How Bad Girl Red Lipstick Became a Patriotic Symbol During WW2

During WW2, a simple tube of bright red lipstick symbolized patriotism that a woman could pull out of her purse—the more brilliant the red, the more patriotic. Before the war, when red lipstick became a morale booster, feminist symbols such as Rosie the Riveter’s “We Can Do It!” red pout and red lipstick were scandalous.

Red lipstick became a symbol of American patriotism during WW2.

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According to the NY Post;

Preachers railed against it. Legislatures tried to outlaw it. Lipstick was considered vain, frivolous, un-American, and even evil. In 1921, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which had gotten alcohol banned in the US, decided to go after lipstick.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union ultimately decided that women who wore such makeup couldn’t be educated, meaning they were too rebellious to be told what to do. To this day, people have strong thoughts about the appropriateness of red lipstick. Some feel that the boldness of it is “unprofessional” and inappropriate. Still, some lawmakers think it speaks more to their cultural heritage and has made it part of their signature look. One such lawmaker is Democrat Congresswoman Alexandria Cassio Cortez. Meanwhile, red is the color of the Republican party, and it has a long patriotic history of American pride. 

Some consider red lipstick too bold and unprofessional for the workplace. Others view it as a symbol of strength, power, and feminism.

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The NY Post notes that by the 1930s, times changed, and Hollywood popularized lipstick. As more and more women had to enter the workforce to help their families, they needed to put their best face forward, and makeup—less expensive than, say, a new suit — became indispensable. In 1936, Good Housekeeping told women, “Beauty Is a Part of Your Job,” warning that “brains and a diploma, ambition and common sense” are pointless if presented in “shoddy packages.”

Jessica Reinhard, friend and former college roommate of Florida Jolt Editor at Large Tracy Caruso, wearing her signature red lipstick, Tomato Red.

Ilse Carter has written a book Calle The Red Menace-How Lipstick Changed the Face of American History. She says;

During World War II, lipstick acquired new shades of meaning. Hitler and Mussolini both condemned makeup. The Third Reich claimed that Aryans, in their natural beauty, didn’t need the stuff, particularly lipstick, associated with depraved Weimar Berlin, as well as the foreigners and Jews Hitler so despised. One Nazi official, Julius Streicher, threatened: “Women who wore lipstick had better not come here. The US, then, called in two rival icons of cosmetics, Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein, so they could “fight fascism in style.” 

The Red Menace by Ilse S. Carter – How Lipstick Changed the Face of American History

Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein had a lifelong, red-hot rivalry, and the competitive nature of picking the most patriotic red color added fuel to the fire. Their legendary feud was featured in a Broadway play called War Paint, based on a book with the same name as the fascinating true story by author Lindy Woodhead. 

People are still imitating Rosie the Riveter from WW2, whose red lipsticks and arm muscle sent the “We Can Do It!” patriotic symbol of strength to all Americans.

After the Allies beat the Nazis, Americans continued to use red lipstick as an all-American statement against the drab, gray aesthetics of the Soviet Union, for example. As recently as 2021, the global pandemic gave lipstick a new meaning when sales had dropped drastically since women were masking up. Wearing lipstick at that time was a nuisance, but when the masks came to offer some but not all, wearing red lipstick once again became a political statement. 

Red lipstick will continue to show shades of political meaning in our highly polarized world. Red lipstick is feminine and American. 

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