We Never Clothed: The Wartime Negotiation of Female Sexuality in Picture Post.


Picture Post (1940) ‘Backstage 1940.’  19 October. 18-19

Picture Post (1939) ‘Air Raid Warden to Glamour Girl.’ 4 November. 30-31

Picture Post (1939) ‘What Our Readers Say: A Few Posers.’ 2 December. 51

Image may contain: one or more people

WWII is possibly the most iconic period for the Windmill Theatre. It was certainly prominent in the media at this time. This prominence was due in part to producer, Van Damm’s astute promotional skills but also to a popular media desperate for newsreel, newspaper, magazine & radio content but who were frequently hamstrung by the inherent unpredictability of war, issues of access & governmental restrictions on subjects covered in the interests of morale & public safety. The theatre’s determination to remain open, that ‘the show must go on’ was not only newsworthy, fitting into broader, nationwide & allied narratives of duty & patriotism, but the story also had additional mileage as a predictable, consistent background against which other more novel news stories could be placed.

As the war progressed & a balance needed to be struck between public restraint & keeping the British economy afloat, the popular media perpetuated a government-sanctioned discourse around female participation, patriotism & propriety which has since been termed by historian Pat Kirkham as ‘Beauty as Duty’, whereby ‘[British] women were exhorted to beautify themselves to keep up morale – not only the morale of the home front but also that of the men fighting abroad.’[1] This discourse offered media such as Picture Post a justification for their display & discussion of women’s sexuality & of the figure of the Windmill Girl.

In the context of wartime privation & shortage, being associated with glamour & frivolity could have been potentially damaging for the Windmill & the Windmill Girls. Instead though, through deft promotion & positioning, the theatre came to epitomise stoic British spirit in the face of hardship.

The theatre had a duty to ‘the boys’ in the armed forces to stay open and provide entertainment & a semblance of continuity, whilst its female performers had a duty to continue to project their glamorous showgirl/chorus girl identities in order to buoy up morale.

The wartime requirement for young British women to be stoic yet glamorous is effectively epitomised in a 1939 two-page pictorial feature in British middlebrow photo-paper Picture Post entitled ‘Air Raid Warden to Glamour Girl,’ on a showgirl from the Windmill Theatre.

Even more interestingly, this article appeared mid-way through an ongoing debate in the Picture Post’s ‘What Our Readers Say’ letters section, over the kinds of female representations it was appropriate for the Picture Post to show, spurred by the publication of a story featuring images of topless showgirls in a London nightclub. Whilst ‘Air Raid Warden to Glamour Girl’ does not feature images of topless female performers, it does allude to the borderline nature of its subject’s labour as a showgirl. It is notable that whilst the feature exploits the potentially titillating appeal offered by a pretty girl in a glamorous, exciting, urban profession, her conduct is framed very much in terms of women’s wartime participation & patriotism.

What is also notable, looking at the sample letter from the letters page featured her, which appeared on the Picture Post letters page shortly after the ‘Air Raid Warden to Glamour Girl’ feature ran, is that not all readers subscribed to the beauty as duty rhetoric or to the mythology around the theatre.

To return to the main #TheyNeverClothed exhibition catalogue page click here.


[1] Kirkham, P. (1995) ‘Beauty and Duty: Keeping Up the (Home) Front.’ In: Kirkham, P and Thoms, D. (eds.) War Culture: Social Change and Changing Experience in World War Two. London: Lawrence and Wishart. 13.