Beauty History: Women And Cosmetics During World War II

The Second World War (1939-1945) is one of the most important events of the twentieth century, and one of the most disastrous too. Sixty million people (the majority of which were civilians) lost their lives in the conflict and incomparable destruction was left behind wherever it was fought. But during this terrifying time, while worrying about theirs and their loved one’s safety and watching the destruction of the world as they knew it, women would still worry about looking good.

It may sound silly to some to worry about such a thing as beauty while your town was being bombarded and people dying all around you, but a swipe of lipstick or using hair dye was a way to retain their humanity and dignity (wars always bring out the worst in people) and femininity, to put on a brave face, to boost their morale as well as that of the soldiers, and have some fun, even if only for a little while.

Cosmetics in Europe during World War II

During the war cosmetics were expensive and hard to find. That’s because everything, including the ingredients used to make them, were used mostly for war efforts. And everything was rationed too. In such circumstances, even taking a bath or washing your hair wasn’t easy. You would have only a few inches of water available, which certainly weren’t enough to fill a bath tube and shampoo (if you were lucky enough to get it) was rationed. Soap was another luxury during the war and most of the time, people washed themselves using only that little bit of water they could get.

Because everything was scarce, women had to be creative and resourceful: if they wanted to dye their hair they could only use vegetable dyes and if they wanted to shave but didn’t have a razor, they’d use a soapy pumice stone instead. As for hair, it was usually wrapped in scarfs or hairnets which served two purposes. It would hide a bad hair day (after all, not everyone had shampoo, remember?) and, if the women had a job (and many did as they had to do the jobs men left behind when they went to fight) it’d avoid their locks from getting tangled in machinery.

Cosmetics in the USA during World War II

The situation was better in America. The USA too participated in the war but it was fought predominantly in Europe, eastern Asia and the Pacific so America was spared most of the vast devastation that hit those parts of the world. But even if this meant that cosmetics were more easily available and people didn’t run the same risks as those under bombardments, lots of American men enlisted and bravely fought in the war. Those who were left behind weren’t in the mood for excess, celebration or show off their wealth.

Because so many men were away fighting, more and more women had to go to work. To retain their femininity and boost their morale, women (encouraged by society) would apply makeup. The beauty ideal of the time was a sophisticated and glamorous but natural and subdued look. On the eyes, women would apply natural eyeshadows in brown and grey tones, a touch of eyeliner and mascara, while the brows were kept quite thick but had to be perfectly arched and defined with an eyebrow pencil.

On the face, they would first apply a dark but warm foundation and, on top of it, a powder that was actually lighter than their skintone. This would give skin a rosy glow. Natural pink shades were used on the cheeks while the nails were painted in lots of different colors, from pinks to reds and mauves, to greens and blues. And what about the lips? Red lipstick was all the rage and was considered a natural look back then!

The popularity of the red lipstick was partly due to Elizabeth Arden. She was invited to create a makeup kit for the American Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. The aim was to boost their morale and Arden created a red lipstick that matched their uniforms. It was also during this time that companies started to realize how popular camouflage products (back then used on wounded soldiers) could be. They are now known as concealers and widely used by women (and men) worldwide.

After the end of the war, cosmetics became less expensive and easily available everywhere. Women finally had the money to buy what they wanted and the beauty industry soared. And even if nowadays the recession and economic crisis mean most of us can’t spend as much money as we’d like or were used to on cosmetics and other trifles, just thinking about what our grandmothers went through and, even today, what’s happening in other parts of the world where people are affected by natural disasters, wars and poverty, just puts everything in perspective, doesn’t it? We’re so lucky and can’t often appreciate it!

14 Comment

    • Jezabel, thank you. I’m glad that you enjoyed it. It’s really fascinating to discover how some products originated, isn’t it?

  1. Wow! This was so interesting! Thanks for the post.

    I heard about the whole pumice instead of razors thing before. It always makes me cringe. Their legs must have hurt a lot after doing that.

    Hopefully, none of us will have to go through this again in our lifetime. War, especially such a horrible, global war like WW2, is no good for anyone. In my opinion, anyway.
    Trisha´s last blog post ..Personal Microderm for Home MicrodermabrasionMy Profile

    • Trisha, you’re welcome and thanks. I’m glad you liked this post and I’ve really enjoyed writing it too.

      Using pumice stone sounds awful indeed! But in such circumstances you must make do with what you have. Still, ouch.

      I hope so too Trisha. Wars are awful and only bring death and destruction.

    • Annabella, I’m glad you do. It’s weird but fascinating to think that. I guess they will find some of our beauty practice rather odd lol.

    • Makeup Morsels, thanks. Yes, nail polishes was already available in lots of colorful shades back then. :)

  2. Hi there,

    love this post! I am just wondering where you got your information from? I am doing my dissertation on how cosmetics affected the sexuality and of women during WW2, so would be forever grateful!

    Thanks again!

    • Holly, I’m glad you like the article and good luck with your dissertation. I took this info from various sources online. There aren’t really many articles about the subject but lots of bits and bobs on various sites. I’ll see if I can find them again and let you know. I think Beaut.ie should have a post about this subject too.

  3. Hi,
    I enjoyed this but wanted to say that the reason people took shallow baths wasn’t, I think, because of a lack of water, but because heating the water consumed precious (very precious) fuel. It is said that the bathtubs in Buckingham Palace, no less, had lines marked around the insides, to indicate the depth beyond which bathers were not to fill the tub. (The rooms were chilly, so having only a small proportion of your anatomy in warmish water while the rest was exposed to the air must have been bracing. I bet it led to a lot of quick baths.)

    • Sallie, I’m glad you enjoyed it and thanks for your informative comment. I didn’t know about the bathtubs at Buckingham Palace, how interesting. I think it may have been for both a lack of water and fuel though as both are precious in times of war, although the latter may have been harder to get a hold of back then.

  4. Hi Love this post!
    I was wondering where you got your research from?
    Because im doing research for a school assignment.
    Thanks

    • Sal, I’m glad you like this post and good luck with your assignments. I consulted several online sources for this post, but unfortunately I cannot remember which ones as it’s been a long while since I’ve written this post.

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