When you think of war, you might think of parachutes, tank track marks, and brown and green uniforms — it's not often that an image of a compact pops up. But the history of war and makeup is a long one, where powders and creams have long helped to highlight the shifting ideals that take place when a country is in battle. Whereas nowadays dabbing on red lipstick is seen as something as normal as putting on a pair of socks, it takes a completely different meaning when there are drafts and soldiers abroad involved. During World War I, an enameled compact symbolized just how quickly women changed their place in society in the span of four years. It hinted at freedom and being seen and heard. During World War II, a makeup case got a propaganda twist, where women believed that it was their patriotic duty to look as glamorous as the stars in glossy magazines. It wasn't enough to just put their morning face on — that was no way to stick it to Hitler.
From the Cold War to world wars, makeup has had a place as an underlying narrator to what the women wearing it thought of the war, and what they thought their new place in society was. Ahead is the history of war and makeup — who knew a makeup bag went so deep?
World War I: Makeup As A Way To Shatter Gender Norms
It might seem odd that something as simple as powder compacts could completely change the way women saw themselves, but in a time when women were moving away from being sitting room decoration to owners of their own checkbooks, the shift made sense. For the women who didn't wear Red Cross uniforms, taking up salesgirl positions and entering offices became the norm. In the span of four years, women became more independent and took up more room in the public sphere — and they also began to alter how they interacted with makeup. The modern working girl no longer wanted the delicate look of the Gibson Girl of her mother's generation. She wanted to distance herself from that ideal, and that's when cosmetics went from subtle cheek stains and face creams to dark lipsticks and black-ringed eyes.
But the war didn't only light a new sense of independence inside women — it also disillusioned many of them. Thousands of brothers, boyfriends, and husbands didn't come home, and it led to a lost generation that felt like it needed to live fast since tomorrows were no longer guaranteed. And part of that reckless, heedless attitude was expressed with a heavy hand with blush. Remember, their fathers would most definitely not approve. But seeing how their fathers also started the war, they didn't care.
"Let us take a look at the young person as she strolls across the lawn of her parents’ suburban home, having just put the car away after driving sixty miles in two hours," Bruce Bliven, author of the article "Flapper Jane" for The New Republic, wrote in 1925. "She is, for one thing, a very pretty girl. Beauty is the fashion in 1925. She is frankly, heavily made up, not to imitate nature, but for an altogether artificial effect—pallor mortis, poisonously scarlet lips, richly ringed eyes." She wanted to shock and piss off, and the fact that she felt emboldened enough to meant we were in a completely new time — one that might not have come about as quickly without the war.
WWII: Beauty As A Patriotic Duty
Much like in the First World War, in WWII makeup was again seen as a patriotic duty. Tax money was funneled into propaganda ads which encouraged women to put on red lipstick and face powder to do their part in fighting against Hitler.
Not only did the Führer hate makeup on women (when they would visit his country retreat they would get a list of things they couldn't do, like wear red lipstick or color their nails,) but looking your most glamorous was also seen as a morale boost to the boys fighting overseas. It was the same idea as pinup girls being seen as patriotic: A woman was giving troops something to fight for. To drive that point home, one soldier even wrote in a 1941 Vogue article, "To look unattractive these days is downright morale-breaking and should be considered treason."
Because of this, makeup brands started patriotic campaigns and completely rebranded their products for the war effort. Tangee, one of the biggest lipstick makers of the time, started a campaign called "War, Women, and Lipstick", with copy like, "No lipstick — ours or anyone elses's — will win the war. But it symbolizes one the reasons we are fighting...the precious right of women to be feminine and lovely, under any circumstances."
Elizabeth Arden created a makeup kit for the American Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, with a red lipstick that matched their uniforms. Helena Rubinstein made the ever-popular ‘Regimental Red’ lipstick, and shades that came out during that period made sure to take on a nationalist spin, with names like Fighting Red, Commando, and Jeep Red. Beauty was once again a woman's duty, and it gave her a chance to fight the war from home.
