Europe celebrated this August the 70th anniversary since the end of the Second World War on the continent. Many decades have gone, but the World Wars keep on telling us powerful and moving stories that teach us a lot about humanity. There is actually an entry in the diary of Lieutenant-Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin, one of the first British soldiers to liberate Bergen-Belsen, that is incredibly significant, even though its unlikely protagonist is a beuty product.
"I can give no adequate description of the Horror Camp in which my men and myself were to spend the next month of our lives," Gonin wrote. "It was just a barren wilderness, as bare as a chicken run. Corpses lay everywhere, some in huge piles, sometimes they lay singly or in pairs where they had fallen. It took a little time to get used to seeing men, women and children collapse as you walked by them and to restrain oneself from going to their assistance. One had to get used early to the idea that the individual just did not count. One knew that five hundred a day were dying and that five hundred a day were going on dying for weeks before anything we could do would have the slightest effect (…) It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we men wanted, we were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don't know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the postmortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity."
Gonin's shocking description of life in the camp and the conditions of the prisoners, suddenly changes tones when he tells us about the lipstick shipment. This simple accessory ends up marking for the female prisoners, a slow return to a life that the Nazis had denied them by considering them "things" or "pieces" ("Stücke").
The power of make-up during the war is analysed in one of the sections of the exhibition "Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style", currently on at the Imperial War Museum in London (until 31st August 2015).
Gonin's diary entry may be more about the end of the war, but the exhibition actually focuses on garments, accessories and make-up during the conflict and does so through six sections - Into Uniform, Functional Fashion, Rationing and Make Do and Mend, Utility Clothing, Beauty as Duty and Peace and the New Look.
Though difficult to obtain, lipstick was indeed known as a "red badge of courage" and the exhibition features iconic images from those years such as the one portraying a female member of ARP staff applying her lipstick, almost as an act of defiance.
Trying to put together an interesting outfit even when clothes were rationed and make-up was rare or too expensive was indeed a way to cheer themselves up for women, but also guaranteed a boost of morale for the troops, so it was considered as part of the war effort.
An advert by British cosmetics company Yardley summarises the feeling, stating "To work for victory is not to say goodbye to charm. For good looks and good morale are the closest of allies", while the Board of Trade proclaimed in 1940, "Keep up the morale of the Home Front by preserving a neat appearance".
Elizabeth Arden produced lipsticks for servicewomen; Helena Rubinstein created the "Regimental Red" shade, and those who couldn't afford them were encouraged to turn to beetroot for lips, boot polish for mascara and eyebrow pencil to create the illusion of wearing back seam stockings.
Make-up was rare, but clothes had been rationed and, in the early 1940s, the Utility Clothing Scheme introduced in the UK measures to restrict the number of elements such as buttons and features like pockets and pleats in response to the shortage of clothing materials and labour due to the requirements of the war effort.
The Board of Trade set the rules for "utility clothing" in the "Making-up of Civilian Clothing (Restrictions) Orders", also known as the "austerity regulations", indicating the specifications regarding materials and labour.
Women usually opted to wear what they already had, they recycled clothes (wedding gowns and accessories were passed from one bride to the next as the exhibition tells us), altered their garments or got more creative as some of the pieces included in the exhibition prove.
There are indeed garments made from parachute silk; a rather luxurious bra owned by Countess Mountbatten and made from an escape silk map given to her by a boyfriend in the Royal Air Force (Milan and Trieste are still visible, each city on one breast...); jewellery pieces made from aircraft parts; a gas mask holder disguised as a leather handbag; decorative propaganda scarves; a powder compact in the shape of a US Army officer's cap; a collection of luminous buttons and flowers designed to make oneself more visible to other pedestrians and motorists during a blackout, and the "siren suit", an outfit you could pull in one go in case you had to run to the air-raid shelter in a hurry (it should be noted that this was perceived as a curiosity and it was only bought by wealthy people).
There is a lot to discover not just through these pieces, but also through photographs and posters: Mrs Sew and Sew, the iconic mascot of the Ministry of Information's Make-Do-and-Mend scheme prompted women to recycle what they had, recreating new clothes from their husbands' suits or employing unusual materials such as blankets.
The exhibition closes with Dior's New Look, though it fails to mention the implication behind the huge restrictive skirts that seemed to tell women they could now return to their pre-War duties and be relegated once again at home.
