The Feminist History of Red Lipstick

feminist history of red lipstick

You may know that red lipstick makes a bold fashion statement, but do you know the history behind this classic shade?

Many women throughout history have sported hues of crimson and ruby lips to communicate their social status, leadership and great power.

Dating all the way back to Ancient Egypt, Cleopatra created her own shades of red by crushing ants and beetles for their rich carmine pigment. She also made use of flowers, red ochre and even fish scales to add a luminous finish.

Queen Elizabeth I wore red lipstick despite the 16th century belief that wearing red lipstick would challenge God. Like many members of royalty at the time, she achieved the stark contrast of vermillion lips against an alabaster complexion using white powder made from deadly chemicals, specifically white lead.

In the Darnley portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, she’s seen sporting red lips.

Red lipstick eventually lost its high status symbol as it became synonymous with women of ill repute. In the late 1800’s, Queen Victoria deemed cosmetics “impolite” and the use of cosmetics continued to fall in popularity.

Then, in the early 20th century, a French stage/film actress shocked the masses with a swipe of crimson across her lips. Her name was Sarah Bernhardt, and she was unapologetically enamored with the bold hue. She referred to her favored lipstick tube as her “stylo d’amor,” meaning “love pen.” She challenged what was deemed impolite for a woman of the time and made red lipstick fashionable once more.

Georges Clairin’s Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt (1876).

Red Lipstick as Revolution

In 1910, a woman named Elizabeth Arden also broke the mold by opening the Red Door Salon on Fifth Avenue in New York City. It was rare for a woman to own a business at the time—it had only been a few decades since it became legal for women to hold property at all. In 1912, the Suffragettes took their fight for the right to vote to the streets of Fifth Avenue. Eager to join and empower, Elizabeth Arden designed a shade aptly named “Red Door Red” and handed tubes of the lipstick to Suffragettes passing by her salon. She intended the color to be a symbol of hope, power, strength and camaraderie for those marching. Imagine what an inspiring sight that must have been!

Suffragettes march on the streets of NYC in 1912.

Red lipstick steadily rose in popularity over the next few decades. Old Hollywood actresses like Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, Gloria Swanson and Louise Brooks used lipstick to alter the shape of their mouths, and the famous “Cupid’s Bow” look was born. By lining the lips inside of the natural line to create a much smaller mouth, it gave the appearance of pursed lips blowing a kiss. The Cupid’s Bow created an interesting shape on film, but it wasn’t until the 1930’s when Technicolor films were introduced that consumers could finally see the rich colors of the lips they were admiring.

These early Hollywood stars owned their sexuality and commanded the public’s attention. Women all over wanted to emulate their self-assurance, so they too purchased shades of lipstick in tones of reds, berries and burgundies. This look became popular during the era of “The Flapper.” Women cropped their hair into stylish bobs. The dresses were shorter. They painted their eyelids in smokey shades. They shaped their eyebrows into graceful thin lines. These changes were a declaration of independence and disdain for social norms.

1920’s flappers and movie stars used red lips to signify power and allure.

Red Lipstick for Boosting Courage

During WWII, red lipstick and patriotism became popular themes when recruiting women to contribute to the war effort. In munitions factories where women labored to provide weapons to troops, the workers wore red lipstick to boost morale. Bathrooms of factories where women were employed kept red lipstick well stocked. Elizabeth Arden designed a lipstick called “Victory Red” and many other cosmetic brands followed suit.

At the same time, it was well known that Adolf Hitler despised red lipstick. Women who visited him were strongly urged to abstain from wearing any shade of red on their lips. So American women would wear the color as a sign of defiance.

Still to this day, many women feel rebellious and empowered with red lipstick on.

In 2005, cancer survivor and producer Geralyn Lucas wrote a book detailing her difficult decision to undergo a mastectomy after a breast cancer diagnosis at age 27. The title of the book is Why I Wore Lipstick To My Mastectomy. To Geralyn, red lipstick was a shade that only courageous women wore. She chose to wear red lipstick during her operation to bring her comfort and strength.

The Psychology of Red Lipstick

While it’s true that red lips boost confidence, it goes even deeper than that. The psychological effect of lipstick as a mood lifter has been documented in an economic theory known as “The Lipstick Effect.” In times of hardship, women tend to choose lipstick as their luxury good of choice as opposed to higher cost luxury goods. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America, Leonard Lauder (of makeup parent company Estee Lauder) claimed that lipstick sales increased. During WWII, lipstick sales soared for women at home and women in the factories. Throughout history women have faced hardships and have had to compromise, but many have been able to find small comfort—and power—in a simple tube of red lipstick.

Trends in lipstick have come and gone and will continue to do so. However, red lipstick remains timeless.

I have several tubes of red lipstick ranging in undertones from cool to neutral to warm. Knowing the history that comes along with one of my favorite shades makes it all the more enjoyable to wear.

When I apply my lipstick, I think of the women marching down Fifth Avenue demanding the right to vote. I think of the women daring to “misbehave” and disregarding the rigid social rules set upon women of the early 20th century. I think of the women who worked long, strenuous hours in factories during WWII towards the hope of victory.

Like Geralyn, I also view red lipstick as a symbol of strength. It lets people know that there is plenty of fight left in us. Even today it can be a symbol of rebellion against the harsh beauty standards and shaming that women face based on what they do or do not wear. Of course you don’t need red lipstick to communicate your strength, but the history behind the color is inspiring. It serves as a reminder of how women have always been in times of trouble: resilient, strong, determined, courageous and unabashed in our beliefs.

Get Your Fashionable Feminist On

Did you know that you can own two of the historical lipstick shades mentioned above?

Elizabeth Arden’s brand remains one of the strongest makeup contenders in the industry, and many of her products have reached cult status amongst women everywhere. “Red Door Red” is still available for purchase today on www.elizabetharden.com.

Besame Cosmetics is a brand founded, owned and operated by Gabriela Hernandez. She is a vintage lover and cosmetic historian. All of her shades are replicas of popular shades from past decades. She recreated “Victory Red” and you can pick up a tube at www.besamecosmetics.com

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Ashley Hodge is a 20-something writer/musician and women’s rights activist. She is a former beauty/special FX makeup artist who put down the makeup brushes and raised her fist in solidarity to help fight the social injustices against women all over the world. When she’s not crusading for social justice and defeating bigotry in all its forms, she also enjoys feeding her soul with musical theatre, red lipstick and Ghirardelli brownies.

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