Hi, I’m Fashion Historian Amber Butchart I’m standing in the tunnels at English Heritage’s Dover Castle where the military was stationed during the nation’s fight for victory in the Second World War Among those were ladies from the Women’s Royal Naval Service otherwise known as the Wrens.
In addition to their formidable contribution to the war effort, women across the country had another weapon in their arsenal – makeup. Cosmetics became crucial for morale and were encouraged by everyone from Vogue magazine to the British government.
Today we’re taking a look at the surprising role cosmetics played during the Second World War when Britain put on a brave face. Are you ready? Let’s find out more Hello Rebecca! Hey Amber, how’s it going? Good, how are you? I’m alright thank you, welcome to Dover! Thanks very much Well today we’re focusing on the Second World War which began in 1939 and lasted for six long years.
We’re also focusing on the Wrens, so Rebecca tell me about the look that you’re going to recreate for us today We’re going to be creating something that feels very classic 1940s so beautiful powdered skin and a bright red lip on our gorgeous model, Ella Hi Ella Hello We’re also going to be incorporating some homespun hacks from our brilliant audience.
I’m excited to try these out I’m very excited to see them. Now makeup is often dismissed as frivolous but during the war it took on extra importance in terms of morale. Vogue even talked about it as ‘cherished a last desperately defended luxury’ so it’s going to be great to explore makeup and especially the women who wore it and their huge contribution to the war effort Let’s get started What are you doing first? Well let’s start the beginning and let’s start with skincare.
Now we had an account from a Wren who was based here in Dover called Doreen, and her account says that skincare became really hard to get hold of during the war it was like gold dust but she had a chemist friend that could make her a vanishing cream that she could use throughout the war and so I found a vanishing cream that’s made to an authentic late 1930s, 1940s recipe that I’m going to use on Ella here.
And what a vanishing cream does is it vanishes into the skin and it also provides a brilliant base of powder So it’s kind of like a primer? It’s very much like a primer, yes. Interestingly with makeup from the beginning of the early 20th century it started out being something that’s quite unseemly and something that’s under the counter But as we move onwards into the 1930s and into the 1940s makeup now is not only an accepted part of your routine it’s also almost an essential part of your routine and in fact during the war beauty became a woman’s duty Well this is an idea that the government really promoted as well.
The Board of Trade proclaimed in 1940 ‘keep up the morale of the homefront by preserving a neat appearance’ and this was a line that fashion magazines really echoed as well In fact, for example, they even advised women against turning into frights and slovens That’s a real shame that it seems to be just a woman’s duty not to turn into a fright or a sloven.
We’re in a time where women are starting to take on newer jobs and also have to keep the home fires burning and then also they have to look awesome while they’re doing it A woman’s work is never done It is a lot to expect So let’s finish off this skincare and I’m going to apply a powder now this is an original 1940s powder That is beautiful It’s fabulous! I’m applying it with a powder puff this is a homemade powder puff which feels very in keeping with the time.
And you’ll notice that this is in a cardboard box. Now during the war as austerity started to kick in, manufacturers of cosmetics couldn’t use metal anymore all the metal had to go to the war effort so more and more cosmetics were produced in cardboard containers just like these Long, luscious lashes are a really integral part of the late 1930s into the 1940s look But as austerity started to bite, women had to look for alternatives to darken and lengthen their eyelashes.
We had some amazing tips and tricks from our audience to do with mascara but the one that intrigued me most was using burnt corks as a mascara. The suggestion was to burn a cork and then use the ash mixed with some Vaseline as a mascara.
So we’re going to give that a try Hold onto that for me, Ella. Thank you Well speaking of austerity these ideas of rationing and austerity really define this era in terms of personal appearance. Clothes rationing lasted from 1941 to 1949 and was really all about fairness, it was about making sure that everybody had access to the essentials and it was also about conserving materials for the war effort as well.
