I know it’s silly, but lately, I’ve been dreaming of red lipstick. And so, this week — while wearing my mask and observing proper social distancing — I raced to the drug store and bought myself a tube of ruby-red. I rushed home, applied it, and instantly felt better.
What is it about red lipstick that’s so oh la la?
Well, I’m here to answer the question and provide a brief respite from all things pandemical and political! So, please pucker up for this peek at the fascinating and fanciful history of red lipstick.
Red Lipstick – Immortal or Immoral?
Some 5,000 years ago, Sumerians invented lipstick out of crushed gemstones and white lead. Then, those trendy “Walk Like an Egyptian” Egyptian women — and men — embraced the idea, crushing bugs and fish scales (!) to get that kissable crimson color for their lips.
Egyptians so embraced red lipstick, they opted to be buried with pots of it, believing that red lips were a sign of immortality.
But from the promise of immortality, red lips made a quick symbolic detour to immorality.
In Ancient Greece, prostitutes were required to wear red lipstick to set themselves apart from the “good” women of the state. The stigma associated with red lips then stuck around for centuries and centuries.
God-fearing folk viewed red lipstick and make-up in general as signs of overt sexuality and proof a woman was communing with the devil. Make-up was an afront to God’s skill in creating the beauty of a woman’s unadorned face. Plus it was seen as a trick designed to entice men to sin.
Yes, a ruby-lipped wench was destined for Hell and damnation — even if she looked damned good getting there!
At various points in history, Church (and the State in England) passed laws forbidding the use of make-up, red lipstick in particular.
Even powerful Queen Elizabeth I, noted for her ruby lips, could provide but a brief regal respite from red lipstick’s official condemnation.
Suffragettes See Red!
In fact, it wasn’t until the early 20th Century that red lipstick started earning a patina of societal respectability. Ironically, it was, in part, due to the women’s right to vote moment!
In 1912, thousands of suffragettes were marching in NYC. When they passed the salon of cosmetics maven (and sister-suffragette) Elizabeth Arden, she distributed tubes of bright red lipstick. It wasn’t a beauty statement, but one of protest and solidarity — all in step with suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who loved red lipstick’s power to shock men. (Information thanks to CNN.)
Red Lips and WWII
Later, during World War II, “Loose Lips Sink Ships” was a famous warning but red lips were a thing too!
Reportedly, Adolf Hitler hated red lipstick. So, in Allied countries, wearing it became a sign of patriotism and a statement against fascism. When taxes made lipstick prohibitively expensive in England, women stained their lips with beet juice. (This historical tidbit from Red Lipstick: An Ode to a Beauty Icon by Rachel Felder.)
Red Lipstick and Hollywood
Here in the U.S., ruby reds came into their pouty glory during Hollywood’s Golden Age, with the rise of Technicolor films and glamorous studio portraits. Think the 1930s’ Blonde Bombshell Jean Harlow, 1940s’ femme fatale Veronica Lake, and 1950s’ sultry Marilyn Monroe.
Still, What is the Deal?
Even armed with all this history, I still didn’t get why women — and men — are so gah-gah over red lipstick.
Well, according to one article I read, “there is now scientific proof that red is the best colour to wear on your lips daily, as researchers have found that it makes you seem more confident, sexy and youthful to those around you.”
But still, “sexy?” That psychologist has obviously never seen the stain red lipstick leaves on my coffee cup. That just signals a red-hot cleaning mess! And let’s not even talk about the smear on my teeth!
Red Lipstick or No Lips
Still, sexy or not, this much I know — without lip color of some kind, my middle-aged pencil-thin lips just flat-out disappear. Maybe now with masks wearing so essential, maybe that’s why I’m obsessing over lipstick. I’m just worried that I’ll wake up one morning and find my lips will have completely disappeared!
Even in my youth, I was a thin-lipped gal. These days to combat aging’ thinning affect and gravitational downward pull, I pile on so much lip liner, color, and gloss that when Handsome Hubby goes to kiss me, he practically slides off! Oh, well, what price beauty — at least from afar or from a selfie!
And a final word of caution: if you’re suddenly inspired to go ruby-lipped while wearing a mask, be sure to pick a brand with staying power. Otherwise, you’ll look like you’ve been sucker-punched!