During WWII, beauty was propaganda, but it might’ve helped win the war.
Today, it might seem like people wouldn't have time to think about makeup during wartime — but during World War II, it was a priority.
It was the 1940s and a difficult time for Americans to keep their spirits up. After all, fascism was rising as a global threat, troops were shipping off for dangerous battles, and everyday life at home was completely disrupted.
With so many men leaving, the country had a lot of work left behind. Someone on the home front had to keep manufacturing weapons, distributing food, and completing other tasks critical to a nation’s survival. Eventually, that had to include women.
But even in harrowing times, one surprising thing didn’t get sacrificed: makeup.
Women working during World War II. Image via Republic Drill and Tool Company/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Wikimedia Commons.
In fact, makeup and beauty were seen as an important part of winning the war.
At the time, society had pretty rigid ideas about gender roles, so makeup wasn’t just about looking good — it was at the core of what it meant to be a woman at the time.
Many women took pride in keeping themselves and their homes looking put together, and a woman putting effort into her looks was seen as a sign of a happy, healthy society. Her efforts helped reassure people that they hadn’t lost everything. If women gave up their beauty habits at wartime, that would have been interpreted as a disturbing sign that life was not as it should be.
If women looked tired or worn down by the war, it might be seen — both at home and abroad — like we were losing the war. And that couldn’t be, so beauty became a crucial part of the propaganda movement.
That’s why the government encouraged women to continue putting effort into their appearance during the war. It was believed that their smiles could boost morale, brightening up soldiers' attitudes as well as their own during this difficult time. And with good morale, maybe we would win after all.
So while men shipped off to perform their duties in battle, many women considered it their patriotic duty to be beautiful. And they stepped up to the task.
What’s more impressive was the fact that these gals often didn’t even have real makeup to work with.
With so many resources going to the war effort, every industry, including fashion and beauty industries, faced material shortages. But some women took their morale-boosting duties seriously and got creative. They used beetroot to stain their lips red and used vegetable dye for hair color. Popular hairstyles like Victory Rolls — banana curls that you pin up and away from your face — were both fashionable and functional.
Soon, beauty companies began selling red lipstick with names like Victory Red and Fighting Red, to inspire women with a fighting spirit. It set the stage for today, when major beauty companies like Maybelline declare that "red lipstick never goes out of style."
A government poster encouraging women's work during WII. Image via National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons.
Before long, makeup and beauty played big roles in propaganda imagery, too.
Pictures of pin-up girls became staples for military men, who had photos of glamorous models and actresses sent to them to boost morale and remind them of what they were fighting for.
And of course, there’s the iconic poster of Rosie the Riveter. Created in 1942 by Pittsburg artist J. Howard Miller, the poster depicts a woman wearing a polka dot bandana, a button-up blue shirt, and bright red lipstick. She flexes her arm below the words "We Can Do It!"
The "We Can Do It!" poster. Image by J. Howard Miller/ Wikimedia Commons.
This image has since become a feminist icon because it represents a time when many American women were entering the workplace for the first time. She has come to evoke women’s determination to fight for gender equality.
But there’s a big reason why you can’t accurately represent Rosie without including her long eyelashes, pink cheeks, and bright red lips.
That’s because at first, it wasn’t easy for people to accept the idea of women performing manual labor.
Before the war, the idea of women in the workplace was uncommon, especially for middle- and upper-class women who stayed home as housewives while their husbands went to work. While some women — particularly low-income women — had already been working for decades and even centuries, others had never worked as anything other than a housewife. The home was considered a woman’s "proper" place.
A "Rosie" working on a bomber aircraft in 1943. Image by Alfred T. Palmer/U.S. Office of War Information/Wikimedia Commons.
But traditional gender roles began to shift when labor shortages required women to go to work. World wars demand entire countries’ resources, and with far fewer men around to do what was once considered "men’s work," it simply wouldn’t have been possible to maintain the country without women filling in.
Of course, that didn’t mean that people were happy about it.
They worried that women would have to give up their femininity to work "men’s jobs" because they didn’t yet see physical strength and beauty as compatible. Some married men even outright opposed the idea that their wives should go to work.
People needed some assurance that women’s strength didn’t have to mean compromising beauty — and that’s exactly what Rosie the Riveter’s poster tried to accomplish.
Her look was similar to that of many working women of the time. They aimed to strike a balance between practicality and beauty — to get important tasks done and demonstrate that they didn’t have to take off their makeup to do it.
In fact, Miller is said to have based Rosie the Riveter’s image on a real photo. The identity of the woman who inspired him has been the subject of some debate, but it’s widely believed that he based his illustration on a photograph of Naomi Parker Fraley.
In 1942, a photographer for the Acme Photo Agency happened to snap a photo of Fraley peering over a machine at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, California. Like many women workers, she wore long sleeves, a polka dot bandana, and neatly applied makeup — embodying beauty and strength all at once.
A photo op at Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park. Image via National Park Service/Flickr.
These women redefined what it means to be feminine, knowing that you can rock sexy red lips and still be a powerhouse of a woman.
When you see Rosie the Riveter now, remember the badass women who survived a horrific era by finding strength in simple acts like applying makeup. It’s why she came to symbolize millions women whose communities wouldn’t have survived without their labor.
These days, it can still be a challenge for a woman to balance society’s expectations of strength and beauty — and the false impression that she has to choose between them. People expect women to be pretty but then judge them as vain and superficial if they appear to care "too much" about their looks.
But the Rosies of the world have proved it’s possible to break through that stereotype. A woman can perform so-called "men’s work" while sporting a look that makes her feel feminine, confident, and capable all at once.