Red lips have been a powerful symbol for hundreds of years. Photo credit: Rawpixel.
It’s not always easy to look and feel like the best version of ourselves. Sometimes, we need to rely on our staple favorites to deliver the boost of confidence needed to power through the day.
These staple favorites could be as simple as listening to your favorite song while getting ready in the morning, or wearing your most flattering pair of jeans, or a shade of lipstick. As different as these staple items may be, they all serve the same purpose — to strengthen our self-confidence and feel like the best version of ourselves.
But this isn’t always the case. A 2012 study done by The Renfrew Center Foundation, for example, found that nearly half of American women don’t feel confident leaving the house without makeup on.
For centuries cosmetics have been explored as a channel for artistic expression. Red lips in particular have fallen in and out of the hearts of many throughout time. Red lipstick is much more than just a shade of lipstick. It has been used as a passion paint for the perfect pout for centuries. But there is a much deeper history behind the beloved cult cosmetic.
The Birth of the Regal Red Lip
Red lipstick has stood as a simple, inexpensive accessory that builds on confidence while also making a bold statement. It is honored for its ability to pack strength, style and sexiness all into one small tube.
A crimson kiss has become an iconic look throughout time and stands today as one of the most powerful signifiers of beauty in the western world. But a classic staple such as red lipstick isn’t born overnight. Like all things great, this timeless look comes with a bit of a colorful, yet controversial history.
The first version of red lipstick is believed to have originated in southern Mesopotamia 3500 BC. Red lip paint was first used by early Sumerians. Ancient ruler, Queen Schub-Ad created a mixture of crushed red rock minerals and white lead to create a raw lip colorant, according to the Philadelphia-based Penn Museum.
Ancient Sumerians loved the lip pigment so much that they were buried with it (and other staple makeup pigments, too).
Makeup — particularly lip paint — was so popular that the trend survived to see the reign of Queen Cleopatra, who ruled from 51 BC to 30 BC, about 2,500 years later.
In ancient Egypt, makeup was worn by both men and women. The staple products used were dark kohl eyeliner and lip paint. Although the eyes were the main focus of the face, lip paint still played a major role.
Lip paint was especially popular with the upper class as it was a way to display status and wealth. Many early depictions of Cleopatra show that the queen herself was a fan of sporting a red lip. The queen’s signature red stood as a symbol of wealth, power and beauty, which many others attempted to emulate.
Cleopatra made her lip paint by adding insects to the mix, according to The Smithsonian’s Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style. The use of insects popularized the use of Carmine, a red pigment naturally found in female Cochineal Beetles. In fact, it is still found in cosmetics to this day! Other than crushed beetles, Cleopatra also used flower petals for color and scent; fish scales and beeswax to add moisture and shine; and red clay and crushed ants to achieve the regal red.
The Scarlet Lip
While the Egyptians cherished a painted face, the people of ancient Greece did not. In fact, women in ancient Greece were discouraged from wearing makeup in public. A bare face was the way of representing purity, wealth, and beauty. A painted face, however, was believed to be a tainted look, common among lower-class women and prostitutes.
According to a Harvard Law School report, entitled Reading Our Lips: The History of Lipstick Regulation in Western Seats of Power, red lip paint was reserved for prostitutes. Those women caught in public during certain hours of the day, or without their required lip paint, could be punished under Greek law for falsely posing as “ladies.” This was the first instance in history where makeup was used as a tool by those in power to create a narrative around women who chose to paint their faces.
The Greeks were the first to create regulations regarding makeup. The first law surrounding lipstick was put in place due to its potential to deceive men, and the ability lipstick had to defy defining its wearer’s social class based upon their looks. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only ancient civilization that had such strong opinions on the look of a painted pout. Flash forward to the Middle Ages, a bare face was the utmost standard of the time, thanks to the English Church’s ban on makeup.
At the time, people believed that wearing makeup was immodest and imposed on God’s natural beauty and grace. In the church’s eyes, a woman who wore makeup was a decent of Satan because of their ability to shapeshift beauty. Women were even made to confess their lipstick “sins” to the Church, according to Reading Our Lips.
Under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, red lipstick once again became all the rage. The Queen went against the church, and resurrected the painted face trend with her iconic stark white complexion and brooding red pout.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, hoarding luxury items became a way to flaunt one’s status. This influenced the bourgeoisie to collect forms of art, music, literature, and entertainment. Because of the newfound joy for the beautiful things, cosmetics made a comeback.
