Hand-Painted Knees – A Forgotten Beauty Trend of the 1920s

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 turned into full-on knee painting.

Fashion has always been a reflection of the spirit of the times, and the knee makeup and painting of the 1920s was no exception. The “flappers” were wearing skirts shorter than ever before (hemlines just under the knee were the ’20s version of a miniskirt), they were rolling down their stocking bellow the knee or giving up on them altogether, and knee rouging became just another way to attract attention to an area of the female body that had never been as visible before. Women of the generation had a number of blush formulas to choose from including cream, powder, and liquid formulas, which they used for an added “look at me” effect.

Photo via Vintage Everyday

By the mid 1920s, the knee rouging trend had evolved into an art form that saw women get hand-painted artworks on their knees. Some did it themselves using watercolors or oil paints, while some relied on talented artists. Designs ranged from simple letters, like initials of their boyfriends or crushes, to floral motifs, landscapes and even detailed portraits.


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“The latest fad, I am told, is for the ultra smart women to paint their knees,” a reader told the Tampa Bay Times in 1925. “Some women have pictures of their sweethearts painted on their knees. Some have expansive water views with full-rigged ships sailing into the broad harbors. Others have to be content with dainty, very dainty, miniatures, the perfect details of which have to be studied through the magnifying glass.”

The Makeup Museum reports the case of a housewife by the name of Clarice Wilson, who used the painted knee trend to take a dig at her husband. Well aware of her husband’s hatred for the new dogs she had recently bought, she had portraits of them painted on her knees. The husband, Arthur, allegedly retaliated by having the portraits of two of the most attractive women in town painted on his knees.

As the story above clearly indicates, everything about the knee makeup and painting trends was about rebellion, and stories of teenagers spanked by their parents or even expelled from schools for adopting the trend, abounded.

The hand-painted knee fad lasted only about a decade, and has since been forgotten, but it remains a noteworthy stage in women’s emancipation, a way to assert their independence, and also have a bit of fun.