So when we think of rationing we can sort of broadly think about three different areas. Firstly there were coupons which were issued and this was to make sure there was a sort of equal distribution of clothing.
So you’d need money as well as coupons to buy specific items. For example, 11 coupons for a dress or 8 coupons for a men’s shirt or pair of trousers There was also the utility scheme that was brought in by the government and this was a range of sort of well designed, price-controlled clothing that really made factories much more efficient and so freed up production again for the war effort.
Now finally we have austerity regulations. These were again brought in by the government and determined what you could and couldn’t design basically. So for example, the turn-up on men’s trousers was abolished, lapels you know the width of lapels was defined.
There were a whole host of rules brought in which help to conserve materials and labour so they could be put towards the war effort. Now with all of this rationing of fabric and food as well going on, women also have to be very creative when it came to their makeup, didn’t they? Yeah they really did Although makeup itself wasn’t actually rationed, it did become much more expensive and harder to get hold of and a couple of reasons for that is that the government put a luxury tax on makeup and also it limited cosmetics companies to just 25% of their pre-war output so it was much harder to get hold of which meant some makeup had to do double duty and I’m going make this burnt cork do double duty by applying it through the eyebrows as well This is looking really good, it looks great, it works well I know, I’m really surprised at how well this actually works and also the burnt cork through the eyebrows is surprisingly effective and a really nice colour.
We had a really great quote from one of our audience members telling us that women of the era would match the angle of their eyebrows to the angle of the stripes on their uniform. I don’t know whether that’s true or not but I really like the idea of it so we’re going to do a really nice angle into Ella’s eyebrows So another way that women could cut costs during the war was to use household products and produce to create makeup.
And we had several people tell us that beetroot was a product that people used because of its staining properties and the colour of it so I thought we’d try out some beetroot as a little bit of rouge Fantastic.
Well saving money, saving materials – wow! – was of course important ‘Make do and Mend’ was the philosophy as promoted by the government I love the look of that! It’s so effective immediately And so people were really encouraged to repair, to restore and to reuse their clothing to really make it last as long as possible And along with this, you know we tend to think of the war as this really drab era defined by austerity, but there was a lot of creativity in terms of the material people turned to and the way that they were dressing.
So for example black out fabric wasn’t rationed so it was often used for clothing, it could be turned into dresses. Also second-hand shopping became really important in terms of replenishing people’s wardrobes as well.
These are all things that we should be living by today as well, using your clothes for as long as possible, secondhand, really taking a sustainable approach And beetroot as blusher because – – because it’s fantastic! It works very well When we think of the 1940s we think of a classic, bold red lip Why was red such an important colour? Red is a really symbolic color anyway.
It shows strength in dark times. Nella Last wrote about wearing red lipstick. Now she kept a diary all the way through the Second World War And she said that wearing a too bright lipstick on dim days helped the corners of the mouth turn up when you couldn’t smile So it was a way of showing strength, it was a way of showing unity in these really dark times And also a way of showing that you were well presented and well kept Interestingly, it was also rumoured that Hitler hated makeup and specifically he hated red lipstick So to wear red lipstick was a way of saying that you were anti-Hitler Cosmetics companies also saw a way in to produce wartime products and they started to produce lipsticks that had rousing military names such as ‘Auxilary Red’ or ‘Homefront Ammunition’.
Now I couldn’t get hold of any of those particular lipsticks because they don’t produce them anymore so I’ve gone for a really intense bright red which is as close as I think I can get to what I think those colors would have looked like Now we know that red lipstick is kind of a uniform for the face, but tell me a bit about uniform and how that relates to the Second World War Well uniform becomes hugely prevalent at this time.
During the war between a quarter and a third of the population are entitled to wear some kind of uniform whether they are fighting in the Forces, whether they’re working at home in the Forces or even civilian workers as well, people like dock workers, nurses, the land army – they’re all wearing some form of uniform.
