Beauty is your Duty: Red lipstick, an official weapon of WWII
To mark the publication of her new novel set in Bletchley Park, The Amber Shadows, author Lucy Ribchester has written an article about beauty and the role of red lipstick during WW2.
During the war years, women were encouraged to take care of their appearance for public morale, including the ‘weaponisation’ of red lipstick. But was this strategy as anti-feminist as it might first look?
I have an uneasy relationship with glamour. On the one hand, it’s fun to play dress up. On the other, the idea of linking beauty to artifice - that a woman must ‘paint an inch thick’, disguising nature to create beauty - goes against my feminist belief that natural beauty comes from within. So when I began researching my World War II novel, The Amber Shadows, the discovery that in the 1940s women were encouraged to use fashion and cosmetics as some sort of morale booster for the war effort, not only piqued my curiosity but raised my hackles.
I first came across this idea at the Imperial War Museum’s Fashion on the Ration exhibition in Spring 2015. There, along with an iconic image of a volunteer ambulance driver applying her lippy, I found a postcard declaring ‘Useful jobs that girls can do - to help win the war’. It listed things like ‘Ironing wisdom’, ‘Care of brushes’ and ‘Study your sewing machine’. Elsewhere were advertising straplines such as ‘Never forget that good looks and morale go hand in hand.’ I’d also recently seen the ‘Keep Your Beauty on Duty’ American poster for Proctor & Gamble soap, with tips on how to achieve perfect skin.
I thought this type of ‘war work’ was so laughable that I quickly stole and parodied it in the early chapters of the novel. Honey, the protagonist, when queuing for a cup of tea at the Bletchley Park canteen sees a poster with the title ‘Beauty is your Duty’, and a similar list of things women can do: put their hair in a turban to save washing it, or wear Mitchell’s ‘Stockingless Cream’.
As I researched more however, I found that cosmetic companies were going a step further in the way they branded their wartime products. Cyclax, and Elizabeth Arden made lipstick shades called ‘Auxiliary Red’ and ‘Victory Red’. Looking through a 1942 copy of the Guardian I found an advert for a Finnigan’s brand of lipstick, titled ‘Home Front Ammunition.’ Telling women what to put on and do with their bodies is nothing old or new. But this pattern of branding – specifically the military language – was more unusual. It cast women as soldiers, appealing not only to their patriotic sides, but to a sense of the self as courageous, daring, bold - characteristics more commonly associated with masculinity.
The language of cosmetics is now and was then more often couched in notions of softness and grace. We are programmed by make-up brands to construct the feminine as smooth, delicate, and elegant, and aim (certainly now) for the unholy oxymoron of the ‘natural look’. Indeed many cosmetics are aimed at trying to help create an unattainable ideal of ‘natural’. By contrast nobody, of any skin colour, size, or age looks natural wearing red lipstick. Red, as well as being associated with sex, is associated with officialdom, violence and the military - fire engines, 18th century ‘redcoat’ army uniforms, the cross on a white medical box. Even when connected to sex, it’s the figure of 30s and 40s noir, the femme fatale that pops to mind. Red speaks of urgency, danger, independence, assertiveness - above all confidence. It positively screams artificial, and in doing so sends a signal to the beholder that the wearer is in careful control of their outward appearance. Seen in multiplicity it does indeed carry the same echoes, and speak to the same cultural subconscious, as a military uniform. It isn’t so much a mode of beautification as a badge of identification. In that sense, to me, that ammunition analogy wasn’t far off the mark.
There were other ironies of cosmetic artifice during wartime too. Stories exist of women rubbing gravy browning into their legs (and then being chased by dogs), along with drawing seams up the back of their calves to create the look of stockings. The notion of making yourself look as if you were wearing stockings when you weren’t is a sort of inverse artifice. These days we are supposed to make our legs look as if they are nude – and perfect – by use of spray tans, exercises and ‘natural’ tights. Back then however, the glamour was in covering up, creating a uniform look – that eye pencil seam - that anyone could adopt.
Perhaps the easy quick-fix nature of the red lipstick is one reason it was taken up: in a time of austerity (and many cosmetic companies in the UK were closed or curtailed) it was an accessible way to create a flash of glamour. But it was also a way for women to try out a new identity. American academic Adrienne Niederriter in her essay ‘Speak Softly and Carry a Lipstick’ says, ‘Lipstick was one of the ways these women defined themselves; to them it signaled femininity and strength.’ She goes on to write about the US government’s attempts to militarise women’s sexuality through red lipstick, but how in doing so they inadvertently created the opportunity for women to assert themselves – to explore their own sexuality. The morale booster hadn’t backfired as such, but it had had the effect of boosting women’s morale instead, or as well as, men’s.
This is why the motif ‘Beauty is your Duty’ in The Amber Shadows starts off as a contemptuous joke, but by the end becomes more of a siren call. I still bristle at the idea of women’s ‘war work’ being sewing and ironing. But the weaponisation of red lipstick I can see more in parallel to the sharp uniforms the soldiers, sailors and pilots were donning. Yes this style of glamour is highly gendered, but glamour for all genders has its egalitarian side. Glamour is ageless. Glamour does not fetishise youth through aspirations of ‘natural’ beauty, nor does it equate beauty with innocence. Instead it celebrates grand gesture and extravagant colour. It is a contract between the wearer and the beholder, an open deception, a mode of fashion and of self-expression. No wonder it boosted morale in such turbulent times.
A brilliant novel of lies and intrigue at Bletchley Park by the author of the bestselling debut The Hourglass Factory