In recent months, countless hours perusing the US Vogue database has enabled, or rather become an outlet for, my intense cosmetics and advertisement addiction.
There is much pleasure to be had in tracing the origins of what we now consider to be heritage brands, and the pivotal campaigns that have shaped their iconic status. In many cases, Second World War years were fundamental, as the backdrop of turmoil and increased social changes inevitably became a barometer of cosmetic houses’ ability to adapt and remain relevant. At the same time however, the progression from the 1930s into the 1940s stood to magnify the deeply complex relationship shared between the cosmetics industry and women.
In a recent Man Repeller article, the modern use of cosmetics was categorized as either ‘shield’, or ‘weapon’. This echoes a study undertaken in 2008 by LVMH researchers that attributed two inherent abilities to cosmetics: the ability to ‘camouflage’, and the ability to ‘seduce’. Hardly a revelation, yet the recognition that camouflage relies on an internal desire, while seduction relies on the external surface, was as pertinent if applied to examples from the 1930s and 1940s, as it is to today’s cosmetics.
As we saw in Nicole’s January post, ‘Cosmetics: freedom in a tube’, the 1930s was synonymous with possibility and opportunity. Not only for the liberation of the female body in terms of activity, but for the promotion of a new visual discourse that encouraged exploration of surface identity through the use cosmetics. In this respect, the cosmetics industry was pivotal in mobilizing both the wearer and spectator, as makeup became a recognizable symbol of free will and autonomy- a ‘shield’ with which to navigate, or identify modern femininity. What is clear moving into the 1940s is the apparent reversal of feminine ideals, repositioning women both as wearer and consumer, and cosmetics as ‘weapon’. Though this is surely to be expected during such upheaval, the wearer becomes a vessel though which the aims of the nation can be expressed, and thus loses her individual identity under the guise of ‘femininity’.
It was a common strategy for all cosmetics houses, not limited to industry behemoths such as Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, to focus on the collective identity of women rather than their individuality. In doing so, they expressed what David Clampin has stated as the desire of the industry to participate in wartime society. The above advert from the House of Tangee, for example, encourages women to wear lipstick as a show of ‘strength’ for adapting so courageously to their new roles in masculine spheres. Superficially, the imagery employed by the advert suggests support for the freedom of female expression solidified in the ‘30s. However, such a ‘shield’ is re-positioned by the cosmetic house as a ‘weapon’, as femininity itself becomes an extension of the nation’s ambition to assert supremacy over Germany – a country that discouraged such displays of femininity. Makeup therefore becomes emblematic of carrying out a task, even if it is not a product of the wearer’s free will. The spectator recognizes cosmetics as national ambition, over the ambition of the wearer. In this light, solidarity is achieved, but external forces manipulate ‘self-expression’.
It is arguable, when following the trajectory of advertisements after the war that the use of makeup never quite returns to being the show of independence that it was in the ‘30s. There is always a task to be completed, often requiring seduction of some sort. Next time you are browsing the pages of a magazine, question whether the advert is positioning makeup as a shield, or as a weapon. I think you will be surprised.
David Clampin, Advertising and Propaganda in World War II: Cultural Identity and the Blitz Spirit (New York: I.B Tauris & Co Ltd, 2014)
R. Korichi, D. Pelle-de-Queral, G. Gazano, A. Aubert, Why women use makeup: implication of psychological traits in makeup functions, J Cosmet Sci, 2008 Mar-April, 59 (2)