The simple thing WWII women did everyday to get under Hitler's skin

It cost just a dollar, but was seen as rebellious and empowering. And, by the way, it drove der Fuhrer crazy. What exactly was the role of red lipstick in defeating Nazi Germany?

Red lipstick was first seen as a sign of rebellion during the suffrage movement in the early 1900's. But American women during WWII embraced it as a way to defy Adolf Hitler. Photo courtesy/iStock

FARGO — Monday marks the 79th anniversary of the U.S. entry into World War II with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. While most of us learned a lot about the war itself in our history classes, here’s something you might not have known.

Did you know in the World War II years, women wore lipstick to make Adolf Hitler angry?

Maybe not all of them, maybe not every day, but the concept we’ve come to know as the 1940’s ruby red full lip, was created in part as a giant “up yours” to der Fuhrer.

Let’s rewind a bit, shall we?

It’s not that red lipstick was invented in the 1940’s. The shade has a long, often scandalous association with femininity through the years. In an interview with CNN, Rachel Felder, author of "Red Lipstick: An Ode to a Beauty Icon", said prior to the 20th century, red lips were often associated with morally dubious women: impolite, sexually amoral, heretical, even devilish.

The makeup "was associated with this mysterious, frightening femininity," Felder said.


But then something funny happened. Women fighting for the right to vote decided to embrace a little of what men found so shocking and unacceptable — bright red lipstick. For them it symbolized rebellion and liberation. Cosmetic giant Elizabeth Arden decided to play along. A supporter of the suffrage movement herself, she handed out tubes of red lipstick for the suffragists to wear while they marched.

"There could not be a more perfect symbol of suffragists than red lipstick because it's not just powerful, it's female," said Felder.

lipstick 4
Even Rosie the Riveter is seen in full makeup, including red lipstick. Red lipstick was considered empowering and a way for women to feel strong and capable while also holding onto their femininity in a man's world.

Rosie in riveting red lipstick

Some of the women who went to the front lines of WWII or into the factories to assist in the war effort might have seen their mothers march for the right to vote. That fight was over, but another had begun and once again, red lipstick had a role. Even the iconic character Rosie the Riveter is portrayed wearing bright red lipstick. Today, we might wonder why. She almost looks too glamorous for a day on the factory floor. But according to historians, a couple of things were going on. Women, now stepping into traditionally male roles in the workplace, wanted to maintain their femininity, so while they might have been wearing coveralls and work boots, they chose also to wear mascara and lipstick. But there was also something else going on — patriotism.

Like it did in 1919, red lipstick was a tool of defiance in the World War II years. Felder said Adolf Hitler "famously hated red lipstick." In an interview with "The Takeaway" on WNYC Studios, the author of the makeup history, “Compacts and Cosmetics", Madeleine Marsh said, "The Aryan ideal was a pure, unscrubbed face. Lady visitors to Hitler's country retreat were actually given a little list of things they must not do.” They were told not to wear excessive makeup, to avoid red lipstick and under no circumstances to paint their nails.

Movie stars in the 1940's, including Katherine Hepburn, donned the bright red lip, which made the look even more appealing to women in the military. Photo courtesy/wikimedia commons


Of course, it follows that whatever Hitler was telling German women to do, Allied women wanted to do just the opposite. Makeup for the American woman in the 1940’s was certainly not over the top, but red lipstick seemed like the bare minimum. In fact, throughout the war years, lipstick became mandatory for all women entering the armed forces. Cosmetic companies released shades like "Victory Red" and "Regimental Red." Elizabeth Arden, that famous early supporter of women’s rights, was even given a contract by the American government to create a regulation lip and nail color for women in the military. Her "Montezuma Red" matched and accentuated their uniforms' red piping.

Women in the armed forces in World War II were required to wear makeup as a sign of patriotism and strength. Some cosmetics companies even sold shades like "Victory Red." Photo/Wikimedia commons

Lipstick was just part of the fighting woman’s uniform — a way to support her country and, in a way, herself. A simple tube of red lipstick, for whatever reason, built self-esteem and a sense of purpose . Everyday as women applied their makeup, they had a visual reminder of how they were standing up to fascism and celebrating the femininity Hitler felt he could stifle. But lest you think it was all about the woman, it wasn’t. The 1940’s woman was also encouraged to wear lipstick as a morale booster for men and to give weary soldiers an image of the pretty girl he was fighting for.

Red lipstick as a weapon of rebellion lived on long after WWII ended. In recent years, feminists have worn red lipsticks to protests over domestic violence and exploitation of women. In the last couple of years, some women in the United States have also opted to wear red lipstick, along with the pink hats they wear, in protest of Donald Trump's comments prior to the 2016 election. More than makeup, red lipstick is message-making.

Tracy Briggs is an Emmy-nominated News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 35 years of experience, in broadcast, print and digital journalism.
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