Lipstick had fallen back into the hearts of most across England. In fact, at one point it became so popular that it was even bartered as a form of currency. Many cherished the look as it once again became a way to determine status and wealth. The more vibrant red lipsticks represented wealth due to the richer ingredients required to make them, while a dull ochre-colored lipstick was most commonly sported by the lower class.
Regal red, end up Dead
Queen Elizabeth I was known to create her signature red lipstick. It is even believed that the lip pencil originated from the stead of Queen Elizabeth, more than likely crafted by one of her many servants. The Queen also used a white face paint mixture of white lead and vinegar, known as Venetian ceruse. She layered the paint on her face to achieve her famous porcelain doll look.
Sadly, at the time people were unaware of the dangers caused by the harmful ingredients used to create these beloved staple products. Dangerous ingredients like lead and mercury contributed to high levels of poison in the body.
Because cosmetics were not as accessible back then, it was common for women to leave makeup on until it faded away, really allowing these toxic ingredients to soak into the skin. Many women were unknowingly poisoning themselves over time. That resulted in hair loss, tooth decay, blackened skin, hysteria, and even death.
During Queen Elizabeth’s later years, she suffered from smallpox and the complications of deadly cosmetics. The Queen continued to paint her face on the daily, despite her illness. She would use Venetian ceruse to conceal smallpox scars and caked on the red lipstick, as she believed it possessed magical healing powers. However, her beloved “lippie” did exactly the opposite of that.
The Queen’s beauty regime eventually brought her to her demise. It’s rumored that at the time of her death, she was found with her lipstick layered an inch thick!
The Madonna-Whore Complex
When Queen Elizabeth died, the affection for makeup seemingly did too. In 1650, for example, a law was presented that called for restrictions on makeup and immodest dress. The law wasn’t passed as many viewed it as unfeasible. The hatred for makeup did not reappear again until the 1700s.
The Matrimonial Act of 1770 (aka the Hoops and Heels act of 1770) was a law put in place in England that banned the use of beauty aids. It also permitted husbands who felt as though they were deceived by their wife’s beauty to have the wife punished for acts of witchcraft. These punishments were sometimes as extreme as public death.
It wasn’t just makeup that was banned by the church. Any beauty altering substance was seen as ungodly, including items like perfume, cosmetic soaps, false teeth, artificial hair, Spanish wool, padded hips, and high heels. Common beauty aids of the time were considered a deception to men especially to the men who unknowingly wed women who used the products.
The idea that beauty aids were ungodly lasted into the Victorian era (1837-1901). Queen Victoria herself thought the idea of makeup was “impolite,” according to Read Our Lips.
The Victorians believed in the Madonna-whore complex; they were convinced that if a woman wore makeup, she was a “lady of the night.’’
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the Madonna-whore complex is an idea deeply rooted in society that works to categorize women as either the Madonna — “good” or the whore — “bad.”
The Madonna-whore complex is embedded in the history of cosmetics, and fades in and out of society along with the use of makeup.
The Red Door
In the early 1900s, lipstick began to take on the feminine power it holds today, thanks to the suffragette movement, which fought for womens’ rights to vote in public elections.
According to The History of Lipstick Regulation in Western Seats of Power, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman — leaders of the suffragette movement — believed that rouging the lips represented female emancipation.
Elizabeth Arden, founder of the long-standing cosmetics corporation, Elizabeth Arden, Inc. opened her first salon in 1910. The Red Door Salon was located on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Arden became one of the first female-run businesses to open in early 19th century New York.
Shortly after Arden opened The Red Door, the suffragette movement was at its peak. The suffragettes led a march down Fifth Avenue, making their way past The Red Door salon. In light of the movement, Arden created a special shade of lipstick called “Red Door Red.” She passed out tubes of the now legendary shade to the suffragettes passing by.
Arden created the lipstick with the intent to represent strength and power amongst the suffragettes who sported the shade. Some would say that this marked the beginning of the red lipstick revolution. This iconic lipstick is still available at Elizabeth Arden today.
Starlets of the Silver Screen to Beauties in the Battlefield
Following the suffragette movement, women began to experiment more with cosmetics and fashion, ultimately leading to the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood era (1920-1930).
Actresses Gloria Swanson, Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, Gretta Garbo, and even the cartoon Betty Boop, to name a few, began popularizing the trend even further through their on-screen appearances.
Pouted lips were the preferred look of the time. To achieve that scarlet pout, many actresses corrected the shape of their lips through the use of a lip pencil and lip crème, birthing the popular “Cupid’s Bow” lip shape.
