One of the most significant social shifts between 1914 and 1918 was the changing role of women in response to the national war effort. In France and at home, women sought to make themselves useful in a myriad of different ways. There are the more familiar roles - land girls of the Women's Land Army, the munitionettes who entered armaments factories in their thousands or nurses and VADs who tended the wounded. But women also slid comfortably into many other roles previously the preserve of men - bus and tram conductors, taxi drivers, window cleaners, milk(wo)men, bill posters, theatre managers and canteen workers. Many others joined services such as the Women's Legion, the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps or the Forage Corps. Some who had enjoyed the privileges of a gilded existence might suddenly find themselves ladling stew in a factory canteen, or scrubbing floors in a hospital ward. Others found the advantages of salaried employment in factories far outweighed the dangers and exhausting shifts, and were among a recognised section of society who for the first time, enjoyed a certain amount of disposible income.
Whether a 'society' lady or a newly-solvent munition worker, there was one thing that advertisers of the period insisted united women of all classes - the fundamental need to keep up appearances. 'War strain' - and its effects on women (usually resulting in a 'war face') was perpetually cited as an evil that must be vanquished by the use of beauty creams and lotions. Brands such as Vinolia, Pomeroy and Pears all began to replace the elegant floral femininity of pre-war advertisements with business-like and patriotic images of women war workers whose fresh-faced appearance reminded consumers that the inconveniences of war need not interfere with a beauty regime.
"Does your reflection give you quite the same satisfaction it gave you in 1914?" asks one 1916 advertisement from beauty mogul, Helena Rubinstein, whose London salon was based in Grafton Street. "Perhaps time and trouble have ploughed lines, where before, the skin was smooth and taut; or the complexion is dull and unattractive? In fact it is probable that the whole face is an index of the cares and war worries that are the lot of 99 women out of 100 in these troubled times."
Above all, it was essential that women must not 'let the side down' and that caring for one's complexion was a national duty. "Even if your social or professional life does not demand it, your patriotism demands that you keep your face bright and attractive so that you radiate optimism," lectured Helena Rubinstein, while Royal Vinolia echoed similar advice, insisting in its tagline that, 'Beauty on duty has a duty to beauty."
Harlene hair tonic (above left), a preparation which had been in production since the 19th century, warned women that that 'alarming epidemic of hair loss' was without doubt the result of war troubles, and included an illustration of contented looking munition workers with gleaming hair - clearly disciples of Harlene's products. Those suffering from a lack of bounce and vigour in the hair department could write to Harlene for a four-page advice leaflet.
As well as helping women look their best at work, many products claimed to have protective or medicinal purposes and were ideally suited to factory work or nursing. According to an advert for Royal Vinolia Talcum Powder, 'a little of this delightful powder dusted on the face protects the pores from dust and dirt,' while a little dusted on the feet, 'will keep them cool and comfortable.' For nurses, the company's cream was a panacaea to a wide variety of occupational hazards, claiming, as it did to 'quickly soothe and heal all cuts and abrasions of the skin.'
What is most interesting about the vigorously healthy wartime beauty market is how fragrance, creams and hair treatments were acceptable but cosmetics (as we understand them today) were still considered 'fast,' and products such as rouge and lipstick were slower to be accepted. It would certainly be some years before advertisements for lipstick and nail polish would be seen in the quality weekly magazines we hold in the archive here at Mary Evans. The emphasis instead was on a subtle improvement and enhancement of the face rather than anything overtly colourful.
‘There was a time, not so very long ago, when making-up was socially both a crime and a blunder,’ wrote Efemera in The Bystander in 1916, ‘It was an offence even more heinous than to be smartly dressed, or fanciful in the matter of under-linen. It was looked upon as “French” – therefore foreign and reprehensible.’ But she went on to say, ‘We have lost all sense of false shame in the matter…(the young woman) now takes out her vanity-bag and touches up her face where she may happen to find herself.’ Her advice was that you could 'improve' cheeks, lips, eyebrows, and hair, ‘but once you touch your eyes you are finished.’ The fact that the predominantly working class munition workers adopted lipstick with enthusiasm, was probably enough to discourage ladies of gentler birth – at least until after the war when cosmetics increasingly become part of the new woman’s arsenal.
However, Icilma advertised its foundation cream (above right) during the war, using the image of a lift girl, and there is something alluring about a particular pin-up painted by Raphael Kirchner (t0p of page) during the war - of a slender nurse powdering her face. Finally, this lovely illustration by Mackenzie (above left), published in The Sketch magazine in January 1917 is a tongue-in-cheek homage to both the wartime working woman - and her new devotion to keeping up appearances, whatever the circumstances!
Click on the link below to see more Great War beauty images: