Regan Lavin

I don’t know about you, but I love my red lipstick.  I wear it all the time. It brightens up any look,brings out the green in my eyes, and, depending on which shade of red you pick, compliments any outfit.  Most importantly, my red lipstick makes me feel like a total bada**. As Dita von Teese has said, “Heels and red lipstick will put the fear of God into people.”  When I wear it, I feel like I could take on the entire world. I got a bit curious the other day and decided to research its history so I could share it with all of you.  Hang on for the ride.


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~3,500 BCE

The estimated first usage of lipstick.  Ancient Sumerians crushed gemstones to wear on their faces as decoration.

Women in the Indus Valley would use red tinted lipstick.

Ancient Egyptians would crush bugs and mix them with wax, ochre, and carmine to apply on their lips.  As gross as these ingredients sound, it serves as a reminder to always be super diligent about the ingredients of your makeup!  In Egypt, lipstick was used as a symbol of status. Men and women alike wore it. Interesting considering how stigmatized men’s makeup is nowadays!  Looks like the Ancient Egyptians were way ahead of us with gender stereotypes (at least in the realm of makeup)!

In Ancient Greece, prostitutes often wore red lip paint (made out of ingredients such as red dye and crocodile feces).  Eventually a law was passed that allowed punishment of prostitutes if they didn’t wear red lipstick, because it was thought that they were trying to pretend they were ladies.

In Ancient Rome, women were not punished for wearing lipstick.  Like Egyptians, Romans used it to depict status. Both men and women wore it.

It should be noted that most of these lipsticks were extremely toxic (yikes)!

~500-1400 CE

During the Tang Dynasty, the Chinese made some of the first lipsticks with beeswax in them in order to protect the lips themselves, and scented oils were added into the mix.

Australian Aboriginal—meaning indigenous to Australia— girls would wear red on their lips for puberty rituals (these rituals signify a girl’s rite of passage into womanhood, usually marked by the arrival of her period).

While red lips were an integral part of rituals in Australia, during the Middle Ages and Medieval times in Europe, it was scorned.  The Church decreed that makeup was a challenge to God, or the work of the devil.

The Elizabethan Era (1558-1603)

Queen Elizabeth always set the beauty standards of her time.  She was very pale (a symbol of status in these times) and wore bright red lipstick.  The Church still condemned it, but Queen Elizabeth was an Anglican (England had recently broken off from the Catholic Church) so this didn’t bother her.  She even believed that lipstick had magical powers and could heal people and prevent death.

After she died, red lipstick was made illegal once again..

The Eighteenth Century

England, and many American states, both before and after the revolution, condemned wearing lipstick.  This was done on the basis that it tricked men into marrying women, and women could even be tried for witchcraft for such an offense.  Obviously, men thinking women wear makeup just to impress them has been A Thing for quite a while now.

In France, the opposite was the case.  Upper class women wore makeup, even opting for quite obvious makeup (such as red lipstick).  A natural-looking face was considered the look of prostitutes. This attitude towards makeup is different because what makeup represented was different in the two countries.  In France, makeup was a sign of class status. Cosmetics were used to show that someone had wealth and was part of the aristocracy. Because of this, not only did the French wear makeup, but they had very obvious makeup looks.  Since prostitutes were generally very low-status, it makes sense that they wouldn’t have worn makeup. In England, on the other hand, was staunchly against makeup due to both religious and sexist reasons.

The Victorian Era (1837-1901)

In the beginning of the Victorian Era, lipstick was still seen as a staple of actors and prostitutes.  French actress Sarah Bernhardt was known to apply her lipstick publicly, which caused huge scandals because it was seen as quite a seductive process.

However, women found other ways to redden their lips.  They would bite them, suck on lemons, or rub rosy crepe paper or red ribbons on their lips.  There were also underground lip rouge societies where women would trade recipes. Guerlain released and sold its first successful cosmetic lipstick in 1884 (it was made of castor oil, beeswax, and grapefruit). Before this, lipstick was made at home.  This was a very big deal because it signified a cultural shift towards normalizing lipstick.

The Early Twentieth Century (1900-1920)

In 1912, American suffragettes marched through the streets of New York wearing bright red lipstick, which was one of red lipstick’s first positive, public moments.  Suffragettes used it to symbolically rebel against the patriarchy. It was said that Elizabeth Arden herself handed lipstick out to the women.

Maurice Levy invented the first sliding tube for lipstick in 1915.  Before this, lipstick was either wrapped in paper or applied with a brush.  Both methods could get messy quickly. Levy’s invention made lipstick even more popular all in both the United States and Europe because its application was much easier and more convenient.

