Welcome back to our series on the history of makeup.
If I had to summarize the 1940s in one sentence, it would be this: Natural beauty and RED LIPSTICK, RED LIPSTICK EVERYWHERE AHHH! (Look, I never said it would be a good sentence). Since I’m here to actually explain why red lipstick and natural beauty was the overarching trend during this era, let me write many, many more sentences about it.
The 1940s – looks-wise – were relatively similar to the 1930s, with the main holdover being that lips were still the focus of the face versus highlighting eyes (which is a staple of the 1960s) or cheeks (1980s, what with all the TAKE THIS HOT PINK BLUSH NOW SMEAR IT IN A LINE DOWN YOUR FACE going on), with the main difference being that now brows were looking a whole lot more normal and lips were now being slightly over-drawn around the whole mouth, not just the upper lip. The basic 1940s look can be summarized easily: Simple, yet glamorous.
The cosmetics industry was a veritable powerhouse by the 1940s, with more brands and options than ever on the market. Several major brands – including Estée Lauder (1946), Wella (1946), and Parfums Christian Dior of Paris (1947) – were founded during the forties, with brands such as Max Factor, Coty, Tangee, Revlon, and L’Oreal picking up more of a global presence. Coty and Tangee, two brands that have definitely dropped in popularity since the 40s, were particularly big at the time. Even during the war years, brands continued to build and expand, even if their European factories were being reduced to rubble. When some of them had to halt production during the worst of WWII, they still continued to advertise out of the fear that women would forget about them if their products weren’t still front and center (because we all know how if you don’t wear lipstick for a bit you just forget that it exists. I don’t wear foundation because I don’t see a need for it, it never existed in the first place OoooOOOOOooooOOOOOoooOOO).
Obviously (unless you’ve just never studied history or read a book or watched TV and were born about 30 seconds ago with the ability to read and immediate access to the internet), one of the biggest things that affected makeup and fashion in the Western world (and, really, everywhere else, but for the sake of this article we will just be focusing on the USA and Western Europe) was World War II. With women entering the workforce in larger numbers than ever before and war rationing changing what people could get their hands on, WWII directly and indirectly affected the trends of the 1940s.
War rationing meant that cosmetics became increasingly hard to find (less so in the US but very much so in the UK) and were subject to heavy luxury taxes in numerous countries, although this did not change the expectation that women would wear makeup, meaning that many people found makeshift ways to achieve the same look but with different, less conventional tools. For some women who couldn’t afford or easily access lipstick, beet juice was used as a way to create a lipstick-like stain (and still is used today by people when making homemade cosmetics), while some used shoe polish on their lashes instead of mascara (SPOILER ALERT: Don’t do that, your eyeballs are not shoes). In some cases, people used talc or bootlegged chalk-based powders (don’t do this) instead of face powders.
But (and this is a relatively big but, it’s like a semantic booty) even though lipstick was seen as being a luxury, the wartime government in the US and UK did not halt the production of it as it was seen as a morale booster. The products were in much shorter supply and cost more money, but it was understood that whether you were working on the front lines or in a factory, people still needed some sort of access to everyday luxuries to keep spirits up in a time when things were just - to put it academically - pants-on-head bonkers (NOTE: I am not an academic).
In one sense, the idea of the government going, “yo, put some lipstick on, darn it” is paternal and weird, but at the same time there’s something understandable about it. In a time when the entire world seemed to be in flux, with people’s lives turned upside-down and most creature comforts being no longer easily available, it’s a bit easier to understand how something as simple as lipstick or mascara can help someone during this time feel a little bit better about themselves, especially when everything else – from clothing to shampoo – were in short supply. It was a small bit of normalcy in a world that was anything but.
When it comes to the actual trends that were happening, the main color of this era is red. In case you missed that, let me just put it in all caps: RED. Lips were red. Nails were red. Blush was red. Eyes… were not red since listening to Dashboard Confessional and writing about how much deeper and smarter you are than your peers you are wasn’t a thing yet, but you get the idea. Red is such a dominant color that it’s actually difficult to find an ad or picture from the time depicting someone wearing a color that isn’t red. What’s really interesting is the role that red lipstick itself played for women in the 1940s, during a time when the role of women – both at home and in the workplace – was changing dramatically. With more and more women entering typically male-dominated workplaces and taking on previously “masculine” roles and joining in national military service, the way that women were viewed was starting to change. With this, though, came the push to make sure they still kept up a relatively feminine appearance, and that is where red lipstick came in.
