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Beetroot and boot polish: How Britain’s women faced World War 2 without make-up

It was a major drive of World War Two: to persuade Britain’s women to be glamorous above all else. A new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum charts their challenge in the face of a cosmetics blackout

Rationing in World War II affected everyone and everything. Petrol, sugar, eggs, nightshirts, sausages and spats: all came in a grim little book of stamps.

But the home hardships didn’t end with coupons. Nevermind dwindling supplies – some items just weren’t available at all.

One of those was cosmetics. And sometimes, it’s the most frivolous things that have the most profound effect.

“This was ordinary people’s lives impacted by unprecedented world events,” explains Laura Clouting, curator of Fashion on the Ration, 1940s Street Style, a new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, London that opens this week.

“When there was government intervention in every part of your life, when everything else was in flux, your appearance was the only thing you could control.”

At first it was almost fun, with ‘everyone in it together.’

The major cosmetics houses created funky, patriotic packaging. Think powder puffs in the shape of military caps, Tangee’s ‘Lips in Uniform’ shade or Helena Rubenstein’s notorious ‘Regimental Red’ lipstick.

Then the shortages kicked in. As supply ships were sunk, factories bombed and ingredients redeployed as armaments, production slowed to a trickle and people started to run out of things.

If by some miracle a shipment made it to our shores, it attracted the enormous purchase tax levied on all luxury goods. Some turned to the black market. But the contents of most spivs’ suitcases never rivalled Dad’s Army supply levels and there were only so many American GIs with those legendary haversacks full of silk stockings, chewing gum and lipstick.

Eventually you couldn’t buy ‘whole’ make-up at all. When available, sad-looking cardboard boxes covered in printed apologies supplied refills for lipstick (using metal for the production compacts and lipstick cases was banned in 1942) and powder minus its puff.

And yet there was a huge drive for women to look their most glamorous ever.

It wasn’t just for self-respect, it was for Britain. Everyone knew Mr Hitler abhorred cosmetics (so un-Aryan), which was reason enough in itself to glam up.

When the Mitford Sisters visited Der Führer, he was repulsed by these painted harpies. Brits also, frankly, thought women in war paint rather fast. But anything the enemy hated was fine by them – and if it made a girl look like a Hollywood film star into the bargain, what was there to really dislike?

The wartime government understood the full power of the secret weapon women held in their hands – that last, precious scraping of lipstick left in the bottom of the tube.

A memo from the Ministry of Supply pointed out make-up was as important to women as tobacco was to men.

Politically-Neanderthal as it might seem today, the minister who issued it had a point.

At a time when utility-issue shoes had no higher than 2 inch heels, women needed something to keep them feeling confident, feminine and in control. Magazines implored women to keep making themselves up, with enticing photo shoots and patriotic slogans.

None of the big cosmetics houses was able to meet demand. Some, such as Coty, which before the war had been a giant name in all things perfumed, were now reduced to making foot powder and anti-gas ointment for the troops.

Unable to actually produce the glorious lipsticks and silk-soft powders the female population craved, the major brands continued to advertise their wares, terrified women might get used to not wearing cosmetics, leaving them with empty coffers after the war.

Instead of telling girls to buy their wares (which didn’t exist), they reminded them ‘Beauty was a Duty’ and encouraged them to eke-out their precious supplies until they were able to purchase again.

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