Red lips are the little black dress of beauty: fearless, timeless and feminine. In fact, despite what you may believe, men typically favour red lips on women. A study undertaken in Manchester University presented groups of men a series of random images of women and concluded that females with red lips received “the most prolonged gaze” and dilation in pupils.
With our lips being the body’s most exposed erogenous zone, even the softest brush against their sensitive nerve endings releases feel-good endorphins – so highlighting this zone in a bold hue makes sense when attracting a partner.
The history of red lipstick is surprisingly tempestuous. Today it may be a powerful symbol of female beauty in the Western world, but the potential it employs has caused ‘the red lip’ to be controlled and condemned in times past for “deceiving men” and “undermining class divides”. Throughout history, the ingredients utilised to create red lipstick have varied profoundly, however one variable remains consistent: women are willing to put almost anything on their lips to achieve the allure of a perfect scarlet pout, even if this results in exposure to toxic chemicals, risking arrest or social exile.
THE STYLE EDIT takes a look back at the origins of the beloved red lipstick…
Many historians consider the true birth of lip painting to have derived in Ancient Egypt, when both men and women rouged their lips using a mixture of red ochre, carmine, and wax or fat.
While in Ancient Greece women were discouraged from wearing lipstick in public, with the exception of prostitutes, who possessed extra legal power that afforded them the right to flaunt scarlet lip paint – often made with ingredients such as red dye, crocodile excrement and sheep sweat. However, as a result this led to the first known restrictive law related to lipstick, which dictated that prostitutes could be punished for improperly posing as ladies if they appeared without their designated lip paint.
In Ancient Rome, law was more lenient, so red lipstick was worn more wildly by both genders throughout the Empire. Although it typically contained potentially deadly volumes of toxic ingredients and served as a way to distinguish social rank and class.
By the 1500s, pastors attempted to denounce lip painting as the “devil’s work”. However royalty, including Queen Elizabeth I, continued to use a mixture of fig milk, cochineal, egg white and Gum Arabic to create lip paint – which in turn, made crimson lips a quintessential element of Elizabethan fashion. By the 1600s, clergymen continued to fight against the perceived ‘sin’ of lip colouring, while English citizens (including many respectable men) continued to use various hues of red to distinguish between social classes.
In 1770, the British government passed a new law that formally condemned lipstick on the basis that “women found guilty of seducing men into matrimony by cosmetic means could be tried for witchcraft.” Taking their lead from England, some American states also “protected” men from the “trickery” of lipstick by allowing a marriage to be annulled if the wife had used lip colour during the couple’s courtship.
The Early 1900s
By the turn of the 20th century, makeup including red lipstick, had become socially acceptable worldwide. In 1912 suffragettes took to the streets of New York wearing bright red lipstick, creating the most infamous manifestation of the symbolic cosmetic. After centuries of male authority restricting the female use of lipstick for religious and moral reasons, red lip paint became a true symbol of female rebellion.
In 1915, American inventor Maurice Levy created the first lip colour in a sliding metal tube – the first incarnation of lipstick as we know it today. However, despite this advancement in design, the common American recipe of crushed insects, olive oil and beeswax meant that these lipsticks would turn rancid several hours after application. Furthermore, as Congress didn’t pass an effective act to protect the safety of cosmetics until 1938, many formulas still contained harmful and often toxic ingredients.
By the 1920s the growing popularity of mainstream motion pictures began to diminish prejudices against red lipstick. The female public attempted to replicate their favourite silent film starlets by wearing bold, exaggerated dark lips. Trademark pouts, such as Mae Murray’s ‘bee-stung lips’ and Clara Bow’s ‘cupid bow’ became the desired aesthetic.
Cosmetic brands cashed in on World War II, generating politically charged advertising campaigns for lipstick colours such as ‘Victory Red’, suggesting women should embrace their beauty regime as part of their civic duty in times of hardship. One slogan advert for Tangee lipstick boldly declared: “No lipstick… will win the war. But it symbolises one of the reasons why we are fighting – the precious right of women to be feminine and lovely under any circumstances.”
In the early 1950s Revlon launched the iconic ‘Fire and Ice’ advertising campaign – now considered one of the most effective campaigns in the history of the cosmetic industry. The double-page advertisement included a list of fifteen questions to test if a reader’s personality was suited the bold red lipstick shown on model Dorian Leigh. Questions such as: “Do you think that any man really understands you?”, “Have you ever danced with your shoes off?”. As a response stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor adopted their own signature shades of crimson, making red lipstick the ultimate in statement make-up at this time.
1960s – 1970s
The popularity of red lipstick took a nosedive as the 60s hit, and bold hues gave way to neutrals shades favoured by mod fashion. By the 70s a fresh-faced, natural beauty look was introduced by the ‘hippy culture’ that swept across the decade, while modern feminist groups denounced lipstick for being “solely intended for the pleasure of men”.
With the arrival of the 80s came a bold and brash take on red lippy, as the likes of Madonna embraced the dramatic red lip. Come the 90s and the close of the millennium, paler toners and a pull towards muted shades became the latest fashion – many women chose to match their make up to their colouring, skin tone or mood – rather than following one shade or fad.
Today, just about anything goes – a perfect pout in a regal red or captivating crimson works on any woman, any day. In most places in the world, women have the creative freedom to flaunt bold red lips without the fear of damnation or persecution – and all individuals have become freer to use make-up to express themselves – regardless of gender or social status. How do you wear yours…?
Eve Brannon, Fashion and Features Editor