Julia Rogers’ first-ever grown-up ball wasn’t quite what she’d hoped for. In 1942, her soldier father took 16-year-old Julia and her mother to the Annual Regimental Ball. Just one year after Britain’s Utility Clothing Scheme was implemented, there was nary a ball gown in sight. “All the women in short dresses,” says Julia of the occasion. “It was disappointing.”
Her own dress was all practicality. Her mother, a dressmaker by trade, had fashioned the frock for Julia as she did all of her family’s clothing. Cherry red, lightweight, and easily washable, with a sweetheart neckline and a flowing skirt that came just past the knees, the dress was undeniably pretty — but hardly the elaborate gown one would expect to see (or wear) at such a fancy occasion.
Julia, who grew up in a family in which money was scarce, was used to having homemade clothing intended to last for years. “When the war broke out I had all the clothes I needed,” she says. “My mother made my dresses with enough seam allowances and hem lengths to make alterations as I grew.” When the British government introduced a system of clothes rationing during World War II, Julia hardly felt the blow. For others, however, the new system of policing the amount of clothing, fabric, and shoes civilians could purchase was an enormous adjustment.
The Making of a Pretty Propaganda
Britain’s Utility Clothing Scheme was put into action on June 1, 1941. Fabric was at a premium worldwide, and anything available needed to be put toward the war effort. The scheme was carried out by Britain’s Board of Trade, under the direction of Prime Minister Winston Churchill — but Churchill was reluctant to restrict civilian dress. Partial to waistcoats and often seen looking dapper in bow ties and bowlers, Churchill understood the social and psychological relationships people had with clothing. He knew that clothes rationing would be detrimental to civilian morale.
Morale was of the utmost importance in Britain from the beginning of World War II until its end because, unlike World War I, this war required the involvement of the entire adult population. World War II, or “The People’s War,” saw men and women performing both civilian and military duties, and Britain’s government recognized that success in what would surely be a long struggle required careful attention to civilian confidence. It wasn’t until Britain experienced an extreme clothing shortage, in tandem with a serious economic downturn in 1940, that Churchill would finally declare clothes rationing a necessity. But even before the drastic measure of the Utility Clothing Scheme, Britain had embraced another fashion-centerd directive aimed at civilians on the home front.
Beauty as Duty was an official propaganda campaign targeting women, encouraging them to continue to pursue fashion and beauty despite the hardships that they had to endure, and discouraging the notion that devoting attention to their appearances was trivial or petty. By urging women to maintain some focus on “normal” things like fashion and beauty, the campaign was designed to help them feel grounded amid the chaos of war. Alongside this, the government was addressing the unsettling new reality of women taking on what had traditionally been “men’s” work. Morale-centerd propaganda campaigns were hardly unusual, but this campaign was aimed specifically at women, a logical result of the unusually high percentage of the female population involved in home front war efforts.
At first, women’s involvement in the war was voluntary, but the December 1941 passing of the National Services Act made Britain the first country to conscript women into war-related jobs. While they did not have to bear arms, they worked in factories making munitions, uniforms, and parachutes, or in state-run canteens or child-care centers. All women under the age of 51 were required to register for war work, and by 1943, between 80–90% were doing their part to support the war effort. Julia herself served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) from March 1944 until September 1945. With this level of involvement, and with the majority of able-bodied men away from home, it was not surprising that the ideas of home front morale and the morale of women became almost interchangeable.
Getting the Message to the Masses
The Beauty as Duty concept first appeared in popular advertising. In December of 1939, an advertisement for Evan Williams Shampoo was accompanied by the caption “Hair Beauty — is a duty, too!” It was already a woman’s job to serve her country and her family; cosmetics ads began to promote maintaining one’s personal appearance as another responsibility women had to fulfill. It was an idea that made a lot of marketing sense. Manufacturers wanted to continue selling their products during a time of international crisis, and like everyone else, they shared the desire for the Allies to win the war. It was natural to connect their products to patriotism, and mainstream media’s encouragement of consumption helped validate an activity that may have otherwise been considered frivolous or unnecessary.
Lipsticks, soaps, and other cosmetics came with slogans such as “Beauty Is Your Duty” or emphasized the message that it was a woman’s “duty to stay beautiful.” These ideas were so strongly discursively linked that beauty and resisting the enemy seemed two sides of the same coin. British cosmetics company Yardley ran advertisements in 1942 with the heading “No Surrender,” which claimed that ideal women honored “the subtle bonds between good looks and good morale.”
Concerned about civilian confidence on the home front and convinced of the transformative power of fashion, Churchill grabbed hold of the Beauty as Duty idea. He began to turn it into official propaganda, and manufacturers were eager to cooperate. A year before the Utility Clothing Scheme was instituted, the British government assembled a group of editors from various women’s magazines to form a committee that would consult on the official message of Beauty as Duty. Their job was to ensure that the new policy was “relayed to women in accessible and appropriate ways.” Now, instead of appearing exclusively in advertising, the concept became an editorial mainstay in fashion magazines like Women’s Own and Vogue, as well as in publications like the photojournalistic magazine Picture Post.
Putting a Little Lipstick on a Brave Face
Between his hesitation to ration clothing and his promotion of Beauty as Duty, Churchill clearly believed aesthetics were somehow crucial to success in the war effort. His opposition to clothes rationing came from his conviction that the government should not interfere with something as personal as “a man and his wardrobe,” demonstrating his belief that a person’s clothing served a far greater purpose than simply keeping covered and warm. While it was an unusual concern to focus on at such a time, it was also quite astute.
