What do the Ancient Egyptians, Queen Elizabeth I and Marilyn Monroe all have in common?
Besides being some of the world’s most memorable figures these women also rocked a famous red pout.
A symbol of sin, defiance, strength, or sexuality?
Ancient to Victorian Times: Red | A Controversial Colour
Lipstick, like perfume, is one luxury item that has existed for thousands of years. It is believed that the women of Ancient Mesopotamia (now Syria, Turkey and Iran) such as Queen Schub-ad of Ur were the first to wear lipstick, as well as the wealthy Ancient Egyptians who made the application of cosmetics a regular part of daily life.
These women usually made lip products from a variety of materials such as crushed gemstones, ocre, plant matter or dyes.
This practise was later perfected in middle ages by Islamic traders who created the first solid lipsticks such as those that we have today.
Although the use of lipstick in the Middle East, so it seems, was received with much gusto, its infiltration of European society was marked by a variety of criticisms.
Reactions to red lipsticks use in Ancient Greece varied, sometimes it was seen as an essential part of the Grecian woman’s beauty routine (along with hair dye and lead laden pastes that whitened the skin) though towards the end of the classical Greek period it was reserved for prostitutes who by law were required to wear it in public to visually mark their occupation and status.
In the thirteenth century the wearing of red lipstick was used in Italy as a form of social segregation, lower class women were expected to wear earthy red lip colours whilst upper class women wore shades of pink.After the ancient period, the church of early medieval Europe was the first to speak out against lipstick, banning it and claiming that it was a product of Satan. Associating it with wicked and lustful women such as prostitutes.
By the sixteenth century however, red lipstick became all the rage amongst the fashionable male and female aristocracy of the European courts.
Queen Elizabeth I of England was a huge fan and made her own crimson colour from a mixture of egg whites, fig milk, gum Arabic and cochineal.
Other evidence from this period suggests that red lipstick was also made from a mixture of beeswax and red dyes from plants.
Although the Queen of England and her court admirers were able to get away with wearing such things after the reign of Elizabeth, the wearing of red lipstick amongst other members of English society was criticised. In the seventeenth century, amongst times of great social and political turmoil, red lipstick, sometimes called ‘fucus’, was increasingly associated with the artificiality of those members of the court and their lavish lifestyle.
Cosmetics such as red lipstick and white face paint were seen as deceitful, making women more attractive than they really were, cheating honest men and those other individuals who viewed them. One English treatise against rouge in 1616 even stated that the very mentioning of it should stir up shame in honest women.
Apart from a brief stint in the late seventeenth century during the reign of the French influenced Charles II, for the women of England the next 300 years echoed similar sentiments.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, prostitutes were the only women seen to wear such bright red colours on the streets of London.
Interestingly however, across the channel in France it was a completely different story as French women continued to embrace cosmetics such as red lipstick and regarded the natural look as only for prostitutes. This, however, waned as the strict social norms of the 19th century emerged and once again red lipstick was reserved mainly for prostitutes and actresses.
20th Century: The Making of the Modern Woman
The first commercial lipstick was invented by French brand Guerlain in 1884 and over a 40 year period the use of this cosmetic item gained acceptance, becoming one of the most iconic beauty items of the early 20th century, a dominance which lasted from the 1920s until the early 1960s.
Dark red lipstick was all the rage amongst the flappers of the 1920s who wore it with short hair and short skirts to not only symbolise their independence but also to shock their elders. Others wore it in imitation of silent film idols such as Clara Bow.
By the 1930s lipstick had become big business, and recognisable brands such as Elizabeth Arden and Max Factor forged names for themselves.
During the Great Depression lipstick also became a symbol of resistance to the tough living situations that many women and their families faced world-wide. A survey of Depression-era households in the United States indicates that 58 per cent owned at least one tube of lipstick, and the cosmetics industry continued to prosper as women looked to these products for comfort -indicators of some sort of normality.
During this period women still worried about looking good, in fact to keep morale high, many governments such as the US actively encouraged women to maintain their beauty routines on the home front. As men went off to war and women entered the factories to do ‘men’s work’, red lipstick become a symbolic signal of femininity and strength. It was a simple way to maintain femininity whilst wearing dirty men’s factory overalls.
During this period Elizabeth Arden was invited to create a makeup kit for the American marine Corps Women’s Reserve, even creating a special shade of red to match their uniforms called ‘Montezuma Red’ which women were encouraged to wear in support of the US marine forces fighting overseas.
Lipstick had now become a national concern, seen as an important contribution to the war effort and sported most iconically by ‘pin-up’ girls, those women whose pictures were literally pinned up by soldiers above their bunks when they were far away from home.
After the war, and by the 1950s as large commercial industry resumed and consumerism was encouraged, cosmetics became more readily available and less expensive.
Inspired by glamourous Hollywood actresses such as Rita Hayworth, Elizabeth Taylor and, of course, Marilyn Monroe, the everyday woman indulged in numerous shades of red lipstick.
A survey completed in 1951 revealed that two-thirds of American teenage girls wore red lipstick in the 1950s. In fact during this time more American women wore lipstick (98 per cent) than brushed their teeth (96 per cent).
Forget diamonds – red lipstick was truly a girl’s best friend.
By the late 1960s makeup artistry began to place more emphasis on the eyes and on eye products, and by the 1970s the natural look was preferred.
As a result, red lipstick slowly fell out of everyday use.
However the last decade or so has seen the revival of red lipstick amongst the devotees of subcultures such as Rockabilly, or modern burlesque stars such as Dita Von Teese.
Singers such as Gwen Stefani, Christina Aguilera and Katy Perry, with their retro inspired looks have also helped to once again popularise this famous lipstick shade among the younger generations of today.
Red lipstick now more than ever is also synonymously associated with sexuality and sex appeal – a striking colour which draws attention to a woman’s pout.
So next time you think of putting on your favourite red lipstick consider the fascinating past of this iconic beauty item.