Red, pouty lipstick kisses on stamped envelopes. Flirty, plush lashes and high-arched brows. Dreamy hair waves that conveyed a romance in their own right. Sweetheart necklines. Ruched fabrics. Cinematic hats and gloves. Pin-up poses with high breasts, cinched waists and clunky shoes.
A celebration of feminine wiles, the 1940s launched as an era of fashion and makeup being an alluring escape from not only the monotony of nursing babies and hanging clothes on the clothesline, but the newfound pressures of women working in factories and mines to run the country while their men were away—gripped by the seriousness of fighting a world war. It was also encouraged by the government and media, as an effort to boost the morale of women who were uncomfortable about working in their unfamiliar and “unfeminine” conditions.
Life in the early 1940s was the war, and no aspect of its beauty and fashion culture can be explored without first acknowledging that fact. It was one of the most catastrophic events to have happened to modern man – an approximate 70 million having lost their lives.
Because rations and war shortages restricted materials needed to make clothing and cosmetics, it was a time for the woman to get creative with expressing her beauty, sensuality and style in fresh ways. Interestingly, this bold and innovative spirit would bleed into the remainder of the decade, even after the men returned home and war stories found their way in the rearview lens of the survivors.
Continue reading for a historically-accurate celebration of this period of heart-gushing thespianism, femininity, glamour, romance and tragedy – an era women all over the globe continue to emulate and revisit—even seven decades into the future and despite considerable modern advancements in beauty and fashion.
Prepare to become hopelessly entrenched in its drama.
Here’s How to Drip With Romance Like the Legendary Ladies of the 1940s
Pouty Lips, Plush Lashes & Impeccable Skin
The lashes and mouth were the focal points of a beautifully made-up face. Lips were full, red and pouty – making a bold statement of sexiness. The “Hunter’s Bow Lip,” a broad overdrawing of the upper lip—was an iconic look created for actress Joan Crawford, by none other than the legendary film makeup artist Max Factor himself. Many women emulated this look, even doing so creatively while working within modest means. Because the rations affected cosmetic materials, beet juice and food coloring were often used to make lip tints.
Lashes were essentially plush—the more flirty, the fuller and the thicker, the better. Doe-eyed and inviting, eyes were accentuated with lush lashes and a thick coating of eyeliner along the top lash line.
Eyeshadows were quite natural and neutral in tone, and only used for shading of the crease. Eyebrows completed this look with a dramatically arched and subtle point, as though to convey an alluring and wide-eyed sexiness. Its amorously innocent and vulnerable yet powerful effect was often sealed tightly with a veil of Vaseline.
Skin was matte, flawless and surreal. Max Factor’s Pan-cake makeup, along with its more convenient cousin and successor Pan Stik, were the products of choice. These foundations were thick and creamy, providing maximum coverage, and followed by a generous application of loose powder, applied and pressed into the face with a large puff.
What we now refer to as blush was originally a creamy concoction called “rouge,” and was generously dabbed onto the apples of the cheeks to achieve a peachy-red and playful All-American glow.
For Pouty 1940s Lips
MAC Russian Red Lipstick (for a true red)
Besame Cosmetics Lipstick in American Beauty (for a cool red)
This is a cool berry-red shade that is an exact replica of a popular lipstick formulated in 1945, and it is to die for. It looks smashing on pale skin tones.
For 1940s Come-Hither Eyes
Lancome Artliner in Noir
Urban Decay Naked Basics Palette
Besame Cosmetics Cream Mascara
For Dreamy & Flawless 1940s Skin
While Max Factor Pan Stik Foundation is the most historically-accurate option, I recommend Cover Fx Total Cover Cream Foundation. It is an incredible paraben-free, mineral-oil free and vegan alternative. It covers and blends like an absolute dream.
Besame Cosmetics Brightening Vanilla Rose Powder
For fairer skin tones, this is the most gorgeous under eye setting powder on the planet. It disguises dark circles and brightens instantly.