So it’s no surprise that it starts to affect the way people are dressing in day-to-day life as well. It’s also considered really bad form to be dressed in a very showy or expensive way and even by spring 1940 we start seeing Vogue running adverts for clothing with a military touch So it’s really beginning to enter all areas of fashion Now we couldn’t do a tutorial based on World War Two without talking about painted stockings and the effort that women would go to to look good in difficult times Well stockings were rationed from 1941 so you had to use coupons to buy them Nylon stockings were a relatively new invention from America but from 1942 nylon was also put towards the war effort so they became even harder to get hold of.
So where clothing was sparse, makeup really stepped up to the job It did, and it didn’t Explain? We had some amazing suggestions from our audience about how women were painting their legs to look like they’re wearing stockings, from boiled walnut shells to coffee and tea bags and then also the famous gravy browning on the legs.
Now you’ll notice that Ella is wearing tights and there’s her reason for that. We tried gravy browning. Gravy browning does not look good as stockings Ah, I see, I see It’s an interesting colour and it’s a little bit sticky so we tried it, it didn’t work brilliantly.
There was also something else that we tried that didn’t work brilliantly but I wanted to show it to you anyway I had a very clever model-maker friend of mine make this – wow! I’m calling this, the seam machine! – brilliant! And we made this from a picture that we found in the Smithsonian It’s a bicycle clip, it’s a compass, it’s a screwdriver handle and it’s an eyebrow pencil – What a contraption! It’s amazing isn’t it? So you’re meant to use this to actually draw a stocking line up the back of your own leg So the bicycle clip goes on your leg and you draw it upwards And how effective is it? I’d say slim-to-none.
Not very good at all! And interestingly we think that using gravy browning is actually a little bit of a myth. Maybe like a newspaper good news story, something that’s light-hearted but maybe not very many women were actually doing it So not something that was actually sort of widespread, used across the nation.
But there was leg makeup, right, that could be used? There absolutely was, yes. So companies started to see that women were making their own way of making stockings so many brands started to produce liquid stockings and and they were readily available and also beauty bars started to populate in department stores where you go and have your legs painted professionally using proper products for three pence a leg, to make it look like you were wearing stockings Brilliant! Well Ella you look fantastic I’m going to leave you to get on with the hair, and I’m going to go and find out more about the Wrens here at Dover What does your job entail at English Heritage? I look after and research collections from English Heritage sites all over Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire including Dover Castle What were the tunnels here at Dover Castle used for during the Second World War? They were initially used as the command centre for naval operations in the channel.
They then expanded to include nearly four miles of tunnels over the course of the war and that included a hospital section and a combined headquarters for the army and the RAF as well as the Navy. From the tunnels you have the organisation of the evacuation of Dunkirk and also this was used for an awful lot of sort of air sea rescue work where planes had gone down or ships had been sunk in the channel So it’s a really, really important space in terms of the war effort? Hugely important, yeah.
Really, really important The Wrens played a really important part during the Second World War What exactly were they doing down here in the tunnels? They had a whole variety of different tasks so for example there was a small group of German-speaking Wrens who were monitoring German radio transmissions, there were groups that were plotting the positions of ships and airplanes over the channel but also administrative tasks, typing, cooking a whole variety of different roles Can you tell me what it would have been like down here in the early 1940s for these women? When they first moved in the tunnels were really quite old at that point, light levels were low and a colony of bats had moved in.
The women had to come through what they referred to as ‘bat alley’ in order to get down here. They did improve but there was constantly sounds from the air being pushed through the tunnels, in certain places you could hear what was going on outside so you could hear the ships coming in and out you could hear bombs dropping There were also rats down here.
One woman went to sleep for a bit of a rest during her shift and woke up with a rat crawling over her so not always the most pleasant place for them to be Generally speaking what were the Wren’s attitudes to the war effort? They were really keen to do their part.
