Burnt Cork And Rice Flour: Get Theda Bara's Makeup Look The Old-Fashioned Way

I recreated the silent film star's sultry look as authentically as possible--but I skipped the greasepaint.
Publish date:
July 9, 2013
celebrities, How-To, retro, muses, blotting papers, improvising, Theda Bara

Theda Bara is sort of an odd figure. She was the first real sex symbol of the cinema. A lot of her films are lost, so most people today haven’t seen any of them.

In the Edwardian era, she rose to prominence for being typecast repeatedly as a "vamp." The studios had tight control over her image, and her look was "sultry" but pushed into the realm of the chthonic and terrifying.

Her name is an anagram of "death Arab", and that was essentially the character she played in films and in her life. Bara was made into a caricature of all that is Arabian, despite being an American Jew. She was the human equivalent of "Streets of Cairo," a tune which, despite being written by a white man, has been permanently associated with snake charmers and bellydancers. Actually, that tune might just be associated with Ke$ha now, and she's white, so, good for her I guess?

She wore very, very heavy eye-makeup, which was not "pretty." However, it suited her face and was interesting, which I often find to be more appealing than "pretty." On me, Bara's makeup looks very severe, because I have small and sharp features. The bone structure of her face was naturally just larger than mine is, so while she wasn't overwhelmed by the look, I find that I am.

To do eyes like hers, I first lit a cork on fire. In the early twentieth century, heavy makeup was primarily the domain of actresses such as Theda Bara; this attitude shifted in the 1920s with many other attitudes. Actresses would darken their eyelashes and lids with burnt matches. (I used a cork because I read once that Marlene Dietrich used burnt cork on her eyes, and I do actually use burnt cork in my makeup regularly. My boyfriend thinks it’s amusing to remind me that burnt cork was also used for blackface, so, I would like to point out that I do not engage in blackface ever, hooray!!!)

So, I burnt the cork, and then used a brush to apply the charred cork powder all over my lid and then below my eye. I tried to concentrate the powder towards the outer corners of my eyes because my eyes are a bit close together.

I didn't do any complicated blending or layering of color, because I haven't seen much indication of those techniques in Bara's look. (Actresses at the time typically did their own makeup after being shown how to.)

Theda Bara's makeup wasn't always exactly the same. I chose not to color my waterline to make my eyes seem a bit larger, but Theda Bara did wear, in some images, the style of kohl I illustrated in my previous article.

Her face makeup is an interesting subject. Film is, of course, sensitive to light, but prior to the 1920s, film stock was primarily orthochromatic. Orthochromatic film is not affected by all wavelengths of light equally when it renders light into black and white images; blues would appear lighter, and reds would appear darker. Panchromatic film, which registers light evenly, was not used until 1918 and was not typical film stock until 1922. For early motion pictures, this often made human face skin appear fairly dark due to the reddish tones in skin, so actors and actresses would have to paint their skin a very mask-like white.

The first layer would typically be an actor's greasepaint, or a type of white paint made with lead. I did not bother to make any greasepaint myself because using animal fat on my skin seems gross, and I’m trying to stop applying lead to my face all of the time. (It’s hard, you guys. Lead is so tempting.)

The second layer would typically be a rice powder. I bought a bag of rice flour at the supermarket, and dusted it on my face liberally to produce the mask-like effect that would register well on orthochromatic film. This is the “cakey” look that people generally try to avoid. The rice flour stuck well to my face sans greasepaint because my skin is disgusting and has the texture of a deep-fried Oreo, but you could use foundation, concealer, BB cream, moisturizer, etc. in place of greasepaint.

I slapped on some red lipstick to overwhelm my face a little more. (Lipstick and rouge at the time would have also had animal fat as a base.) You can also still purchase some brands of face powder that were used in the period: T. Le Clerc has a loose face powder that was manufactured beginning in the 1890s, and Papier Poudre is also a period company that still sells blotting papers covered in powder. These are all things Theda Bara would have most likely used.

Is any of this practical? Maybe not. It depends on what you make of this information. I like to explore history, and I like to use beauty products that are period-sensitive. I think it’s groovy. There is something to be said for adhering to historical limitations; there's a lot to learn when trying to reproduce history. It helps us understand where things come from, and why we do things the way we do them now.

But Theda Bara’s pretty cool, right? We chill hard.