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Fashion History Lesson: Red Lipstick Has a Tumultuous Past

If diamonds are a girl’s best friend, red lipstick is her fearless ally.
Taylor Swift.  Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Taylor Swift.  Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Welcome to our new column, Fashion History Lesson, in which we dive deep into the origin and evolution of the fashion industry's most influential and omnipresent businesses, icons, products and more. 

Red lipstick has had a surprisingly tumultuous history. It may be one of the most powerful symbols of female beauty and sexuality in the Western world, but the power it wields has caused red lip color to be regulated and condemned on numerous occasions for "deceiving men" and "undermining class divides." And while lipstick ingredients have varied wildly throughout time, one thing remains consistent: women are willing to put almost anything on their lips for the allure of a perfect scarlet pout, even if means exposure to toxic materials and risking arrest or social exile.

Ancient Civilizations

Many historians consider Ancient Sumerians to be the inventors of lipstick from the discovery of cosmetic cases dating back to 3,500 B.C. Others like to credit the true birth of lip painting to Ancient Egypt, when both men and women rouged their lips using a mixture of red ochre, carmine, wax or fat. [2]

Women possessed little power in Ancient Greece, and were also discouraged from wearing lipstick in public, with the exception of prostitutes, who actually possessed more legal power that afforded them the ability to flaunt scarlet lip paint (although it was often made with ingredients such as red dye, sheep sweat and crocodile excrement). Unfortunately, this also led to the first known law related to lipstick, which dictated that prostitutes could be punished for improperly posing as ladies if they appeared without their designated lip paint. [3]

Women had it (relatively) better in Ancient Rome. Although it typically contained a potentially deadly amount of toxic ingredients, lipstick was used by both genders throughout the Empire, and served as a way to distinguish social class and rank.

Medieval Period

Throughout the Medieval period (400s-1400s A.D.), lip color in Europe came in and out of public favor due to various attempts by religious groups to condemn makeup for "challenging God and his workmanship." [4] Lipstick was also used to distinguish social classes during this period, such as the practice of Italian society ladies of the 1200s wearing bright pink lip color while lower classes wore earthy red tones to denote their inferior social standing. [2]

The Renaissance

Although English pastors in the 1500s tried to denounce lip painting as the "devil's work," that didn't stop Queen Elizabeth I from using a mixture of cochineal, gum Arabic, egg white and fig milk that made crimson lips one of the quintessential parts of Elizabethan fashion. [4] In the 1600s, the clergy continued to fight against the perceived "sin" of lip coloring, while English citizens (including many respectable men) continued using different shades of red to distinguish between social classes. [2]

The 1700s

In 1770, the British government finally passed a 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." Seriously. Like 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 color during the couple's courtship. Fortunately, women in the pre-revolution era of France didn't have reason to stop using bright red lips to help contrast their beauty ideal of a white porcelain complexion. [2]

The 1800s

Lip painting fell out of vogue in the Western world during most of the 1800s due to the influence of Queen Victoria. However, according to some historians, the 1860s mark the start of the revival of cosmetic use worldwide. The Parisian cosmetic brand Guerlain had its first commercially successful lipstick take off in the 1880s, which was made from grapefruit mixed with butter and wax. [2] Since applying lipstick was still seen as something that should only be done in total secrecy, stage actress Sarah Bernhardt caused a huge scandal by applying her lipstick freely in public in the late 1800s. [3]

The Early 1900s

By the turn of the 20th century, makeup had finally become socially acceptable. According to Madeleine Marsh, author of "Compacts and Cosmetics," the first and most famous manifestation of red lipstick was when suffragettes took the streets of New York in 1912 wearing bright red lipstick. After centuries of male authority restricting women's use of lipstick for moral and religious reasons, red lip color had become a true symbol of female rebellion.