The Roaring Twenties (1920-1929) and the Great Depression (1928-1939)

Many silent film stars, such as Clara Bow, Greta Garbo, and Mae Murray, increased lipstick’s popularity by appearing with obviously and sharply drawn dark lips (for example, Bow was famous for her exaggerated cupid’s bow).

In 1933, Vogue declared lipstick was “the most important cosmetic for women.”  Even during the Great Depression, sales for lipstick were growing.

Elizabeth Arden and Estée Lauder started selling lipstick in stores.

World War II

Sales and advertisements for lipstick skyrocketed in an attempt to boost national pride.  Keeping up beauty routines was seen as civic duty because it would bolster morale for the troops.  Red lipstick especially was seen as being important. It was called “Victory Red.” Red was also one of the few ways women could feel feminine at the time.  They were working in the factories and had to have their hair tied back and out of the way. Furthermore, because of wartime shortages, clothes were generally not as decorative.

Hazel Bishop, in the late ‘40s, created the first long-lasting lipstick (you can thank her when you’re out ‘til 2 AM and your lipstick still doesn’t budge).

The 50s

In 1952, Revlon released its, now famous, “Fire and Ice” campaign.  The advertisement included a picture of Dorian Leigh (an early modelling icon) wearing a bright red lipstick, and 15 questions to test whether the reader’s personality suited the lipstick.  Here are the questions, in case you’d like to try the test yourself:

Have you ever danced with your shoes off?

Did you ever wish on a new moon?

Do you blush when you find yourself flirting?

When a recipe calls for one dash of bitters, do you think it’s better with two?

Do you secretly hope the next man you meet will be a psychiatrist?

Do you sometimes feel that other women resent you?

Have you ever wanted to wear an ankle bracelet?

Do sables excite you, even on other women?

Do you love to look up at a man?

Do you face crowded parties with panic- then wind up having a wonderful time?

Does gypsy music make you sad?

Do you think any man really understands you?

Would you streak your hair with platinum without consulting with your husband?

If tourist flights were running, would you take a trip to Mars?

Do you close your eyes when you’re kissed?

According to Revlon, if you can answer yes to at least 8 of these questions, then Fire and Ice is for you!

This quiz was so successful because it split women into “naughty” and “nice” categories according to the norms of the time.  To add fuel to the fire (and ice), actresses like Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, and Elizabeth Taylor were always shown wearing gorgeous shades of red.

The 60s-70s

Hippie culture and mod fashion came into vogue in the 60s (think more Twiggy than Taylor), causing a nude lip to start to win over red lipstick.  This was also the time of second-wave feminism, and many feminists declared that lipstick was solely for the enjoyment of men. This was when the mini skirt and birth control were invented, and also when the sexual revolution occurred.  Due to these circumstances, neutral lip colors that didn’t feed into men’s fantasies (and also would be less visible on men you were fooling around with) became more popular.

Not to fear for your favorite staple; disco saved the day in the mid-70s, and super glossy red lips made a come-back.  Punk counter-cultures also saw men starting to use lipstick again. Nearly a thousand years after the Egyptians made it cool, men’s lipstick finally came back into vogue!

The 80s-90s

The 80s was too focused on extremely bright colors, like neon pink, to be concerned with red.  However, Madonna (always such a babe) was known for wearing bright red lipstick.

The 90s saw nude, muted, and brown lipsticks.  This decade was also home to third-wave feminism (also known as “lipstick feminism”), which encouraged women to embrace their sexuality, oppose the patriarchy, and wear whatever lipstick they wanted.

Additionally, not testing on animals (and advertising this) started to become a thing in the 80s!  Snaps for lack of animal cruelty (Elle Woods and PETA would both be proud).


Now, thankfully, red lipstick is much less toxic (we don’t use lead anymore—hooray!)  Though Taylor Swift’s signature red lip definitely helped with a resurgence of red lipstick, very recently hues of all color have become more popular.  Urban Decay’s Vice Lipstick line sells almost all colors of the rainbow (I personally love Heroine, a deep, majestic blue), and Sephora sells its own line of liquid lipsticks in a variety of colors (I love my lavender one, but they have greens, yellows, blues, grays, and more!)  So if you want to go rock that red, feel free! As Audrey Hepburn says, “there is a shade of red for every woman,” so there is a red out there for you! However, any other color in the rainbow is also sure to make you look like an absolute kween.

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