Women and War
The First World War caused a seismic change in the lives of women. With men sent to the front, women took their place in a variety of positions, whether by working the land or donning factory uniforms, experiencing a previously unheard-of sense of social and financial independence. Cosmetics were not untouched by this change, shifting from being something that must be used covertly to something to be proud of a symbol of patriotism and keeping up appearances. UK Vogue was launched during the war, in 1916, due to shipping restrictions affecting availability of the US edition. But it was still only skincare that was widely advertised, with a 1916 ad from Helena Rubinstein asking, Is yours a war face’?
Even if your social or professional life does not demand it, your patriotism demands that you keep your face bright and attractive. Another ad from 1917 for skin perfection declares, The prestige of English beauty must be maintained, alongside an illustration of a slightly terrifying-looking chin strap meant to remove the disfigurement of a double chin.
Women’s rights were not a new concern or subject: Organized campaigns for political and social change began to occur in the United Kingdom from 1866 and in the United States from 1848, when the first women’s rights convention was held and by the end of the nineteenth century, the issue of the vote had become the focal point of women’s struggle for equality. Though the activity of both the suffragettes and suffragists was put on hold for the sake of national unity after the outbreak of war, in the end it was the social shifts necessitated by the war that would finally lead to legislative change. In 1918, the British Parliament granted women over the age of thirty the right to vote. It would be another ten years before Parliament lowered the female voting age to twenty-one (the same as for men), while in the United States, women were granted suffrage in 1920.
The decade that followed the end of the war the Roaring Twenties would be a time of even more overwhelming change. Hemlines and hairlines shifted (in keeping with the new flapper fashion), as did the perception of what it meant to be a woman generally. In a thirty-year-anniversary piece comparing the fashions of 1892 (when US Vogue was first published) with those of 1922, UK Vogue described the strange product indigenous to this generation the flapper hair bobbed, lips reddened, cigarette in hand, everybody knows her. Despite this assertion, the ads in fashion magazines continued to focus on a limited array of products not, noticeably, the rouge, lipstick, or kohl that were readily in use, but the same old face creams, along with some powder, depilatory treatments, and arm and back creams that were now deemed necessary due to the new skin-exposing fashions.
Generally, though, makeup continued to be condemned. An Elizabeth Arden ad from a 1922 issue of UK Vogue is unswervingly anti-cosmetics: Elizabeth Arden recommends the closest personal attention to the skin not the indiscriminate use of cosmetics. Arden’s rival, the redoubtable Helena Rubinstein, was also particularly vicious in her rebuttal of cosmetics, with an ad from the same year asking, Complexions Cultivated or Camouflaged? Which Shall It Be? There was a stress on maintaining youth, with much written on both sides of the pond about creams and treatments for the skin and hair that would keep middle age at bay. We may think of anti-aging commentary in magazines as relatively modern, but a 1922 article by journalist Pauline Pfeiffer (also known for being Ernest Hemingway’s second wife) in US Vogue shows otherwise; it was captioned, No Matter How Fresh and Vigorous One’s Face May Be at Ten, When One Gets On the ShadySide, Vigilance Is Necessary.
When WWI began, beauty advertisers urged women that it was more, rather than less, important to beautify; it was their patriotic duty to keep an optimistic, pretty, and cheery face even when weighed down by the daily reality of war.
It wasn’t until the late twenties that makeup really entered the mainstream. By 1929, French Vogue was advertising Rouge Camelon lipstick, and in US Vogue, Helena Rubinstein was applauding the magic that lies in makeup, and advertising her Cubist Lipstick and Red Raspberry Rouge. (Rubinstein actually started advertising rouge and lipstick in the United States in early 1923, much earlier than in the United Kingdom, where her company’s ads were still strongly anti-cosmetics.) A Defence of Rouge, the very first pro-makeup feature in UK Vogue, did not appear until July 1924. The likely reason for America’s early adoption and approval of makeup was, at least in part, due to the immediate impact and success of Hollywood. Compacts, housing powder or rouge, with lipstick often attached, were available in a multitude of designs so that one could match her compact to her outfit. Touching up one’s makeup was now officially acceptable. But there was still a faint undercurrent of caution in some ads: Tangee lipstick, advertised in both the United Kingdom and the United States, warned that your makeup should enhance your personality but never over-dramatize it. Another lipstick brand, Michel, promised that with MICHEL you are not made up. You are made lovely (UK Vogue, December 1929). Others were more forward-thinking: An ad for Maybelline Eyelash Beautifier from 1929 quotes Milton (Thy rapt soul sitting in thine eyes) and states that it is used by leading Stage and Film Stars. While the first lipstick ads were just finally appearing in the United Kingdom, in the United States, attitudes to makeup had really moved on from the previous thousand or so years, and journalists were writing about what makeup to wear with the latest beauty accessory the suntan.
Many more ads were in color by this point, meaning that the copy had to work a bit less hard to describe the effects of products, with the images assuming more importance. And accessibility was no longer an issue: In the United States, the local drugstore and five-and-dime had brought beauty to the masses with lipsticks available for ten cents a pop, and the same had happened in the United Kingdom with the pharmacy chain Boots. Far from the days of having to write in to request where to actually obtain makeup, a Boots ad for powder puffs in a 1929 issue of UK Vogue boasts of over eight hundred branches throughout Great Britain, while Tangee lipstick is described as on sale everywhere.
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