Halloween Makeup Tutorial: Silent Film Star

Sealed lips are part of the look.

Before talkies came along, silent films were the bleeding edge of cinema. Actresses like Lillian Gish, Clara Bow, and Billie Dove reigned with rouged cheeks, tousled curls, and weird bohemian lifestyles. They brought about a raucous, art-filled renaissance, fueled by gin and electricity.

The group of rich bastards right in the middle of it all were dubbed the "Bright Young Things" by the tabloids. Today you might liken them to the #RKOI, but with better manners.

If you don’t have the patience for an old movie, just watch the 2003 film Bright Young Things. It’s a little tedious (Rich people! WOO!) but the costumes are to die for. So yeah, last decade's weaksauce flapper costume will not do. The look you want to go for is classy yet simple, with endless variation: grayscale meets the silent film actor.

You’ll Need:

  • White face makeup
  • White body paint/makeup
  • Gray eyeliner
  • Black eye shadow
  • Highlighter
  • A wig

Gray Pallor

Finding a good white base is the biggest challenge for this costume; most run-of-the-mill Halloween makeup is straight trash. I’ve tried a few dozen formulas, hoping I wouldn’t have to special order Ben Nye’s pricey theater makeup, but there is no dupe. They are all just greasepaint.

Nye’s white pancake is terrific, if you know how to use it, and have a few weeks to wait for the theater makeup company to send it (they do not hustle, ever). Otherwise you’re better off getting some layperson’s makeup. After reading a few reviews, I turned to Manic Panic's Dreamtone Foundation, a staple of goths and moonburns alike. The brand's Goth White cream-to-powder has an easy-to achieve opaque finish, and it will last all night without streaking or flaking.

If you’re going to wear a wig (you have to unless you have black hair--otherwise you’re fired) now is the time to shellac your baby hairs out the damn way and secure your hair up and away.

Start with a clean face, and apply the Dreamtone like you would a BB cream, extending it down your throat. It will lighten your skin tone, but more importantly it’ll help with the opacity of the Goth White. The formula is pretty pigmented, so you’ll want to use gloves or a sponge to apply it. Or else IT WILL get everywhere.

Next, mix your foundation color using Goth White as a base: to figure out the right shade, convert a well-lit selfie to black and white and try to match it. Mix enough for your face and throat; we’ll use a different formula for the body.

Cover your whole face with the color and blend using your either your fingertips (Goth White blends really well) or a sponge or beauty blender.

Eyes, Cheeks & Lips

Dramatic blush paired with curved brows were fashionable in the early 1900s. I softened my arch using the gray pencil--black is a little too harsh for my skin tone--and mixed a bit of darker foundation and applied it to the apples of my cheeks.

In lieu of a cat-eye (not popular at the time) use a soft shadow brush and black eye shadow to blend a rounded outside corner. Add mascara if you have blonde lashes--understated lashes will help with the authenticity of the look--and tightline with a good gel liner so there is no pink showing around your eyes. I used Wet N Wild Color Icon.

You can use your liner (or blackest black matte lipstick) to draw on thin, stylized lips. A touch of highlighter on the cheekbones and your Cupid’s bow keep your face from looking too flat.

Hair & Finishing Touches

It’s wig time. I love the lower maintenance styles that gained popularity after the stuffy 1890s. Women wore loose, fluffy curls--rags or real--and all kinds of accoutrements. The styles are simple and easy to cop. I used a Kanekalon bob wig I got off Amazon for $7.

After mussing it with a bit of hairspray (a perfect wig looks cheesy), I tucked and pinned the ends under and tied on a silk scarf. You can use a headband to do a Fake Updo if you have short hair. If you are blessed with naturally black hair, you don’t have to wear a hair-hat, and should be smug about it.

Depending on your costume, you’ll have to cover any skin that shows with gray-tone body paint. Mehron Liquid Makeup is my go-to. You can mix in any other color or pigment and it’ll stay put without transferring or flaking for hours. (Moisturize well beforehand for easier removal.) Mix to a shade similar to your face and apply to any exposed skin, including the top of your hands. A spritz of flexible hairspray adds staying power.

I love how well this costume photographs--as long as you don’t smile. Due to copyright expirations, most films from early 20th Century are available for free online: The General, Nosferatu, A Woman of Paris, the list goes on.

  • Have you decided your Halloween costume yet? Time is ticking.
  • Tell me your favorite silent films in the comments!