Beauty As Duty? That Really Happened

Joanna Douglas
Senior Editor

Photo: The WORN Archive: A Fashion Journal About the Art, Ideas, and History of What We Wear / Drawn and Quarterly 

You might not have heard of Worn Magazine, but we guarantee you’ll be hooked on its stories. The Canadian magazine dives into the history of various topics including fashion, beauty, and cultural norms, to tell you the story behind how each came to be.

Not surprisingly, we’re particularly interested in what happened in 1939. “The WORN Archive: A Fashion Journal about the Art, Ideas, & History of What We Wear” says that’s the year in which Beauty as Duty launched. The propaganda campaign aimed to make women believe that wearing makeup and looking polished was their patriotic duty. “Beauty as Duty…encouraged them to continue to pursue fashion and beauty despite the hardships that they had to endure, and discourage[ed] the notion that devoting attention to their appearances was trivial or petty,” one passage says. “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.”

Photo: The WORN Archive: A Fashion Journal About the Art, Ideas, and History of What We Wear / Drawn and Quarterly

With women taking on many jobs typically reserved for men, advertisers used this opportunity to show them they could still be beautiful while rolling up their sleeves. In fact, the campaigns claimed, getting dolled up was a sign of support for one’s country. An ad for Evan Williams Shampoo in 1939 declared “Hair Beauty is a duty, too!” while an ad for the British brand Yardley in 1942 titled “No Surrender” explained that that ideal woman honored “the subtle bonds between good looks and good morale.”

Winston Churchill, the UK’s Prime Minister, was the one who turned the idea from ad to propaganda. Everyone from manufacturers to a committee of women’s magazine editors worked to spread the message through publications like Vogue and Women’s Own in what they saw as a move to boost self-confidence.

Pat Kirkham, a design historian, author, and professor at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts in New York, writes about a woman named Nella Last who kept a diary during the war. In one entry, Last said she deliberately used “too bright lipstick” that “on dim days makes the corners turn up when the lips will not keep smiling.”

The idea still holds true today, in what cosmetic magnate Leonard Lauder calls the “the lipstick index,” claiming that lipstick sales can be used as an economic indicator that inversely correlates to our economy. At the end of the day, a swipe of lipstick can be the easiest pick-me-up—and you don’t need an ad to tell you that.