With the start of World War II, red lipstick and patriotism worked hand-in-hand. Lipstick was once finally accepted by all and used by women of all ages. Working women were encouraged to sport a red lip as it was believed it would boost morale. It wasn’t unusual for the workplace to have a commonly shared red lipstick in the restroom.
During WWII, the lipstick business was booming. Lipstick in general was very popular in war times due to the rationing of supplies. It was much easier for women to afford a new lipstick than it was to treat themselves to a fancy new outfit.
It is claimed in an article by CNN, entitled Empowering, Alluring, Degenerate? The Evolution of Red Lipstick, that Adolf Hitler famously hated red lipstick. In true rebellious red lipstick fashion, this sparked a trend with even more women choosing to wear red.
In the 1950s, red lipstick took on a total transformation from the Madonna-whore complex to a symbol of patriotism in the public eye. The masses now had a new soft spot for cosmetics.
The 1950s is the era of bombshell beauty. Taking care of one’s image and always having a clean, polished look was an expectation at the time — even for housewives.
When one thinks of red lipstick and bombshell beauties, they think of the iconic Marilyn Monroe. Many consider Monroe to be the face of red lipstick, as she was rarely photographed without it. It is rumored that Monroe’s makeup artist, Whitey Snyder, would use five different shades of red to help contour Monroe’s’s lips into the iconic signature look we know today.
Of course, other actresses like Elizabeth Taylor, Rita Hayworth, and Jayne Mansfield rocked red lips because of the glamour and elegance it personified after the war. As such, women across America turned to red lipstick for a boost of confidence in an attempt to give off the same sexiness as the movie stars of the 50s.
In fact, red lipstick became the hottest mid-century trend, according to the Harvard report, Reading Our Lips, which showed that 98% of American women at the time wore lipstick, versus the 96% of women who brushed their teeth.
Lipstick, Sex and Rock ‘n Roll
During the 1960s and 70s, the red lip phased out. Instead, we were met with a more neutral and subdued trend of nudes, and coral shades of lipstick.
During the 60s mod era, popular supermodel Twiggy pioneered the look of dramatic eyes and a subtle lip. This was the opposite of the bold lip and simple eye makeup of the 50s.
Although red lipstick was no longer a favorite in the mainstream, it began to grow an underground following. As history began to repeat itself, the red lip once again became a symbol of rebellion, with its resurgence in the punk scene.
Popular punk artist of the time, Deborah Harry aka “Blondie” was known to rock the red. Other hues of rouge began to take the spotlight, as dark burgundy and violet reds stole the show.
The punk and alternative subculture opened up an opportunity for men to freely express their individuality through makeup. Red lipstick was adopted by the punk and alternative subculture as a way of expressing non-conformity. It also stood as a symbol of sexual expression.
The 1975 film Rocky Horror Picture Show, which features Tim Curry as the cross-dressing Dr. Frank-N-Furter, opens with a pair of red lips singing. Curry’s character also dons a shade of deep red. At the time of its release the movie wasn’t well-received. But now, nearly 40 years later, it is recognized for its progressive portrayal of sexual identity and liberation.
Male musicians also donned makeup at the time. Whether it was dark kohl eyeliner of rock ‘n roll – or full face makeup, the 70s and 80s were a time of freedom of expression. David Bowie, Prince, Kiss, and Boy George of Culture Club all managed to pave the way for other men to freely express their self-love and beauty through the art of makeup.
Bold Beauty of the 21st Century
Throughout history, red lips have been used as a tool to both dis-empower and empower its wearers — it even acted as a flag for women’s rights. Today powerful females continue to adorn the scarlet pout.
Take Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In an episode of Vogue’s Beauty Secrets series on YouTube, A.O.C walks us through her beauty routine.
She says that she initially chose red lipstick as her staple shade because it was a simple way to pull a look together. She also credits the love for the look to her culture, “Being Latina, this is very much our culture and where we come from, I will wear a red lip when I need a boost of confidence,” she shared.
Red lipstick has undergone a total transformation through time. But that doesn’t mean that it is any less powerful today than it was in ancient Mesopotamia.
Red lips represent strength and confidence at a glance. For the suffragettes, however, it acted as a bold statement of freedom; it opened paths for both men and women to openly express their sexuality; and it even acted as a form of rebellion against dictatorship.
One undeniable feature of red lipstick is its boldness. But the secret to rocking the look comes from within, and the best source of confidence is believing that you already have it.