When Beauty Was A Duty: Cosmetic Appeal During WWII

Revisiting the standards of beauty--and patriotism--of the 1940s.

2014 marks the 75th anniversary of the start of WWII. Even though three-quarters of a century has elapsed, it’s important that we not consign this war to the distant past, as much of what happened during those years continues to affect us today--personally, geopolitically, and historically.

WWII saw women taking a very active role in the war effort. Victory rolls and red lipstick tend to conjure a distinct image of 1940s glamour, but beauty was more than just a luxury for starlets and pin up girls.

The concept of beauty as duty was used as a tool for promoting patriotism and encouraging women to become more active in the war effort. Women depicted in propaganda and advertisements always had perfect hair and makeup, even when they were shown as soldiers and factory workers. Being beautiful was seen as a way to keep up morale for the soldiers fighting the bad guys.

Working Girls

One of the biggest misconceptions about WWII is that women got jobs outside the home for the first time in history, when in reality, women had always worked (they were used pretty frequently as cheap labor in factories and mines).

But WWII was the first time that middle and upper-class white women entered the workforce to take jobs usually held by men. A lot of these jobs forced women to get dirty, but at the same time they were still told to take care of their appearances. Because more women than ever before were working, companies and government agencies began filming training videos for men on how to work with women, and videos for women on how to stay safe at work, while still looking pretty.

One video in particular, “Danger ~ Women at Work!” provides sensible advice for women. Too bad much of it is obscured by a haze of stereotypes.

Did you catch all that with your weak little lady-brains? If a hair net is not your ideal method of keeping your hair out of heavy machinery, put on an attractive turban! We certainly would not be women if we weren’t concerned with our weight, so eat a healthy meal to avoid injury on the job!

This video (and many others like it) suggests that women were so hung up on their physical appearance that they wouldn’t follow vital safety procedures if said procedures interfered with their beauty. But realistically, the emphasis on beauty in training guides was part of a larger societal campaign that stretched the boundaries of traditional gender roles, while also implementing even more restrictions on how women should act. You may have a job now, ladies, but don’t forget your primary function is to be attractive!

Lipstick And Cosmetic Appeal

Red lipstick became a staple among military nurses and was heavily associated with war efforts, sold in patriotic shades like Victory Red and Fighting Red. Women were expected to actively contribute to the war effort and take on traditionally male jobs without being masculine; makeup allowed them to exhibit this new power while also fulfilling the societal demand for feminine beauty.

The fact that Rosie the Riveter has perfect lipstick and eyelashes until next Thursday is no coincidence. Flexing her muscles with bright red lips and styled hair, Rosie the Riveter perfectly represents the dual role women needed to take during the war: mechanic by day, pin-up by night.

As the war continued and rationing became more prevalent, certain cosmetic items became scarce. Nylon stockings hit the restricted list, as the material was needed to make military items like parachutes and hammocks. Women had to make do without these essential undergarments, and began painting their legs and drawing on stocking seams to give the illusion of hosiery.

Liquid stockings weren’t the only adjustment made on the beauty front. Women were advised to get creative with their appearance and use vegetable dye for their hair, beet juice as a lip stain, and even beef gravy as a self-tanning agent. All of these DIY treatments were designed to further promote patriotism through beauty. Women felt as though they were contributing to the allied forces by making sacrifices without sacrificing their appearance, therefore doing whatever was necessary to ensure victory.

Victory Rolls

The Victory Roll is typically associated with Vargas girls and Hollywood starlets of the time, but the hairstyle was actually quite practical for women at work. Rolling the sides and securing them kept hair out of their eyes and out of machinery that might catch and pull. The back of the hair was left down in curls or pulled up with pins in a net or scarf. The hairstyle allowed women to stay beautiful in a practical way.

Banana curls, bangs, and curl bundles were other practical yet fashionable ways to keep hair off the face during work, although the victory roll was the most war oriented style. The name mimics the downward spiral an enemy plane would make after being shot down by a heroic flyboy. Hair was typically shoulder length and parted on the side, but many women chose to cut their hair shorter as a safety precaution; regardless of the length of their hair, how dangerous their job was dictated the styles they chose.

Once the war was over, Rosie the Riveter was laid off and expected to retire to her primary position as homemaker and wife. Some women did this gratefully, but many found it hard to trade the freedoms of wartime and go back to the kitchen. Despite the decrease in job prospects, the emphasis on beauty as a mandatory requirement for women followed them back to the home front. By the 1950s, middle and upper class women had kept their morale boosting red lipsticks and factory-approved updos, but traded in their power tools for children, and yet another societal demand: domestic bliss.

But that's a story for another time.

  • What’s your favorite beauty look from the 1940s?
  • Do you wear any of these vintage hairstyles today?
  • Would beauty as a tool for patriotism fly by today’s standards? Tell me about it in the comments!

Cover image: aircraft worker checking assemblies. California, 1942. (shot by David Bransby; courtesy of the Library of Congress)