Red is a color loaded with meaning: Love, anger, sex, strength, fake licorice candy, and much more. It’s strong and vibrant without being too “out there” and it’s easy to make and easy to wear (SIDENOTE: I kind of wish that like, black lipstick had become a thing so that all the people who are super into 1940s style are actually just retro goths, [“Check out my grandma’s old compact, it’s got a real sweet old school pentagram on it!”] but I digress). But even aside from all the coded meanings within the color, lipstick is something that’s easy to wear and simple to put on. It doesn’t require the steady hand needed for dramatic eyeliner or the larger mirror needed to properly apply blush evenly and it doesn’t come with the fallout that powders and compacts tend to shed everywhere. All you need is a compact and a tube, both of which can fit in a purse or pocket and can be applied quickly as you’re heading out the door. This is a time when everything is moving fast, both metaphorically and literally, so lipstick became the go-to makeup item for women. Even kits given to nurses and workers on the front lines and overseas contained tubes of red lipstick.
Outside of lipstick (LIPSTICK I JUST KEEP YELLING ABOUT LIPSTICK), the rest of the face was comparatively quite minimal. One of the biggest changes between 1930s and 1940s makeup was that eyebrows went from thin curved lines to softer (yet still slightly dramatic), more normally sized arches. The natural shape of the brow was followed, rather than sculpting it into an open bracket over the eyeball. People still used powder or pencils to fill them in, but in a much more natural way. Eyes were delicately shadowed just to give a touch of definition, with the most popular colors being greys and browns. Blush was still applied in a similar way to the 1930s, with the popular colors being variations on pinks and reds. A warm glow was the prized look when it came to face makeup, so the trick many women employed was to wear a color of foundation one shade darker than their actual skin color, then powder over it with a setting powder or – if actual setting powders weren’t available – baby powder to get skin to the right shade. Seems kind of roundabout, but whatever, you do you, ladies of the 1940s. Basically, 1940s = boring face but LIPS LIPS LIPS LIPS LIPS WHY AM I YELLING.
Now, here’s where I start harping on something that people tend to get quite wrong when trying to emulate 1940s looks: Liquid eyeliner and winger liner are not a thing at this point. Eyeliner is barely at thing at all in the 1940s, aside from maybe using a little on the upper lash to emphasize the eye in a subtle way. Liquid liner is not really in style until the 1950s, so keep that stuff off your eyeballs if you’re trying to go for an accurate 1940s look (if not, then who cares, Amy Winehouse it up). Eyeliner ended up being used more often than not as a way to fake a stocking seam up the back of the leg, with women using eyeliner pencils to draw a long line from heel to upper thigh and then, I’m assuming, avoiding all light colored upholstery for the rest of the evening, lest they end up not only ruining people’s furniture but also ending up with weird black smears all over the backs of their legs like they just took a nap on a freshly tarred road or something. Also, not makeup-related, but another way to fake stockings was to cover your legs in either cold tea or gravy. Yes, nothing says “I’m wearing stockings” like good ol’ gravy legs, and I assume that the gravy/tea did not help with the whole “ruining all the couches” thing I assume was happening. Outside of eyeliner or stock-ings (HA SEE WHAT I DID THERE ugh that joke wasn’t even worth it), mascara was the most important eye makeup of the era. It was less about complicated eye looks and more about highlighting the shape of the eye using either black mascara or Vaseline to emphasize lashes. Either way, if you’re going for an authentic 1940s look, save your eyeliner for your legs.
The 1940s were a time of simple looks and complicated everything else. With the entire world in violent flux, difficult beauty routines went out the window in exchange for simple, dramatic styles. The dominant trends continued on after the end of the war until the late 1940s when the style started to evolve again.
NEXT TIME: The 1950s and me finally shutting up about eyeliner. Joking, the next 20 years are all about eyeliner! Prepare your eyeballs.
Enjoy these sources:
- Speak Softly and Carry a Lipstick”: Government Influence on Female Sexuality through Cosmetics During WWII by Adrienne Niederriter
- The History of Beauty by Sean Silverthorne
- Glamour Daze
- Beetroot and Boot Polish: How Britain’s Women Faced World War 2 Without Makeup
- Veronica Vintage
- Imperial War Museum
Alex Nursall is a makeup-obsessed writer, illustrator, and photographer based out of Toronto.