Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
After spending most of the past few months working on the book I’ve changed gear this week, returning to some of my older research to (re)write something on material culture, gender and sexuality for an edited collection. My focus is on the use of cosmetics between the wars and, in particular, the ways in which objects like the powder puff or lipstick are used as evidence in court in cases of importuning — something which is common in this period but very rarely seen earlier or later.
As well as reflecting the spectacular growth of the beauty industry in the early twentieth century, I think cosmetic commodities also come to carry larger concerns about the possibilities of personal refashioning and the instability of social boundaries after the Great War. In enabling men to approximate the appearance of women or working-class women to acquire the trappings of fashionable femininity they question the integrity of differences of class, gender or sexuality. In this moment of transition make-up could be unnerving, because it suggested that no-one need ever be what they seemed.
One manifestation of these concerns is that the image of a woman or man putting on make-up in front of a mirror is a recurrent motif in interwar popular culture. It appears in cosmetic advertising in women’s magazines and in Michael Arlen’s novel The Green Hat. The image above is taken from a bombastic article on ‘The Imitation Woman’, published in John Bull in July 1923. Compare it to the image below of Myra, the heroic but doomed streetwalker in James Whale’s fantastic film Waterloo Road (1931), and the resonances become striking.
This final image gives some idea of the unease make-up could generate: passing unnoticed in a regimental ball, the “imitation woman” deceives all those around her.