Bourjois blush in Peche Vitaminee
This is the most ideal blush option for those with the fairest skins, who prefer a more subtle flushed effect.
Besame Cosmetics Crimson Cream Rouge
Besame Long Hair Finishing Powder Brush
You must try this to believe in its power. It is luxurious, and a must-have for creating a historically-accurate airbrushed skin finish. It serves to blend the foundation, powder and blush/rouge impeccably, while also pressing any facial hairs tightly to the skin.
Hair: The Quintessential 1940s Romance
Hair became extremely elaborate and romantic in the 1940s, likely because it was one fashion statement that could be made without worry of the inhibiting effect of rations. Soft, dreamy waves framed the plush lashes, radiant cheeks and pouty lips. Victory rolls in the crown further accentuated the alluring brows. Large hairpins and bobby pins were essentials on nearly every woman’s vanity.
The Dreamy Betty: The Golden Age of Pin-Up
The pinup girl epitomized the American Dream, and the 1940s were the zenith of her glory days. For the soldiers, she represented the reason to keep the flag waving and the fighting brave. Her beauty was in full display inside of barracks and submarines, or tucked privately into soldiers’ pockets.
This dream girl’s bright smile and playful stance conveyed that there was nothing to fear. Her ample breasts were high, lifted and prominent, her cinched waist (occasionally exposed, as this is the era when the bare midriff made its debut) and voluptuous hips a celebration of desirous feminine curves, and her clunky heels accentuated her long and shapely legs.
From head-to-toe, her skin was made to appear flawless. Nylons were a staple, but when the war restrictions caused them to disappear from store shelves, leg makeup was used in place of them.
The Big Screen Starlet: Hollywood’s Explosion of Dazzle
The Hollywood film industry reached a profitable peak during the latter half of World War II and thereafter. Because television was such a rarity in the home, an evening out to the cinema was an indulgent and joyous part of life. Humphrey Bogart stole hearts in Casablanca, dipping all into a state of dreamy reverie. Starlets such as Ava Gardner, Betty Grable, Lana Turner, Lauren Bacall, Rita Hayworth and Veronica Lake took the world’s breath away with their captivating beauty. Women aspired to channel the larger-than-life glamour and power these leading ladies seemed to ooze so effortlessly.
Many of these starlets were multi-faceted and offered an explosion of fashionably show-stopping appeal – often acting, dancing and singing in a single film or performance. Their performance and red-carpet attire usually involved long, whimsical gowns with sexy waistlines, strapless or sweetheart necklines and feminine ruching.
Fabrics were soft and beckoning to be touched, making the unattainable starlet even more kissable and desired. Long gloves completed the sophisticated statement. Rita Hayworth’s irresistibility in the 1946 film Gilda epitomized the ideal beauty, style and sexiness of the decade.
An image of Hayworth was taped, in fact, to the final atom bomb that the United States dropped on Japan, making her a bona fide atomic goddess.
The Everyday Darling: The All-American Sweetheart
Being well-groomed was not only essential to women, but encouraged by the media. Even if her man was away fighting the war, a 1940s woman didn’t want to be caught looking unkempt at the post office or when the milkman brought his delivery. Because hair was so elaborate and straight styles were not fashionable, scarves were worn to cover hair that was not properly curled, rolled and romanced.
As for fashion, the rations and war shortages affected every aspect of it. There were strict rules as to how much fabric and buttons could be used, how deep pockets could be, etc. Utility clothing was popular among the everyday darlings, as these were a line of dresses designed to be stylish and create or accentuate the ideal 1940s body type as well as adhere to the war-related restrictions. This caused the hemlines to rise from long and flowing – a la the 1930s—to just below the knee.
These dresses, crafted with wide padded shoulders, cinched waists and knee-length cuts, hung in the closets of females ranging from teenagers to young brides to the middle-aged and beyond.
As the war ended and America celebrated, dress patterns instantly became more floral, bold, vibrant and more contrasting in pattern—as though an expression of freedom in their own right.