On the Banksy website there was a section called Manifesto which quoted an extract from the diary of Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin DSO, who was among the first British soldiers to liberate Bergen-Belsen in 1945. The extract was rather lengthy and much of it fairly tough-going, but Willett Gonin notes, eventually, the arrival in the camp of a very large quantity of lipstick.
I don’t know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.
Neither Willett Gronin nor Banksy remind us that most of the liberators and relief workers at the camp had great difficulty in recognizing the female internees as women.
The Nazis had successfully stripped them, almost entirely, of a meaningful sense of identity. The liberators were completely unprepared for what faced them inside the gates of the camp. And even with the evidence of their own eyes, many of the liberators were so traumatized that they could not overcome their own preconceptions. The image of humanity was so twisted and distorted that it had become unrecognizable.
In these circumstances it is not surprising that those women welcomed the protective mask of lipstick and clothing.