In 1915, American inventor Maurice Levy introduced the first lip color in a sliding metal tube, which gave birth to lipstick as we know it today. Despite this modern advancement, the common American recipe of crushed insects, beeswax and olive oil made lipsticks turn rancid several hours after application. Additionally, many lipstick formulas still contained potentially toxic ingredients, as Congress didn't pass an effective act to protect the safety of cosmetics until 1938. [2]


American's prejudices against bold red lipstick were diminished by the growing popularity of motion pictures, which featured silent film starlets wearing exaggeratedly dark lips. Consumers tried the replicate their favorite star's signature pouts, such as Clara Bow's "cupid bow" and Mae Murray's "bee-stung" lips.

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In 1933, Vogue declared lipstick "the most important cosmetic for women," which was made evident by the continued growth in the market, even while the Great Depression was in full swing. This is what inspired the "Lipstick Effect," a term used by economists to explain why consumers continue to buy small, "frivolous" goods like lipstick to lift spirits during times of financial hardship.


Vintage Elizabeth Arden ad.

Vintage Elizabeth Arden ad.

During World War II, cosmetic advertisers introduced politically charged ad campaigns for colors such as "Victory Red," encouraging women to embrace beauty upkeep as part of their civic duty. One advertisement for Tangee lipstick during the war boldly stated, "No lipstick…. will win the war. But it symbolizes one of the reasons why we are fighting—the precious right of women to be feminine and lovely under any circumstances." [2]


Vintage Revlon ad.

Vintage Revlon ad.

Revlon introduced its iconic "Fire and Ice" advertising campaign in 1952, which has become known as one of the most effective ads in cosmetic history. The two-page advertisement included a list of 15 questions to "test" if a reader's personality suited the bold red lipstick shown on model Dorian Leigh. (A few examples: Have you ever danced with your shoes off? Do you think that any man really understands you?) To add more fuel to the fire, actresses like Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe were always shown in their signature crimson shades, making red lipstick more desirable and omnipresent than ever before.


The 1960s saw a huge decrease in the popularity of red lip color due to the neutral lips favored by mod fashion and the more natural beauty regimen popularized by the hippie culture that continued into the 1970s. Meanwhile, some feminist groups denounced lipstick for being solely intended for the pleasure of men. (This mindset would shift in the late 1990s, when third-wave feminism or "lipstick feminism" encouraged women to enjoy their sexuality and femininity in opposition to patriarchal oppression.) [1]

With the advent of disco-era glamour, cherry red glossy lips came back into high fashion. The glam and punk rock subcultures also saw a rise in the use of lipstick by men, although this was nothing new: Egyptian men were painting their lips thousands of years before David Bowie ever picked up a tube.


The 1980s brought excessively bright red lips, perhaps remembered best on the mouth of Madonna in her early years. However, the end of the decade and the 1990s saw a strong trend towards nude, muted lipstick shades, as well as a plethora of brown tones.

As the millennium reached an end, most women favored lipstick that matched their mood and appearance over adhering to trends.


Jennifer Lawrence. Photo: Samir Hussein/Getty Images

Jennifer Lawrence. Photo: Samir Hussein/Getty Images

A pair of cherry red lips looks just as chic today as it did hundreds of years ago. Fortunately, it's also a lot less likely to contain toxic ingredients (although it's still a good idea to be aware of what's inside your favorite tube!). In most parts of the modern world, women have the freedom to flaunt bold red lips without the fear of persecution, and people have become freer to use lipstick to express themselves regardless of their gender or social status. Perhaps the biggest difficulty that we face with red lipstick today is choosing the perfect shade.

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Sources not linked:

[1] Ford, Lynne E. "Encyclopedia of Women in American Politics." New York: Infobase Publishing, 2007.
[2] Kozlowski, Karen and Meg Cohen Ragas. "Read My Lips: A Cultural History of Lipstick." San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1998.
[3] Pallingston, Jessica. "Lipstick." New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.
[4] Steele, Valerie (ed.). "Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion." New York: Charles Scribners & Sons, 2004.