The women that were specifically here at Dover could really see that what they were doing was impacting directly on the war effort they could see how they were saving lives. And although they were under threat here, far more than in some other places, Dover was constantly being shelled on a pretty much daily basis during the war, they were very much taking that in their stride.
One woman who worked here Mary Horsfall actually got in trouble for laughing at the Prime Minister because during a visit by Winston Churchill he asked her if she was afraid of all the shelling and she burst out laughing and replied ‘no, no’.
It wasn’t something that she’d even thought of Wow, they were absolute heroes weren’t they Yeah Makeup served an important purpose in terms of boosting morale. How much makeup were the Wrens wearing in their day-to-service down here? Well they were certainly wearing makeup when they could get it It wasn’t always easy to access.
They talk about creams and powders and lipstick but the the environment down here wasn’t necessarily the best for maintaining their look and one of them talks about how disheartening it was leaving at the end of the day going out into the bright sunshine and be able to see just how bad she’d looked because unfortunately when she was down here she hadn’t been able to realise because of the low light We’ve all been there! Kathryn, thank you so much.
I’m going to go and see how our Wren is getting on You look incredible! Ella! Rebecca you have done such an amazing job, this is so great. How have you created this hair? Thanks very much, I think she looks very ship-shape! Totally! So the hair we started by pin curling it and I used a tip from our audience which suggested using sugar mixed with water to create a setting lotion.
So we set the pin curls in, brushed them all out and then because Ella’s hair is quite long and it’s not at regulation length, I had to make it look shorter so I used a hair rat. And that is a stocking stuffed with hair that I’ve used to create this roll at the back.
Because if you were a Wren your hair had to be at collar length or above. Now many women at this time we’re starting to get their hair cut off and cropped because it was easier and it was cheaper and also a lot of women were still having their hair permed even though it became quite expensive in the war.
And it could be a little bit difficult sometimes. There were stories of women having their hair permed and being stuck under the perming machine when the sirens went off, so it could be a little bit traumatic.
So that’s our hair. Tell me about this uniform, I love it so much You look amazing Ella. Well uniform is really specific form of dress. It’s highly communicative. It’s supposed to foster pride in what you’re doing.
Now in terms of communication we can see the badge here this is the badge showing Ella’s trade, you are a telegraphist which means you’re essentially working in technical communications. You would have had specialist training for this.
It’s a very, very important role so you’re doing a really brilliant job. Now in terms of how smart you look, that is certainly accurate because the Wrens uniform was considered to be one of the chicest, one of the most flattering, one of the most glamorous uniforms I guess of all of the Forces during the Second World War.
In fact we have accounts from some of the Wrens that were stationed here at Dover that even talked about as well as being issued the uniform the shirts etc etc they also got stockings or coupons for stockings which not all of the Forces did, so certainly very, very glamorous.
Now time was also of the essence here Another one of the Wrens from Dover, Wyn Nixson, she talked about wearing half her clothes in bed to save her time when she was getting ready in the morning I really like that idea, I might start adopting it for getting ready in the morning It’s a good tip It’s a really good tip! I think she looks absolutely amazing! Ella, how do you feel? I absolutely love it! I feel so smart and confident.
It’s such an iconic look, I really feel like that time where women were helping with the war effort is incredible Yeah, it really is. And I’ve had so much fun creating this look and using some of the homespun, homemade tips from our audience.
I’m really grateful that they shared those tips with us. Some of them worked, some of them were not so successful but I think you look great and I think now you should head off to report for duty The humble makeup kit had a significant role to play in boosting morale during the Second World War, as we’ve seen today.
Cosmetics became a symbol of resilience and beauty was very much a duty for British women everywhere Real stories of the people who made history just like the Wrens here at Dover could not be told without the generous support of the public.
If you’d like to support English Heritage and their historic places, click the link on your screen now Until next time, I’m Amber Butchart and thanks for joining us here at Dover Castle