Secrets of the Lavender Girls

Written by Kate Thompson
Review by Helen Johnson

World War II, and three girls work on the factory line in the East End of London. But these girls don’t pack munitions. They pack lipstick. And, like young women since the dawn of time, what’s foremost in their minds is not the War, but clothes, makeup and men.

Thompson brings to life the fashions, the smells and the banter of women working at Yardley’s cosmetics, famous for its lavender scent. Each girl puts on a ‘face’ – both makeup and the light-hearted banter on the factory line – because each girl has a secret problem at home. It would be a plot spoiler to reveal these problems, but the resulting arguments produce far more distress than the War.

This is a read that has all the elements of commercial women’s fiction: handsome and devoted lovers, glamorous clothing, grief swiftly comforted by solid friendships. The War is not centre stage: it’s a backdrop, just one more element in the complicated lives of London’s East End.

And yet, Thompson’s work is underpinned by strong historical research. Each girl’s secret problem is rooted in lesser-publicised social histories of the War. The girls’ focus on clothes and men is entirely natural – think of people today, worrying about haircuts in the midst of a deadly pandemic. And, Thompson comments in her excellent author’s notes, Churchill ‘weaponised’ lipstick. He declared that ‘beauty is your duty’, fearing that if women neglected their appearance, it would lead to a general collapse in morale. Red lipstick – rumoured to be hated by Hitler – became a potent symbol of defiance. Cosmetics firms such as Yardley rose to the challenge.

This book will appeal to readers who enjoy stories of strong female friendship, desirable lovers, students of fashion history, and nostalgia for those who remember the camaraderie of working on a factory line.