Knee makeup isn’t really a thing, but a century ago it was the hottest trend in the beauty industry. It started out as knee rouging and eventually became a full-fledged knee painting.
Fashion has always been a reflection of the zeitgeist, and the knee makeup and painting of the 1920s were no exception. The “flappers” wore skirts that were shorter than ever (the hem just below the knee was the 1920s version of a miniskirt), they rolled their stocking down below the knee or gave it up entirely, and knee rouging just became another way to draw attention to an area of the female body that has never been so visible. Women of the generation had a number of blush formulas to choose from, including cream, powder, and liquid formulas, which they used for that extra “look at me” effect.
By the mid-1920s, the knee rouging trend had developed into an art form in which women forced hand-painted works of art to their knees. Some did it themselves with watercolors or oil paints, others relied on talented artists. The designs ranged from simple letters such as the initials of their friends or swarms to floral motifs, landscapes and even detailed portraits.
“The latest fad, I am told, is for the ultra-smart women to paint their knees,” a Tampa Bay Times reader said in 1925. “Some women have painted pictures of their loved ones on their knees. Some offer a wide one View of the water, with fully equipped ships sailing into the wide harbors. Others have to be satisfied with dainty, very dainty miniatures, the perfect details of which have to be examined with a magnifying glass. “
The Makeup Museum reports on the case of a housewife named Clarice Wilson who used the painted knee trend to dig for her husband. Aware of her husband’s hatred of the new dogs she had recently bought, she had portraits of them painted on her knees. Husband Arthur is said to have reciprocated by painting the portraits of two of the most attractive women in town on their knees.
As the above story clearly shows, all of the trends in knee makeup and painting have been about rebellion, and there have been tons of stories of teenagers being beaten up by their parents or even banned from schools to adopt the trend .
The hand-painted knee fad only lasted about a decade and has been forgotten since, but it remains a remarkable period of women’s emancipation, a way to assert their independence and have some fun too.