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Kate Thompson uncovers Yardley’s WWII Beauty Staples

Kate Thompson, bestselling author of Secrets of the Homefront Girls, talks about the weaponisation of make-up during the Second World War and uncovers some of the beauty staples that were manufactured by Britain’s biggest beauty factory, Yardley of London.

Nowadays we apply our make-up without a second thought. For me it’s the last thing I do before I go out the door – powder, mascara and a quick slick of lippy in the time it takes to knock back a cup of tea.

But during the Second World War, beauty was a potent and complex issue. Women were encouraged by the government to wear make-up for the good of public morale. It was genuinely felt that a tired, scruffy appearance would have a detrimental effect on the home front. Vogue told its readers, somewhat starchily, that ‘a woman past caring, is a woman past repairing’.

Had you been a young woman 80 years ago, you were told in no uncertain terms that ‘Beauty was Your Duty’. Slogans like Yardley’s Good looks and morale go hand in hand,’ only served to reinforce the message that beauty went more than skin deep, our national character depended on it and it would help secure victory.

As the war went on, the weaponisation of make-up only deepened as well known brands like Elizabeth Arden and Cyclax brought out shades called ‘Auxiliary Red’ ‘Victory Red’ and ‘Home Front Ammunition.’ There was even a shade created called Burnt Sugar, said to go perfectly with khaki.

As a writer setting a novel at Yardley’s in wartime I needed to get a sense of what beauty truly meant to young women whose lives were thrown into turmoil by the privations, drudgery and danger of war.

Determined to see these products for myself, I visited the archives of Bath Fashion Museum and Yardley’s in Windsor to see if handling these items could give me that elusive authentic experience of the past…could a simple tube of lipstick really help win wars?

Yardley’s cherry red lipstick wasn’t just coloured oil, fat and wax in a tube. It was escapism; a beautifully packaged dream. The gold art deco tube smothered in tiny stars held more than mere lipstick. It contained the promise of a better life. Before the war, wearing lipstick was regarded as risqué, but during hostilities it was considered patriotic.

         During the war, output in the Yardley factory was cut to 25 per cent of pre-war figures thanks to a Limitation of Supply Order, but paradoxically, sales of lipstick soared. Perhaps because red lipstick was an accessible treat – bright red lips being an easy way to create a flash of glamour. Seen from a different angle, it occurred to me how much the lipstick looked like a bullet!

Most people are familiar with the idea of their grandmother painting her legs with gravy browning and then drawing seams up the back of her calves with an eye pencil to create the illusion she was wearing stockings. If you were really lucky, you were able to get your hands on some stockingless cream, which provided a far more seamless (to say nothing of fragrant) look than gravy! Pots like this were gold dust, which might explain why it looks like every last drop has been scraped out. I wonder who owned this and what her wartime story was?

This was a new one to me, but the archivist at Bath Fashion Museum were these are kept, explained they were like individual blotting sheets a woman could discreetly get out to vanquish a shiny nose or chin. They look like little works of art. What a beautiful item to stow away in your handbag.

The more privations of war were thrust upon women, the more they hit back with bold femininity. Elaborate hairstyles became badges of honour. Elegant pompadours, with hair pinned up at the sides and swept high onto the top of the head in a striking Eugene wave, gleaming victory-rolls, chignons, omelette folds, pin-curls and waves . . . All were adopted and used to striking effect. But how to achieve such a look in the days before ghd hair straighteners or curling tongs? Women had to rely on semi-permanent waves or perms, but these were expensive and hard to come by, so wavers like these – think pipe cleaners – were used and women often slept in these overnight and then styled their hair in the morning.

Brilliantine strikes me as a far imaginative name than hair gel, but in essence that’s what it was.

The style for men in the 1940s, through to the sixties, was hair that was groomed to within an inch of its life and slicked back so that in some cases it shone like patent leather, proving that it wasn’t only women who liked to look groomed and slick.

To remove the grimy residue of Britain’s sooty streets and war work in factories, this was considered an effective cleanser. Then, as it is now, cleansing was everything. In the absence of cream, women made do with homemade versions. In 1943, Vogue suggested:

‘If you’re short of cleansing cream, use a teaspoonful of liquid starch in water, a cupful of chamomile tea made just like tea and used cold, or a spoonful of the water in which rice has boiled.’

Britain’s beauty bibles were crammed with thrifty advice.

Talcum powders like these were extremely popular among young women in the thirties and forties. Judging by the style and design, I would estimate this pot was pre-war. What’s astonishing is the smell of lavender that came from the pot, more than 80 years on! Nothing is more evocative or capable of transporting you to another era, than scent.

Promising the freshness and bloom of youth, this ornate gold embossed metal tin must surely have sat upon many a dressing table.

Nothing says Yardley like lavender. English lavender is a more powerfully scented version than the French flower. In 1927, Yardley stopped using a French perfumer, sourced its own lavender, planted it in Norfolk in England, where it thrived.

Hats weren’t rationed during the Second World War but new hats were expensive and hard to come by. These beautiful hatpins were a must have item to secure your hard won hat. As always during WW2, recycling and renovation came to the fore. I love the sound of a ‘hat hospital’ I read about in a 1943 Vogue, just off Bond Street, who promised to breathe new life into your battered hat.

Secrets of the Homefront Girls is Kate Thompson’s charming and courageous new World War Two novel, following the lives of the incredible women working at Yardley, Britain’s biggest beauty factory in London’s East End.