If a Prime Minister now were to suggest that women should ditch their trackie bottoms and put on lipstick to keep up morale, there would be outrage.
But 80 years ago, society was very different, and Winston Churchill’s government introduced clothes rationing and the iconic Beauty is your Duty campaign was rolled out across a war-weary country.
In 1941 there was a genuine fear that if women lost their femininity and looked scruffy or tired, it would lead to a collapse in morale which would be detrimental to society.
Britain’s oldest cosmetics firm, Yardley, rose to the challenge, telling customers, “Let us face the future bravely and honour the subtle bond between good looks and morale.”
Meanwhile Vogue told its readers that “a woman past caring is a woman past repairing”.
How do you think this campaign would be received today? Let us know in the comments section
Slogans like Put Your Best Face Forward reinforced the message that beauty went more than skin deep, our national character depended on it and it would help secure victory in a time of crisis.
And Beauty is Your Duty is still considered to be one of the most pervasive and enduring of all wartime campaigns.
“It was a badge of honour and mark of respect to be well-turned out in wartime,” says 91-year-old Pat Spicer, who worked as an apprentice court dress maker for a West End department store during the war.
Despite dodging bombs and sleeping at Bethnal Green Underground station, style-conscious Pat never left the house without doing her hair in Victory rolls.
“There was so much poverty and danger, we craved glamour and escapism,” she says.
“Emulating Hollywood stars made us feel empowered, even if our dances were the local town hall and we returned to a damp terrace in Bethnal Green.”
At the beginning of the war, the government limited manufacture of cosmetics to 25% of its previous production output and as the war went on, make up became increasingly scarce.
Desperate to cling to their femininity, thrifty wartime women resorted to imaginative substitutes.
Gravy browning was used as a replacement for stockings, with the seams drawn in with eye pencil. Powdered starch became face powder and boot polish doubled up as mascara.
Resourcefulness was the watchword, with women melting down the stubs of their lipsticks and mixing in vegetable oil before resetting it in an egg cup.
“Cosmetics are as essential to a woman as a reasonable supply of tobacco is to a man,” read a memo from the Ministry of Supply.
The government’s powerful messages were underpinned with a sophisticated pseudo-military marketing campaign of cosmetics, which saw the weaponisation of lipstick.
There were shades called Auxiliary Red, Victory Red and Home Front Ammunition. Women who wore lipstick went from being regarded as risqué to patriotic.
The message to women was clear.
Lipstick is your weapon, and you are a soldier on the Home Front.
Red lips became the potent symbol of wartime glamour and defiance.
It was also rumoured that Hitler hated women with red lips, which gave women one more reason to wear it.
By 1941, a Limitation of Supplies Order cut production of perfume and soap.
But, paradoxically, production of those goods that were permitted meant sales of lipstick increased overnight.
And because men and older single women were drafted into the war effort, it meant cosmetics factories were staffed by girls as young as 14 who were catapulted into a dangerous and thrilling new life.
Joan Osborne, from Hullbridge, Essex, was 15 when she started work at Yardley’s factory in Stratford, East London, in 1942.
“My dad didn’t want me going into a factory, that was too good for his girl, he wanted me in an office, but the lure of Yardley was too much,” 93-year-old Joan says.
“It must have been the glamour.
“I remember travelling past Stratford on the bus and the conductor opening the window so everyone could smell the lavender blowing from Yardley.”
The factory was a huge employer of local women, who were known locally as the Lavender Girls.
Their fragrant name masked the unsavoury reality of work in the canalside factory, sandwiched between a fishmeal factory and an abattoir on “Stink Bomb Alley”.
“They were dangerous times, especially when the flying bombs started up,” Joan recalls.
“But being young I didn’t think that much about it.”
Like many young women, Joan was obsessed with glamour.
“I never went down the shops without my make-up on,” she laughs.
“Once a month there was a staff sale and I used to queue for my lavender soap, talc and lipstick.
“We all did our hair nice.
“I used to go to bed with my dinky curlers in and do my face out with Yardley’s pancake makeup.
“We all took pride in our appearance and loved to sing along to Music While You Work.”
Yardley would reward workers who kept a tidy conveyor belt with a free makeover at its Bond Street Beauty School. “I was sent up there,” recalls Joan. “What a treat in wartime.”
Another lady who treated the streets as her catwalk was Henrietta “Minksy” Keeper, from Stepney, who died last year aged 93.
Minksy worked in an East End factory repairing Army uniforms and says competition was steep amongst the younger women to look their best.
“During the day, all the factory girls wore their hair in curlers under a turban but come clocking-off time you’ve never seen the like.
“The turbans would come off and Victory rolls would be styled, lips stained with beetroot and black market perfume sprayed on.
“We all helped each other paint our legs with gravy browning, all laughing and smoking.
“One woman used to use the black bit out of a winkle as a beauty spot.
“We knew all the wartime beauty dodges.
“Us wartime girls had the style and the swagger to match.”
- Kate Thompson’s wartime novel, Secrets of the Lav-ender Girls (Hodder & Stoughton) goes on sale today.
Wartime top 10
1 Yardley cherry red lipstick. It wasn’t just coloured oil, fat and wax in a tube. It was escapism, a beautifully packaged dream.
2 Cyclax of London stockingless cream. A cosmetic alternative to stockings, pots were gold dust and provided a far more seamless (to say nothing of fragrant) look than gravy browning!
3 Papier Poudre. Blotting sheets used discreetly to vanquish a shiny nose or chin.
4 Featherweight wavers. Elaborate hairstyles became badges of honour. Perms were expensive and hard to come by, so wavers – think pipe cleaners – were used and many women slept in these then styled their hair in the morning.
5 Yardley Brilliantine. Men’s hair was groomed to within an inch of its life and slicked back. In some cases it shone like patent leather.
6 Yardley Cleansing Milk. It was considered an effective cleanser to remove grime. In the absence of cream, women made do with homemade versions.
7 Yardley Bath Dusting Powder. Talcum powders like these were extremely popular among women in the 1930s and 40s.
8 Milady Powder. In an ornate gold metal tin, it promised the freshness and bloom of youth.
9 Yardley English Lavender. In 1927, Yardley stopped using a French perfumer, sourced its own lavender, and planted it in Norfolk.
10 Hat pins. New hats were expensive and hard to come by. Hatpins were a must-have item to secure your hard-won hat.