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Beauty Solutions of the 1940s: Wartime Workarounds

Beauty throughout the 1940s was dominated by wartime shortages and rationing. Clothing rationing ended in 1949 and soap rationing in 1950 so a real ‘make do and mend’ attitude was needed to get through the post-war years (sweets rationing didn’t end until 1953!).

I remember my grandma telling me stories how they had to paint their legs with gravy browning during the war because they couldn’t get hold of stockings. A friend would draw a line down the back of her legs with an eyebrow pencil so that they looked like seamed stockings. Then they just had the problems of dogs following them down the street and trying to lick their legs!

Women were encouraged to stay beautiful as part of war effort and to help the morale of soldiers home from the front. Natural beauty was very much in fashion (out of necessity), but women were encouraged, and even told it was their patriotic duty, to look good even when working in the factories and the fields.

1940s Beauty

Lipstick

Lipstick was the main beauty staple of the 1940s and it was sold in patriotic shades of red, including ‘victory’ and ‘auxiliary red’. The idea being that not only could a dash of lipstick add some glamour to the most dull and worn outfit, it also showed a defiance of the hardships of war.

There was never really a cosmetics shortage in the US, but in the UK beauty products became harder and harder to come by and by 1943 there were hardly any cosmetics in the shops (and when shops did receive new stock it would sell out in a matter of hours).

By this time it became a mark of defiance and patriotism to wear your red lipstick, and many girls used beetroot juice to stain their lips.

Legs

Silk and nylon were both needed to make parachutes during the war, so stockings were in very short supply. Women used leg makeup (often in the form of gravy browning like my Grandma did) or used tea to ‘tan’ their legs in place of hosiery. Ankle socks also grew in popularity and as the war went on wearing trousers became more and more popular (and practical).

Of course, in Britain the visiting American GIs were very popular with the girls, they were much fresher to the war, and could bring precious gifts of nylon stockings and lipsticks for their British sweethearts.

Base and Rogue

Powdered cosmetics were few and far between, and girls were encouraged to use talc in place of face powder, and lipstick (and presumably beetroot juice when lipstick was scarce) as blusher.

One exception to this were girls who worked in the munitions factories. The chemicals they worked with often turned their skin yellow (hence their nickname ‘Canaries’) and some were provided with free base not only cover this but to protect their skin from further damage.

Women were also encouraged to eat iron-rich food (like spinach) as this also helps give a rosy glow to the cheeks and lips as well as maintaining good health.

Eye Makeup

There wasn’t a big emphasis on eye makeup in the 1940s, but girls used what they had and would make their eyeshadow last longer by mixing it with Vaseline (which was an all-round wartime beauty solution).

Girls would also use Vaseline on their eyelashes, sometimes darkened with coal dust, in place of mascara and charcoal could be used as eye-makeup.

Hair

Soap was rationed in Britain from 1942 onwards and affected all types of soap – particularly tablets of soap and shampoo.  Women would often wash their hair in washing powder or just water and rely on natural treatments to help their hair look healthy.

Blondes would rinse their hair in lemon juice, and brunettes in vinegar or beer to add shine, and in the absence of hair-dyes they would use vegetable dies like rhubarb, camomile or henna to add colour.

In the absence of other luxuries, glamorous hairstyle were popular, and many women would rag their hair to give them movie-star curls. Turbans and snoods were also popular, especially amongst factory workers, and patriotic up-do’s like Victory Rolls were great for when you had greasy roots.

If you take a look at some of the WW2 posters below you can get a good idea of the beauty ideals of the wartime years:

Images source and copyright: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6: This artistic work created by the United Kingdom Government is in the public domain. 7, 8, 9: This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code. 10: This work is in the public domain in that it was published in the United States between 1923 and 1977 and without a copyright notice.

One thought on “Beauty Solutions of the 1940s: Wartime Workarounds

  1. Alice

    Thank you for the details about the 1940s and solutions for shortages. I just dread to think what those chemicals were that turned skin yellow and were covered with face powder.

    Reply

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