Over the years I have amassed hundreds of hair net envelopes. I love them because their artful graphics often evoke the era in which they were created. Plus, they are inexpensive and easy to display or store.

I bought this Miss Freedom hair net package in an online auction several years ago for $10, and it feels like an appropriate item to spotlight this holiday week. The package portrays a WWII-era woman at her glamorous and sophisticated best—coiffed in face framing curls and wearing a blue gown that’s aglow with spangles.

Despite wartime shortages and restrictions, women were exhorted during the 1940s to keep up their appearance as a way to boost the morale of their military mates and fellow factory workers. Headlines such as “Feminine Role in National Defense Starts at Beauty Shop” were typical, and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles offered tips for maintaining a beauty routine while sticking to a budget that provided few funds for frills. After all, women didn’t put down their lipstick, face powder, or nail polish when they stepped in to fill gaps in the workforce, nor did they quit styling their hair.

My mom, Phyllis Renner

Many of the factories that employed female workers were savvy enough to understand the complex relationship between home front productivity and beauty rituals, so they installed onsite salons where a woman could get a manicure or a perm between shifts.

Imagine a woman, exhausted after a long shift at an airplane factory, stopping by her local five and dime for a hair net to keep her ‘do in place as she riveted pieces of a B-52 together. The patriotic design of the Miss Freedom hair net envelope would have caught the eye of any “Rosie the Riveter,” and the practical contents would have enabled a woman to volunteer at the local Red Cross, plant a victory garden, and build a tank all without mussing her hair.

The Miss Freedom hair net package recalls for me the women of the Greatest Generation—especially my mother. My mom, Phyllis, worked for Cadillac in Detroit during WWII and she shared with me during my childhood stories of her wartime experiences, particularly how she and her friends scrimped and saved to buy the everyday beauty products we take for granted. My mom passed away over the Fourth of July weekend eight years ago, so the holiday is a melancholy time for me. This year when I think of her I will also mediate on the bravery and beauty of the women of her generation—and l will try to live up to the example they set.


The roles that women played during World War II were as complex and contradictory as at any time in history. On the home front they were wives, mothers, sweethearts, factory workers, and taxi drivers.  War time propaganda encouraged women to keep the home fires burning, while simultaneously raising children and driving rivets into the hull of a destroyer or the fuselage of a bomber.


I have noticed that one phrase appeared consistently in wartime articles on make-up and fashion, and that was “morale is woman’s business”. It was made clear that in addition to any other responsibilities she may have had, it was a woman’s patriotic duty to look her best at all times. The business of morale was taken seriously, and countless articles were written to advise women on how to be competent, effective war workers, and yet remain attractive and cheerful companions.


While the women of the home front were keeping things on track, servicemen needed to be reminded why they were fighting, and what they were fighting for; and nothing sent a clearer message than a gorgeous pin-up picture.  Hollywood stars Rita Hayworth, Jane Russell and Betty Grable were the three most popular pin-up girls of the era, and their photos accompanied soldiers in their footlockers around the world. Five million copies of Rita Hayworth’s picture were sold; that number exceeded only by Betty Grable’s iconic photo.


Photos from home were crucial to a fighting man’s morale, but sometimes a candid snapshot wasn’t good enough. I found an article in the Los Angeles Times from October 1943 entitled “Send Him Your Picture”. The article described in detail how to apply make-up for a professional portrait, and it also provided tips on what to wear and whether or not to apply whitener to your teeth. This all speaks to the significance of the pin-up photo during the war. The pin-ups weren’t merely masturbatory tools for lonely troops, but they were a necessary, if idealized, connection to home.


 Not surprisingly, the focus of home front culture was on victory. There were victory gardens, victory pins (to wear on your sweater or jacket), and there was victory lipstick.  Victory lipstick came in tubes made of paper, plastic, or wood because metal was required for the war effort.


Jergens wasn’t alone in using patriotic themes in their advertising, but they put an imaginative spin on it when they hired world class pin-up artist Alberto Vargas to create both a package design and an ad that urged women to “be his pin-up girl”. And of course it was Vargas, among other pin-up artists, who inspired some truly glorious nose art (art that graced the fuselage of many of the aircraft during the war).


It’s plain to see that Jergens grasped the relationship between pin-up art and the woman’s business of morale and used it masterfully to their advantage.


The pin-up girl ad campaign appears to have run during 1944, and the face powder box with the Vargas art turns up in ads for about a year following the end of the war in 1945.