There is a wonderful history of red lipstick from Cleopatra to witches, power to politics, harlots to vogue, lovers to mothers the golden age of Hollywood to present-day on Instagram. It is a tale of power, death, rebellion, and bawdiness. It is of course so easy to align it with ladies ‘other lips’ their vaginas. Find out more in Daring, Dangerous & Delightful The Red Lip, Here. Image on left with thanks to Phyllis Cohen/Face-lace.com
From the earliest of even biblical days, women painted their lips red using red fruits and berries to make themselves more attractive. Some smeared it on despite the stigma, while others literally poisoned themselves with toxic lipstick formulas in order to look beautiful. Powerful women used it to assert their space, and others used it to build courage and flirt.
Coco Chanel said
“If you’re sad, add more lipstick and attack.” Wearing a bold red can give a feeling of power, making one feel like a different version of themselves.
As mentioned in biblical times initially, ladies would take red fruits and stain their lips (and cheeks) then came the crushing of rare gems and crushed animals mixed with wax /resins oils, etc to make a lipstick (think Cleopatra), fish scales, ants, fruit and flowers were mixed with then with white lead, which is where the idea of deadly women with red lips comes from – think fem- fatal; Lipsticks were literally poison.
This would slowly poison and disfigure the wearer until they died of lead poisoning, does this give us the phrase “kiss of death,” we must wonder?
The first known regulation related to makeup, which determined that prostitutes without their trademark wine-stained lips could run into some trouble with the law. Prostitutes were expected to use lip colours and obvious makeup in public, or else they would be punished because it implied that they were deceitfully posing as ladies.
During the Middle Ages, people tended to go bare-faced, but not out of choice. Instead, the Church decided that painting one’s face was a challenge to God and his workmanship, and banned their use. Dark and Middle Ages saw a strict policy against lip rouge, however Queen Elizabeth I paid no attention to the Church’s fire and brimstone.
So devoted was she to her lip shade, that she went as far as believing it had magical powers, suspecting that it had the ability to heal and ward off death.
Victorian era in the late 1800’s, red lipstick was still seen as something uncomfortably shocking. This fact that only egged on French actress Sarah Bernhardt, notorious for applying her lipstick at cafes and street corners.
Applying makeup in those days was considered an intimate act simply because it wasn’t done in public. So the logic goes that applying it in public made men think of the boudoir where most women beautified themselves. It was also done with a brush, so it was a fairly sensual process.
The first and most famous public demonstration of red lipstick was performed by suffragettes as they poured into the New York streets in protest in 1912. Supposedly Elizabeth Arden herself was handing out lipsticks to marching suffragettes.
Whilst the explicit intention of the suffragists was Votes for Women, the implicit message was that whether they were ‘New Women’ cycling in bloomers and sensible shoes, or elegant ladies in big hats and bright lipstick, women should be free to choose what they wanted to look like and who they wanted to be.
In 1915, the first lip colour in a sliding metal tube was pushed into the market by inventor Maurice Levy, freeing women from the messy task of applying paper-wrapped red. Therefore they were now much easier to carry around.
Thanks to Tinseltown and silent film stars like Clara Bow. Women saw them in the movies and wanted to emulate their looks and personality. They became the model of what was attractive in women so it was easy to use their likenesses to sell products. So by the ’30s, Vogue declared that lipstick was the most important cosmetic for women, officially taking away its past taboo.
With the start of World War II red lipstick took on a patriotic spin, turning the morning routine into a civic duty that gave Hitler the finger. “Hitler hated red lipstick and would not allow any women around him to wear it since he claimed it contained animal fat from sewage,” So much so that the government ordered factory dressing rooms to be stocked with lipstick to keep up female workers’ efficiency.
By the ’50s, a magazine ad changed the way women looked at the lipsticks in their purses, linking it to women that seldom stay well behaved. Revlon’s iconic “Fire & Ice” campaign, split women into two categories via a quiz with questions like, “would you streak your hair with platinum without consulting your husband” and, “have you ever danced with your shoes off?” that would help them determine if they were “naughty or nice.
It sparked interest in women because of the fact that it had questions that would qualify you as being either a good girl or a bad girl, more demure or daring more than one layer as a woman. A 1937 survey revealed that over 50% of teenage girls fought with their parents about wearing lipstick. It was implied that girls who wore red lipstick acted provocatively. By the 1960s, lipstick had solidified as a symbol of femininity and has maintained this status into the 21st century.
In 2018 in Nicaragua, women and men wore red lipstick and uploaded photos of themselves to social media to show their support for the release of anti-government protesters. They were reacting to activist Marlén Chow, who defied her interrogators by applying red lipstick. Nearly 10,000 women in Chile took to the streets wearing black blindfolds, red scarves, and red lips to denounce sexual violence in the country.
By wearing red lips, protesters all over the world have tapped into the same power the suffrage movement once plumbed a century earlier. In this bold, defiant beauty statement, their legacy lives on.
Today, most red lipsticks are still pigmented with crushed-up bugs called cochineal or using synthetic dyes like Red 22. While these lipsticks may achieve a glamorous red shade, they are harmful to animals and our health.
“There is a shade of red for every woman.”