The Second World War (1939-1945) is one of the most tragic events in human history. Sixty million people – the majority civilians – lost their lives in the conflict. Europe was left a barren land.
But during this terrifying time, while their towns were bombarded and people were dying all around them, women still worried about looking good.
It may sound silly to you, but a swipe of lipstick or a touch of hair dye for them was a way to retain their humanity, dignity 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. The little left over for civilian life was rationed.
Back then, 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 bathtub. 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 also participated in the war, but the main battlegrounds that suffered the most devastation were Europe and Asia.
Cosmetics were more easily available in the US, but not that popular at this time. Many women had relatives fighting abroad and weren’t in the mood for excess, celebration, or showing off their wealth.
They also had to pick up the jobs men had left behind. To retain their femininity and boost their morale, women put on makeup. They went for a subdued, natural look that was sophisticated and glamorous.
On the eyes, a touch of natural eyeshadows in brown and grey tones, a line of eyeliner and a dash of mascara. The brows were thick, perfectly arched and defined with an eyebrow pencil.
On the face, women applied 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.
They used natural pink shades on the cheeks while the nails were painted in lots of different colours, 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!
Thank Elizabeth Arden for making a red lip popular. She was invited to create a makeup kit for the American Marine Corps Women’s Reserve with the aim was to boost their morale. 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.
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!