Rachel Felder’s latest book is Red Lipstick: An Ode to a Beauty Icon.
For the past few decades, I’ve had a single constant companion that has outlasted jobs, boyfriends, pets, homes and far too many passing fashion trends to mention. That steadfast partner-in-crime? Red lipstick.
I’m not alone, of course, in my passion for what many women consider the most treasured and essential item in their cosmetics arsenal. Celebrities love it. It’s become, in fact, virtually synonymous with a type of high wattage glamour that’s personified by actresses and a-listers, and seems to come automatically with fame.
Millions of women like me are devoted to it as well, thanks to the salient blend of confidence, intensity, sexiness and style that comes with coating one’s lips in crimson. It’s transformative: In the few seconds it takes to put it on, red lipstick makes the women who love it feel stronger, more polished and, yes, more attractive, too. Wearing it makes you part of a club – the “We’re Not Wallflowers Society”, if you will – that silently says you aren’t scared of drawing in people’s attention. The deliberate statement red lipstick makes – as opposed to, say, soft pink or neutral beigey brown – undeniably means business. It is both a sword and a shield: It arms you to face the day’s obstacles and protects you from them at the same time.
Not surprisingly, red lips and their message of emboldened and beautified lips have been popular for many centuries. Cleopatra’s lips were reddened, for example, using cochineal, which derives its deep carmine colour from pulverized bugs. (Her subjects made their lips redder, too, but their shade was more rust-based in tone, made from less expensive red ochre instead of pricier insects.) Many civilizations later, England’s Queen Elizabeth I wore it, in part because she felt that it would ward off evil spirits.
The modern, widespread popularity of red lipstick began in the late 19th-century. When Guerlain introduced an easily portable lipstick tube in 1884, colouring your lips literally came out of the boudoir, where many women stored the small jars of tinted powders and salves that would be used, sitting on a dressing table, for makeup application. In the years before that, red lips had gradually become something mysterious and provocative, linked with professions such as prostitution; the lipstick tube literally brought it out into the mainstream. In the late 1800s, women such as Sarah Bernhardt – a tastemaker who today would be described as an influencer, quite a few generations before Instagram – began applying their lipstick in public, which also helped push it into the zeitgeist.
The other major catalyst in our modern obsession with red lipstick was Hollywood. Although silent films were in black and white, the colour on the mouths of stars such as Clara Bow and Hedy Lamarr was unquestionably intended to appear to be red. A few decades later, red lipstick became linked with the elevated, sexy glamour of actresses such as Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. In the years between, the red lips of actresses on screen both reflected and inspired what everyday women wore on their lips. In historical films from the first half of the past decade, actresses typically wore red lipstick even if that wasn’t the accurate shade for the era of each movie’s setting – it just was lipstick.
For me, red lipstick was a liberating, rebellious fashion statement that became of an inherent part of my teenage years. In the era of my adolescence, many fashionable celebrities leaned towards wearing glossy, neutral shades on slim, understated lips: that natural, quiet look just didn’t suit me. My role models at the time, such as Debbie Harry and Siouxsie Sioux, chose to wear something very different: bright red lipstick that revelled in its volume. And so, red lipstick became my ubiquitous accessory, loud and unapologetic and, it certainly seemed at the time, very grown up. In a way, my attitude was similar to that of flappers in the 1920s: red lipstick was audacious, frank and spunky – I adored those qualities and adopted them as well. Wearing it became a rite of passage, a shift from something juvenile and parent-approved to an item and look that was truly mine. The ubiquity of red lipstick – and the affordability of being able to find it for just a couple dollars at a nearby drugstore – made it easily attainable.
Over the years, red lipstick became my trademark; I’ve come to rely on it to always look appropriate and fashionable, and help me feel strong and put together. Seeing other women wear it in a similar way – including, more recently, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the vocal American congresswoman – makes me smile with a quiet sense of shared sensibility.
Admittedly, not everyone is as loyal or passionate about red lipstick as I am – I know some women reserve it for special occasions, or think they can’t wear it. But, for me and my kindred spirits, it offers a potent, powerful, generally affordable hit that resonates even when spirits or finances are low. There is, for example, the lipstick index – the phenomenon, first acknowledged by Estée Lauder’s Chairman Emeritus Leonard Lauder, that lipstick sales go up during times of recession; red lipstick has a special spot in that axiom. (Indeed, Ruby Woo, the matte blue-red from Lauder-owned MAC Cosmetics, is purchased by an average of four women each minute.) Even after so many centuries, its appeal and impact show no signs of decline, and my love for it continues to grow with each and every crimson swipe.