive oil moisturiser like Dr Organic’s Virgin Olive Oil Skin Lotion.

Sophia also taught the world how to paint on a gloriously feline flick, thanks to her heavy, graphic eyeliner, which she accented with a rim of white around her waterline. Choose a longwear liquid like Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eye Liner, or a trusted pencil like NARS Larger Than Life Long-Wear Eyeliner if you plan to copy the technique, and team with a nude lip or a swipe of Sophia Loren N°1, the stick Dolce & Gabanna created in homage to the screen siren.

However, there are some aspects of Sophia’s beauty that we can never emulate. When W magazine asked her how she had aged so gracefully, she replied: ‘It’s because, I think, of my mother. She was the most beautiful woman in the world when I was born. She looked exactly like Greta Garbo.’ Some things, we really do have to put down to genes.

Rita Hayworth

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Original lady in red Rita was the poster girl for Max Factor Tru Colour lipstick, and was also known for popularising long red nails after the introduction of Technicolor. Among the most popular brands of polish at the time were Revlon and Cutex – you can get the Rita look with Cherries in the Snow, a rich red hue that’s been around since Revlon’s incarnation in 1932, and is still in production today.

Natural brunette Rita famously dyed her hair red too, and had electrolysis to alter her hairline. In the book Vintage Secrets: Hollywood Beauty, author Laura Slater details how she would soak her hair in olive oil, then rinse with lemon juice and hot water to maintain brightness and bounce.

DIY mask aside, her signature flaming mane was in the hands of stylist Helen Hunt – ‘It was Helen who suggested that I become a redhead,’ Rita is quoted as saying. ‘It was the turning point in my career. As soon as I became a redhead things began to happen.’