This is not actually the only criticism that you could maybe move to this exhibition: though engaging and interestingly proving that, rather than disappearing with the war, beauty and fashion became parts of the battleground, the event implies that this was the general condition of the entire country, even though the materials included mainly portray the situation around the London area.
Besides, the event doesn't mention the fact that the Make-Do-and-Mend campaign was a failure: it implied indeed people had enough clothes to mend, so it couldn't be applied to the poorest layers of the society.
You also get the feeling that, in an attempt at gaining more young and hip visitors, the marketing department tried to make the exhibition cool by adding the subtitle "1940s Street Style".
As we all know there are a lot of vintage clothes fans with a '40s obsession who are completely oblivious to what it was like living then, but, rather than strengthening in their minds the idea that, despite the war, everything was cool, the event should have maybe tried to educate them more by highlighting the hardest aspects of the life of ordinary people.
The emphasis on creativity, innovation and glamour, risks indeed of turning even the best pieces in the Imperial War Museum collection into examples of chic fun, making us forget that the war created more class/gender divisions (even though there is equality in displaying the male and female uniforms together to highlight a parity in sacrifice...) and social inequality. Some of the smiling images taken in the streets were indeed produced by the Ministry of Information to promote British fashion during the war, so they weren't a real depiction of what real people were actually wearing.
Some of the final video interviews included at the end of this event reinforce the impression that the event was put together using intriguing materials compiled to cater to a younger generation of hip fashionistas. There are indeed some ingenuous visions of the '40s as if some of the interviewees involved had been struck not by the living conditions of people in general, but by the utility chic designs modelled by Deborah Kerr or by the turban of factory worker Ruby Loftus.
The most striking thing remains the fact that, while we tend to look at those years and compare the habits of the people who lived then (buy, wear, recycle, alter and wear again...) with our habits (buy, wear for a week, throw out and start again...), the event doesn't make reference to the fact that the rules of standardisation behind utility clothes could be considered as the seeds of the super fast production that drives our modern society.
There are still good reasons to go and see the exhibition, though: there are excellent objects on display from the Imperial War Museum collections and the letters (especially the ones in the uniforms sections) are particularly interesting as they reveal more about the habits of the people who lived in those times than some of the garments and accessories.
Visitors also get the chance to touch a selection of fabrics and make their own comparisons with modern textiles in the Utility Scheme section. While exploring this part of the event there is something that they should actually do: take their time and ponder a bit more about the legacies left by the war and linked with the industrial scale manufacturing of large quantities of products.
Image credits for this post
All images in this post courtesy Imperial War Museum
1. Exterior view of the front of the Imperial War Museum, London.
2. An official Ministry of Information Photo Division wartime photograph showing four young ladies enjoying a stroll in the spring sunshine.
3. A female member of Air Raid Precautions (ARP) staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls, Kingston House, 1940.
4. In-gallery shot, 'Fashion on the Ration'.
5. Join the ATS poster.
6. Blackout accessories for sale, Selfridges London, (1940). A woman pins a luminous flower onto her jacket lapel at Selfridges department store in London.
7. A black square filled with coloured text, which is designed to represent the remarks of people bumping into each other during a blackout.
8. - 9. Model in wartime utility clothing.
10. Bridesmaid’s dress made for and worn by Janet Saunders for the wedding of Ted Hillman (4th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment) and Ruby Mansfield in 1945.
11. Respirator Carrier Handbag. Standard civilian pattern respirator with a black rubber mask and metal filter contained within the base of a black leather lady's clutch handbag.
12. British civilian child's cloak. A cloak with a hood made from a grey, red and black striped blanket with button front fastening and arm holes.
13. Wide-brimmed hat of brown fur felt, with a central light khaki band around the raised crown, fitted with an enamelled WLA badge to the centre.
14. "Salvage Your Rubber" (1940-1945), British propaganda scarf by Jacqmar of London, containing numerous representations of domestic objects, with exhortations to save rubber and recycle goods in general. The chief designer was Arnold Lever who continued working for the company even after he had joined the RAF. The scarves fall into three main thematic groups of the armed forces, allies and home front.
15. The character Mrs Sew and Sew, created to promote the Make Do and Mend campaign.
16.-18. Visitors to "Fashion on the Ration".
19. Loftus was an outstanding factory worker and the Ministry of Supply requested that she be painted at work in the Royal Ordnance Factory in Newport.
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