Personal appearance — enhanced through clothing, hygiene, and, in this case, cosmetics — is intensely linked to self-perception. Pat Kirkham, a design historian, author, and professor at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts in New York, has written extensively on this topic. Kirkham describes a woman named Nella Last who kept a diary throughout the war. In one entry, Last writes about using “too bright lipstick” that “on dim days makes the corners turn up when the lips will not keep smiling.” The “brave face” she assumed was not symbolic but physically manifested with the application of lipstick that she felt would help her endure what was otherwise unbearable.
Kirkham explains that this emphasis on giving the impression of being “normal,” paired with having to take on new and difficult responsibilities, required British women to “make enormous sacrifices while appearing as if they had not done so.” Not only did women have to deal with conscription, new and unfamiliar employment, and concern for the lives of so many of their loved ones and for the future of the country and the world at large, but they had to do it all while remaining outwardly composed. To ask someone to appear untroubled during a time of such turmoil and uncertainty is almost absurd, but conversely, it also has the potential to be incredibly buoying.
It isn’t easy to do without, but to do without while giving the impression that little has changed offers necessary courage to one living in an otherwise terrifying situation. Women had no power over the volatile state of the world, and after conscription was introduced, they also lost control over which jobs they held and where these jobs took them; if they could succeed in appearing strong and unruffled on the outside, perhaps on the inside they might also feel capable of succeeding in the midst of the uncertainty that had become their lives. Fashion was no panacea, but during a time when everyone had worries in excess, it made sense to find comfort, composure, and reassurance wherever possible.
It is difficult to accept the idea that beauty, especially in the middle of a war, should be deemed a necessity — nor was the notion universally accepted at the time. A lot of women in wartime Britain found it difficult to reconcile their inclination toward frugal austerity with the widespread encouragement of beauty. In other countries, notably Germany and Australia, governments urged women to disregard style and present themselves simply and plainly. British women struggled to make peace with their conflicting desires. Indulging in fashion during a time when every last bit of material and energy might be better used supporting the war effort was incongruous.
Although appearance was a concern, clothing was not to be overly extravagant or ostentatious. Women acknowledged that there was a difference between keeping up appearances and being frivolous. The Beauty as Duty campaign redefined concepts of necessity, triviality, and decorum by changing beauty from a matter of individual choice into a public concern. Items such as corsets, civilian hats, makeup, and nail polish were so important to women and such a fixture in women’s culture that, despite clothes rationing, the government was willing to set important materials aside to ensure their production.
Frivolity, too, was redefined as women began turning to the black market for stockings and lipstick. The ethics of buying black-market makeup were questionable, but doing so allowed women to define “need” in their own terms; by taking something luxurious and turning it into something necessary, they took control of one small aspect of an otherwise rationed and regimented life.
Aesthetics, Ambivalence, and the Luxury of Hindsight
Although the positive effects the movement may have had on women’s attitudes toward their situations are clear, one cannot overlook that a campaign like this suggests both a condescension to and objectification of women. One of the ideas surrounding Beauty as Duty was that the good spirits of men depended on the good looks of the women in their lives. The same Evan Williams Shampoo ad that claimed “Hair Beauty is a duty, too!” explained that “the men of the services on leave will expect and deserve it.”
Another concern this discourse was intended to address was that women’s conscription into factory work would lead to their being “masculinized.” Before the war, it was unheard of for women to do “men’s” work, and their doing so was unnerving to some. Beauty as Duty drew attention to femininity and ensured that it remained a central focus in their lives despite the fact that so many women now spent most of their time in the “male world.” A Ladies’ Home Journalarticle published in 1943 remarked that it was evidence of “the free democratic way of life that you have succeeded in keeping your femininity – even though you are doing a man’s work!” But if these concerns were a motivation for the Beauty as Duty campaign, they were not its central focus.
The directive, at its core, was aimed at making it all right for women to feel good about themselves, and at encouraging small indulgences and comforts in lives that were otherwise full of sacrifice, in the hopes that boosting their collective self-esteem would help the nation win the war. Kirkham argues that “makeup, corsets and attractive clothes, hairstyles and accessories meant different things to different women; they also had multiple meanings for individual women. Among other things, they brought the comfort of familiarity and continuities, memories of times past, signified femininity and played a part in constructing confident ‘fronts’ that helped boost individual and collective morale.”
Kirkham’s words encapsulate many people’s ambivalence about this historical moment — why one can find it difficult to be opposed to Beauty as Duty despite the fact that certain aspects of it allude to patriarchal subordination. Yet the campaign is also an acknowledgement of women’s changing roles and responsibilities, and an attempt to ease this transition. The power of fashion is often underestimated or misunderstood, and a love of clothing is too frequently written off as shallow or superficial. Beauty as Duty recognized the potential for fashion to function as a way to genuinely lift spirits and build confidence.
Fashion is what stands out most in Julia’s recollections of the Regimental Ball. Although growing up she was rarely in the position to afford luxuries herself, the dresses and uniforms at the ball remain bright in her mind. “If not as festive as in peacetime, it was still a grand sight,” she remembers. “All of the soldiers in their most formal of outfits … navy blue and scarlet with plenty of gold braid to brighten things up.” A few dances and a fancy cocktail later, it was time for Julia to go. “After midnight the soldiers were allowed to change into less formal uniforms. They would have been quite relieved to be able to wear something more comfortable. My father needed to change too, so we would have gone home, but not to return. The best was now over anyway.”