During the early 1900s, women in the US enjoyed the freedom to use cosmetics with relative impunity. Then, as the last era of the temperance movement took hold, a national debate of whether respectable women could wear lipstick fired up, with social and political implications. After the passing of the 19th Amendment, a battle between the prohibitionists of strict moral code and a new breed of modern, emancipated women known as Flappers began.
Flappers threw away the corsets, petticoats, and Victorian modesty in favor of loose-fitting shapeless dresses, an Eton Crop, and bee-stung lips in bright red lipstick. They were bolder, more confident, and defiant in the face of harsh social criticism by politicians and the Church. After the horrors of the first world war and the massive loss of marriageable men, these women decided to be masters of their own fate, and their bold and carefree style opened the door for everyday women to emulate.
The Flappers’ biggest opponents were the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, who had fought and won the 18th Amendment for federal prohibition and were now targeting their wrath on the use of lipstick and cosmetics in general, in the belief that these women were of loose morals and still bound to the sin of alcohol. In addition, male politicians saw a distinct threat, believing that the new fashions and makeup enhanced feminine wiles to sway votes.
The Women Who Defied Them All
During the war on lipstick, as it came to be known, two key players helped pave the way for the eventual freedom of cosmetic expression, and the first to make national headlines was an eighteen-year-old teenager and high school student by the name of Pearl Pugsley.
Pearl was just beginning her 1921 school year in Knobel, Arkansas, when she was sent home one day for sporting facial powder and lipstick. Understanding of her teenage transgression, her parents hired a lawyer to argue in court that the school board had violated their daughter’s civil rights. Pearl stated that she was fighting for a principle, to uphold a woman’s right to look their best. She was nicknamed the lipstick war heroine by a movie company in LA and offered $1000 per week. The case made it all the way up to the state Supreme Court but was eventually thrown out.
While traditionalists were in an uproar over diminishing modesty, there was growing support for this new generation of women, and cosmetic sales in the early twenties saw record profits. Celebrities were also getting caught up in the lipstick war, and Ruth Elder was no exception.
Ruth was an activist, aspiring American actress, and aviation pioneer known as the “Miss America of Aviation.” Inspired by the 1927 trans-Atlantic flight by Charles Lindbergh, she made the public claim to be the first female pilot to cross the Atlantic. Much publicized was her onboard luggage, and reporters commented on the Flapper’s beauty routine, which included dresses, lipstick, powder puff, and a mirror.
Ruth survived but didn’t make it across the Atlantic. However, she was an iconic representation of the women during her era, striving to break the mold of restricted femininity and create balance in a new, postwar world.
Taking the World by Storm
The Lipstick War moved through the US, Britain, and even Germany during the earlier 1930s. Women had adopted the affordable cosmetic to add a finishing touch that evoked movie heroines like Lana Turner and Veronica Lake. During the second world war, as women went to work in factories, Elizabeth Arden cosmetics was commissioned to create a kit for the American Marine Corps Women’s Reserve to boost morale, including red lipstick. Rosie the Riveter was always portrayed in full makeup, and lipstick became a symbol of strength and vitality. The end of WWll also saw an end to the lipstick war, as soldiers began looking forward to returning home to more glamorous women after the bleakness of the battlefield.
To this day, lipstick remains a key component in every woman’s makeup kit. Today’s medical and esthetic professionals have the methods to help any woman attain fuller lips and smoother, healthier-looking skin, creating a canvas for your favorite look, including a hot red lipstick.