The Liquid Stockings Craze of the 1940s

Adolf Hitler’s vision of an Aryan future didn’t just include fair-skinned people with blond hair—it also included women sans makeup. He even demanded women visiting his country retreat “avoid excessive cosmetics, avoid red lipstick, and on no account, ever, are they to color their nails.”¹

That’s an aesthetic white conservatives continue to idolize today. But overseas in 1940s America, makeup earned a different reputation, that of American patriotism.

Serve your country and serve face!

It’s a startling contrast from Hitler’s Germany, where women were encouraged to stay at home and bear children. In America, white women joined the workforce in droves. Their beauty rituals took center stage as an American duty, boosting morale.

In The Feminist Politics of Choice: Lipstick as a Marketplace Icon, Lauren Gurrieri and Jenna M. Drenton write:

Red lipstick, which was despised by Adolf Hitler, became a symbol of resilient femininity and patriotism (Goodman 1998; Yesil 2004). This was reflected in the names given to lipsticks, including ‘Fighting Red!’, ‘Patriot Red!’ and ‘Grenadier Red!’. Even wartime propaganda posters, like the iconic Rosie the Riveter image, depicted women with soft red lipstick. Lipstick was also used to boost morale, with the bathrooms of munitions factories in which women worked stocked with red lipsticks such as Elizabeth Arden’s ‘Victory Red’ to foster worker efficiency.

But this didn’t just include lipstick. Beautifying themselves in any way, from applying foundation to bearing silky smooth legs, became a patriotic duty.

Here begins the story of a 1940s beauty oddity: Liquid stockings.

A woman applies liquid stockings while exposing most of her thigh—a scintillating image for sure in 1940s America. From The Minneapolis Star, published December 1, 1940.

The Rise of Liquid Stockings

In 1938, DuPont revolutionized fashion by creating nylon, a silk-like synthetic fiber that gave stockings a sensual sheen. Prior to this, most women used stockings made from natural materials, such as silk or cotton.

Women eagerly bought it en masse, but the craze didn’t last long. As Hitler waged war in Europe, DuPont reallocated its nylon for military parachutes, leaving store shelves bare. To make matters more complicated, America’s fight against Japan meant a shortage of silk stockings too. Any silk stockings available became obscenely expensive.

Knowing this, beauty brands capitalized off an idea originating from Hollywood: Painted on hosiery. As explained in The Minneapolis Star on December 1, 1940:

Making this technique readily available to consumers proved challenging, however. Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, two brands which sold liquid stockings early on, reportedly had numerous issues—streaking and poor adherence being the biggest. Newspapers quipped about the poor women who, upon having a “close encounter” with a male love interest, inadvertently rubbed their leg makeup onto his clothes.

In response, columnists began dispensing advice to make the process easier. Jacqueline Hunt recommended exfoliating the legs prior to application and using a scented depilatory cream. Others advised using a piece of cotton or “cupped palms” to smooth it on, depending on the makeup chosen. By 1942, it existed in three main forms: Liquid, lotion, or stick.

Apparently women continued to struggle to apply it. Alas, the labor of looking beautiful!

Advice given by Ann Dean in The Boston Globe, published June 18, 1942.

So what could beauty brands do? Ah, an easy solution: Let the professionals do it instead. By 1942, department stores welcomed the first full service leg bar. I believe Helena Rubenstein was the first brand to enter this venture. Her niece, Mala Rubinstein, opened a first-of-its-kind leg bar in Boston in June 1942.

Source: The Boston Globe.

Reading about the services they offered is tantalizing—I’ll admit, I wish leg bars still existed today! In addition to removing leg hair with depilatory cream, lotioning the legs and drawing on fake seam lines, some bars offered leg massages and masks.

An example of the services offered by a leg bar, posted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1943.

Unfortunately, these services were made available to a select audience, as segregation and racism permeated the beauty industry. Leg bars only offered shades agreeable for white women. Even if a Black woman desired these services, department stores routinely turned away Black clientele.

Speaking to Forbes, Traci Parker, Assistant Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, explains further:

Department stores, in short, promoted racial democracy, a system in which liberty and justice are extended to citizens of one race and at the expense of another. [African American customers] were provided uneven, unequal service. They were routinely refused service at lunch counters, restaurants, and beauty shops. They were forbidden use of dressing rooms and restrooms, were prohibited from trying on and returning clothes, and could be arbitrarily refused entrance or service at any moment.

Instead, they relied on a Black beauty staple: Direct mail orders. In rural America, Black women obtained makeup from local sales representatives—perhaps, somebody they knew from church—showcasing various Black brands to them. One of them, La Jac, sold its own leg makeup too.

This multi-purpose product was used for the face and legs.
For size comparison, the bottle posed next to my face.

The History of La Jac

When La Jac began selling its own leg makeup, it had already been in business for nearly 20 years. But the brand wasn’t Black-owned: Two Jewish chemists, Morris Shapiro and Joseph Menke, created Keystone Laboratories in 1926, subsequently giving birth to its Black beauty line.²

The reason? They recognized a demographic largely ignored by mainstream beauty brands in the rural south. At the time, some Black women resorted to making homemade cosmetics, as the makeup available rarely catered to anyone with dark skin. For Black women with lighter skin, they still faced serious hurdles – being refused service at stores being a chief concern.

La Jac provided various cosmetics to meet this growing demand. A decade later, the pair split up, with Shapiro co-founding Lucky Heart Laboratories in 1936, which sold its own line of Black cosmetics. Both brands solely relied on direct mail orders, however.

As explained in a High Ground News interview by Jeremy Stein, general manager for Lucky Heart Laboratories:

We were told by some of the older reps and customers that in many of the towns and cities in Mississippi, African-Americans were not allowed in the store. The sales reps lived in the regions and maintained on-going relationships with customers and their jobs generated extra income for their families.

La Jac continued to thrive under the ownership of Joseph Menke as World War II raged on, thanks to the success of its direct sales representatives. I purchased a vintage bottle of its Liquid Face Powder and Leg Makeup from a seller in Atlanta, where business did well.

The instructions on the back of the bottle.

To use, La Jac recommends applying it on “completely smooth, hair-free” legs using cupped palms, starting at the back. Due to a lack of information about this brand, I’m unable to determine if they sold their own depilatory cream. My best guess is no—they don’t recommend one in the instructions, though their Cold Nile cleansing cream is recommended for face prep.

Information on this product remains scarce as well. I’m guessing La Jac discontinued it once Du Pont began making nylon available once again after Japan’s surrender. Mainstream brands struggled to make liquid stockings popular even when nylon stockings became scarce.

It’s an intriguing addition to my collection for sure. But as is the story with most vintage makeup, it’s marred by a lifelong legacy of racism that still permeates the beauty industry today.



¹ Quote is from Madeleine Marsh, author of Compacts and Cosmetics, which appears in the article “Red lipstick is a feminist statement – literally!”

² Various sources claim Keystone Laboratories was founded in 1923 or 1926. However, this court document states it was founded in 1926, which I consider a trustworthy source.

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