World War II: Beauty As A Coping Mechanism
In addition to looking lovely for the soldiers at streamer-decorated USO dances, makeup was also seen as essential to get women through their changing roles. They were pinning up their hair underneath handkerchiefs and heading to factories to fill roles that were traditionally earmarked for men, and so makeup was seen as a necessity in order to help those working conveyor belts to feel more feminine. So much so that factories actually supplied women with their own lipstick tubes in changing rooms as morale-boosters.
Compacts and lip stains also helped bring back a sense of normalcy that was ripped away with the war. "It's fascinating that in Britain there wasn't an actual ration or ban in place for clothes or makeup since Churchill understood how important maintaining that level of normalcy and control was, and for that reason it was encouraged for women to try to look as stylish as possible under the circumstances," Rachel Weingarten, beauty historian and author of Hello Gorgeous! Beauty Products in America '40s-'60s, tells Bustle.
The idea was that the Allied countries could hold onto a little piece of their pre-war lives if women only kept up their appearances. It was an adamant declaration that at any moment things were going to go back to how they used to be — and the government was more than happy to help with the message. "Cosmetics are as essential to a woman as a reasonable supply of tobacco is to a man," the Ministry of Supply declared, while a munitions factory officer claimed, "£1000 worth of cosmetics, distributed among my girls, would please them more than cash." Makeup was just as much for them as it was for their country.
Cold War: Women As Soldiers & Compacts As Ammunition
Right after the World War the U.S. stepped into a standoff with Russia in the form of the Cold War. And while there weren't any beauty campaigns dedicated directly to Sputnik and A-bombs, there was an interesting shift in beauty practices that came as a result.
There was this new idea that consuming more was linked with patriotic duty since the freedom to buy things separated Americans from the Soviets. In a conversation dubbed "the kitchen debate" with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1959, Richard Nixon, while seated in a linoleum-padded kitchen display in a model home, laid out how consumerism trumped communism. "The Soviets might be ahead of the United States in missiles, Nixon admitted, but American commodities topped Russian ones in providing individuality, security, and abundance for American homes," wrote Bruce A. Mcconachie, author of American Theater in the Culture of the Cold War.
Nixon pointed at a glossy housewife inside the kitchen display, who went on to demonstrate the wonders of microwaves and dishwashers in this little slice of Suburbia USA in Moscow. "For Nixon, the attractive homemaker surrounded by labor-saving appliances symbolized the American Way of Life. Unlike Soviet women, portrayed in the American press as hard-working and unattractive, American women could be glamorous stay-at-homes who purchased consumer goods, tended suburban houses and reared future citizens."
Throughout the talk he used "woman" and "housewife" like synonyms, where they were one in the same — a far cry from the overworked factory working women of Soviet Russia. While the previous World War was fought with drafts and jackboots, much of the Red Scare was fought with propaganda battles; it was a clash of sociopolitical ideologies. So this picture of pink-perfumed domesticity was a key weapon, and women and their makeup jars were unsuspecting soldiers. They were encouraged to put on their red lipstick, wing their eyeliner, and help us win the war.
Vietnam War: Makeup As A Way To Shake Up Stereotypical Roles
The Vietnam War lasted nearly two decades, and during that time women negotiated a shifting terrain when it came to their role in the public sphere. Were they still homemakers and Sunday school teachers? Or were they allowed to wear miniskirts and take up about half the space in offices? They were wearing pants now of all things, and when the Army was trying to recruit women for nursing positions in Vietnam, they didn't quite know how to go about reaching out to them. They tried to craft this new empowered image of a nurse being both an officer and a woman, but that proved difficult.
