Beauty as Duty

Fashion historian Amber Butchart on the importance of powder and rouge in times of national strife

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The Imperial War Museum in London is not the first place that springs to mind when when you think of make-up. Yet the current Fashion on the Ration exhibition offers a brilliant rundown of the innovation and creativity that went hand-in-hand with fashion and beauty in wartime Britain. The exhibition has been staged to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 1945, and it explores how fashion flourished during these years (full disclosure: you can see me interviewed at the end of the exhibition, but I had nothing to do with the curation, which is flawless). One of the exhibition’s six sections, ‘Beauty as Duty’, looks at the importance of make-up for maintaining morale in an era when shortages and the bombing of factories meant that prices were high and the black market flourished. Womens’ bodies were foregrounded as governments put female appearance at the centre of the campaign. “Keep up the morale of the Home Front by preserving a neat appearance,” proclaimed the Board of Trade in 1940.

Practices that had been trivialised as ‘feminine’ were repositioned as a national duty, the key to fostering morale and patriotism on the Home Front. Personal maintenance became essential to the war effort. This manifested itself in various ways throughout the wars years, from lipsticks for servicewomen by Elizabeth Arden (to match the uniform) and Helena Rubinstein (Regimental Red), to magazine articles extolling the escapism of beauty. “Make-up is cherished, a last desperately defended luxury” claimed Vogue in September 1942. Hair maintenance was seen as so vital that many hairdressers were excused from compulsory conscription. For women who couldn’t afford the high prices wrought by Purchase Tax or the vagaries of the black market, tips were encouraged like beetroot for staining lips, boot polish for mascara and the celebrated trick of the eyebrow pencil up the back of the legs to create the illusion of stockings.Beauty has long been an area of autonomy for women. From business moguls of the Arden and Rubinstein ilk, to the army of door-to-door sellers for Avon, who offered respectable and flexible jobs to many women seeking independence, or work that would fit around family life. Fashion on the Ration shines a spotlight on the transformative power of cosmetics, and highlights a particular era when women weren’t chastised for their decision to wear make-up. After all, it was only three decades earlier that beauty products had been freed from their under-the-counter status by Harry Gordon Selfridge, and euphemistic concerns over the morality of brightly painted ‘actresses and showgirls’ began to fade. By the time of the Second World War, beauty was a national issue and a new kind of pressure was emerging for women, as Yardley cosmetics declared, “we must do our best to look our best always. Never should we forget that good looks and good morale go hand in hand.”

rationlipstickThe complicated interplay between fashion and the military always reaches a crescendo during times of war, when uniform details or wartime themes have been adopted into women’s wear. This practice stretches back centuries, to the tall ship headdresses that adorned 18th century Parisian women, worn to commemorate battles against the British at sea. Decorative fans and printed silk ribbons were produced when Nelson won the Battle of the Nile in 1798, a cheap and easy way to spruce up an outfit, much like accessories operate for fashion houses today. Patriotism with panache at an affordable price. Jumping forward and the influence could also be felt during WWII, demonstrated throughout the exhibition. Among the Make Do and Mend leaflets and Utility fashions is a powder compact on display in the shape of a US Army officer’s cap. These novelty compacts with wartime motifs were popular gifts for the wives and girlfriends of servicemen, a stark reminder that war infiltrated every aspect of daily life, and that beauty was part of the battleground.

 

Amber Butchart is a fashion historian with an avid interest in the interplay between the politics of war and fashion. Her latest book, Nautical Chic, examines the history of maritime dress and its crossover to fashion, and is out now, published by Thames & Hudson.

Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style is running until 31st August at the Imperial War Museum London.

 
Image 1: A model poses for the camera on a rooftop in Bloomsbury to show off her scarlet and white spot-printed Utility rayon shirt dress, which would have cost 7 coupons and 53/- © IWM (D 14784)

Image 2: A female member of Air Raid Precautions staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls, c1940 © IWM (D 176)

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