The history of red lipstick

Nothing oozes power and confidence more than a red lipstick. The simple action of swiping a sultry colour onto your lips is enough to carry you through anything. The deep berry tones, the strawberry sweet pout, or the bright sunset kiss has remained iconic for centuries. But when, actually, did the legacy of the red lipstick begin?

Red lipstick is timeless: the first red lipstick is traced to Mesopotamia over 5,000 years ago. It was created by crushing red rocks or gemstones and white lead into a powder and was worn by both women and men. 

Ancient Egyptians wore red lipstick in order to symbolise aristocracy, power, strength, and social status. Cleopatra is undeniably one of the most influential Egyptian rulers, and the beauty historian Rachel Weingarten says Cleopatra created her iconic red lipstick “out of flowers, red ocher, fish scales, crushed ants and carmine in a beeswax base to create her own signature red,” (the crushing of insects to create a red pigment is still used today).

Despite the aristocratic association red lipstick had in Egypt, Greece used red lipstick to signify prostitution. By law, prostitutes had to wear red lipstick in public, or else they would be punished for pretending to be ladies. 

Red lipstick was introduced to England in the 16th Century and this harmful association continued to have the same narrative. Lipstick had a ‘bad girl’ stigma. Although, it is worth noting that Queen Elizabeth I had many portraits painted of herself which depicted her as having very pale skin and very rouge lips. Whilst this would have condemned her if she was not royalty, due to her high status and wealth it was acceptable. She believed red lipstick possessed magical powers, suspecting it had the ability to heal and ward off death (she lived to 69 years old when the average life expectancy was 30-40 years old so maybe she was onto something here!). Unfortunately, the reverse is actually true. Her red lipstick contained ceruse – this slowly poisoned her until she died from lead poisoning. 

Following her death, England became increasingly hostile towards women wearing red lipstick in the 1700s. In the 18th Century, Parliament issued a decree that tried women for witchcraft if they seduced men into marriage by wearing lipstick. In 1770 a law was introduced that stated: a marriage could be annulled if a woman wore lipstick before her wedding day. This is because it was regarded as common, unladylike, undignified, and was associated with witchcraft and prostitution. This stereotype and belief managed to cross the oceans; some American states (such as Pennsylvania) also allowed men to get an annulment if his wife had worn lipstick in order to manipulate and trick him into marrying her. Again, it is worth nothing that Martha Washington still wore red lipstick (made from wax, horgs’ lard, and raisins). She was a wealthy woman and married the first President of the United States, so, similar to Elizabeth I, she did not face repercussions for wearing red lipstick.

For centuries it was associated with a bad reputation, yet women continued to wear it.  It wasn’t until the 1900s when it started to become acceptable, and in 1926 manufacturers introduced metal dispensers that twist-up for lipsticks (similar to modern packaging now). Sales were hugely successful and it began to be viewed from a more business lens. 

Tables have now completely turned. In 1933 Vogue proclaimed that putting on lipstick is one of the most important gestures of the 20th Century. It became a symbol of sexuality – but this was no longer critiqued, and instead women and men capitalised from it. 

In the 1940s, lipstick became much harder to buy as a result of World War II. The United States put money, resources, and raw materials towards their military goods instead; causing lipstick packaging to change to paper. This only reinforced the importance of lipstick. In 1948, 80-90% of American women wore lipstick, as it helped boost female morale during the war. 

In the 21st Century, red lipstick has never been so important and brands are constantly experimenting with new textures, shades, and finishes, so every person can find their perfect confidence-boost tube. 

The history of the red lipstick is an interesting one. It has been used to signify class (both high and low) and has been worn by both men and women throughout history. It led to the condemnation of women, yet this did not stop women craving and desiring red lipstick. This only goes to show that makeup is necessary: it has the power to improve moods and boost confidence, even in times of hardship. The influence of red lipstick began over 5000 years ago, but it’s legacy continues to be timeless, iconic, and expanding.

Featured image: Flickr by glycerin army with license 

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