For the first time ever, the military broadened the definition of a nurse's role to include career advancement, educational benefits, and equality, but they also stressed the importance of femininity as a key role in army nursing. "She might have been a progressive nurse, specialized, and treated equally, but she was still needed for her touch, smile, and reassuring beauty. She was still needed to restore a sense of domesticity to the troops," Kara Dixon Vuic, author of Officer, Nurse, Woman: The Army Nurse Corps in the Vietnam War, shared in her book.
It was hard recruiting nurses to ship out to the Mekong Delta, and so wartime posters made sure to present a specific kind of woman bandaging the heads of good ol' American boys. They were all young with perfectly hairsprayed hair, flattering uniforms, and airbrushed makeup, countering the stereotype that military women were 'mannish.' "Military leaders often expected women to appear conventionally feminine. General Westmoreland reportedly said that when soldiers came to hospitals, he wanted them to see nurses wearing white uniforms and lipstick, with their hair styled," Dixon Vuic shared in an interview with Bustle. They were still very much wanted for their feminine comfort, as well as their skills.
"While they pushed officer status and equal pay, at the same time, advertisements needed to project an image of respectability. Women who joined the military had long faced stereotypes and rumors about their sexuality, and so military leaders wanted to offer a positive image of nurses that would assure young women and their families that joining the military would be a positive move," Dixon Vuix says. While women were making strides towards equality, society still needed to see nursing gendered in feminine ways to justify them being in war zones and militaries. Makeup was that tool to convince an uneasy society that the battlefield was just another extension of the home.
Vietnam War: Makeup As A Tool & As Protest
While this might have seemed counter-intuitive for the progressive career women of the '70s — especially medical professionals who volunteered to go into a notoriously dicey war — many nurses obliged stereotypes, for a bevvy of reasons.
One of which was throwing their hair into pigtails and spritzing on department store perfume in the sticky heat brought comfort to the patients they were trying to keep alive. While working in Cu Chi, Lily Lee Adams wore Chantilly perfume because she knew it made her patients think of home. "I mean, I've got guys in shock, wide awake, telling me how good I smell. So I wrote home and said, 'Send me bottles and bottles of perfume,'" Adams told Heather Marie Stur, author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era.
"It's important to remember that nurses often grew very attached to patients and would have done quite a lot to make them comfortable," Dixon Vuic pointed out. Many of the nurses that volunteered went to save soldiers that represented brothers, boyfriends, and childhood friends, rather than going because they believed in or supported the war. Because of that, they wanted to comfort. But embracing the feminine could also have been a political statement, where some women re-appropriated it as a subversive tool for protest.
"It was also a way from women to distinguish themselves from the war and the masculine military environment. Wearing pigtails or ribbons in their hair certainly did not conform to military uniform regulations, and thus, could be a means of resisting military culture in a way that would not get them in serious trouble," Dixon Vuic shared. "Some nurses wore peace buttons, some wore ribbons." Like the men who opposed the draft and grew out their hair as a middle finger to the crew cut, women bringing aggressive femininity in a masculine-dominated space could be seen as a way to distance themselves from the conflict and show their opposition. They might have been there to help the soldiers, but they didn't support the cause.
What Does It All Mean?
Makeup is often times peddled as nothing more than a vanity tool: You put it on to feel pretty, and it has nothing more behind it. But it has a lot more social context than that, and often times is used as a tool to underline a certain message of that period. During World War I it was used as a perk inside hospital tents to boost morale and to keep women in their place — after the war it was a very tangible symbol that the times have changed and that women's roles in society have radically shifted. In World War II it was used as a way for women to cope with turbulent and uncertain times, and during the Cold War it was used as a way to show that communism was leaps and bounds behind consumerism. The reversal back to pigtails and perfume on nurses in Vietnam hospitals hinted at a growing discomfort with women's second try at progress, while also being re-appropriated by those women to be used as a subversive tool for protest.
Makeup is a form of expression, and it can speak volumes about the society — and its values and standards — that you live in. Those tubes and compacts you own pack quite the punch — both during war, and after.