As World War II rocked the world in the late 1930s and into the '40s, rationing went into full force. Americans had to cut back on nearly every essential...that is, except lipstick.

When men were drafted into the Army, for the first time, women entered the job corps in full force. As an XOVain article called "When Beauty Was A Duty: Cosmetic Appeal During WWII" noted: 

"Women were expected to actively contribute to the war effort and take on traditionally male jobs without being masculine; makeup allowed them to exhibit this new power while also fulfilling the societal demand for feminine beauty."

Wearing lipstick wasn't just a means of segregating the genders, but also a means of "boosting morale" for the soldiers abroad. For women, putting on a sexy red lip might be empowering, but for the men serving, it was a means of keeping red-blooded soldiers eager to return home. According to a letter one soldier wrote in a 1941 Vogue article, "To look unattractive these days is downright morale-breaking and should be considered treason." 

A woman applies lipstick in WWII France. Image via Andre Zucca/Glamor Daze.

As the author of a Duke University article called "Speak Softly and Carry a Lipstick" commented on crimson-lipped ladies:

"They gave men something visual to fight for by reminding them of home, upped morale by lifting soldiers' spirits, and provided them comfort through assurance of women's support."

Because of the "morale boost" it provided for soldiers, the War Production Board decided not to ration lipstick. Apparently, it was a national necessity, and the fact that the government encouraged women to wear it kept makeup sales high in wartime. Even nurses serving in the Red Cross took their time to polish their nails and put on lipstick as means of encouraging the patients they cared for. Nurses didn't necessarily do this of their own volition; the Red Cross itself either distributed the cosmetic to its staff or included it on the to-pack list.

As one critic noted, just as lipstick symbolized how men restricted and sexualized the woman who wore it, it also symbolized the power and strength of Rosie the Riveter. This dichotomy--the female struggle for self-definition and liberty and the male oppression of that same sex--is contained all within one product: lipstick.

A British woman using lipstick during WWII. Photo: IWM

They gave men something visual to fight for by reminding them of home, upped morale by lifting soldiers' spirits, and provided them comfort through assurance of women's support. 

As a result, makeup companies began marketing lipstick as patriotic, "glamour as a virtue" that their men serving abroad were protecting. Lipstick maker Tangee started a campaign called "War, Women and Lipstick," claiming that "it symbolizes one of the reasons were are fighting...the precious right of women to be feminine and lovely, under any circumstances." Lipsticks were rechristened, giving rise to shades like Courage, Commando, and Fighting Red.

Feature image of 1940s lipstick ads via Duke Library/XOVain.