3,000 years of lipstick
“Even Emperor Nero’s wife had multiple slaves who were in charge of keeping her lips painted at every hour.”
Red lipstick is back this spring and there are few things to be said about this classic and controversial style choice.
Red lips have been popular for over 3,000 years, starting when women in ancient Mesopotamia would crush rubies and apply the powder to their checks and lips. Cleopatra would get the red effect from crushed carmine beetles and the pigment of berries. Sometimes she would mix these items with the small scales of fish for a shinier look. Even Emperor Nero’s wife had multiple slaves who were in charge of keeping her lips painted at every hour. During ancient times, minerals and insect venom used for lipstick were so toxic that hundreds of women died from trying to get the brightest red possible. When you hear the phrase, “The kiss of death,” it could literally be killer lipstick.
In medieval Europe, if lips of women were unnaturally red, they were considered Satanic and undermining god’s workmanship. When Queen Elizabeth took to the throne, red lips came back more dramatic than ever, amplified by her white painted face. Her red lip recipe was a mixture of plant dye and beeswax. The process of finding her favorite shade of red took several months. In the United States, colonial women would suck on lemons to make their lips flush. Unfortunately, this method was detrimental to one’s teeth but the practice continued for decades.
Lipstick, packaged in a small tube as we know it today, debuted for the first time at the world’s fair in 1903 and changed the cosmetic industry forever. By 1912, most women in the United States wore it regularly but the New York Times published an article about the seductive power of red lips and prompted women to wear it with caution. During the 1940s, many of the ingredients used to make lipstick such as petroleum and castor oil became scarce because of the war. Lipstick was only available for purchase by rich, upper class women. When the war was over and lipstick came back, it was considered an everyday necessity. By the 1960s, women who didn’t wear it were commonly thought to be lesbians or insane.
Several anthropologists have presented the idea that red lips are desirable because they look like the labia. They swell when they’re aroused and get brighter when one blushes. Full lips are preferred because they mean young lips, which means fertility.
The history of lipstick has a history of oppressive law. In the 1700s Parliament passed laws banning women from wearing lipstick and allowed men to divorce women who wore lipstick.
It also has a history of association with rape. Several rape cases were filed even up to last year, consisting of male defendants claiming to be blameless for their actions because the woman victim was wearing red lipstick. The atrocity and absurdity of such arguments can hardly be overstated.
Red lipstick also has a history of political attachments. Aside from the comments of former Alaska Governor, Sarah Palin, about lipstick and pit bulls, and the popularity of Monica Lewinski’s lipstick color, there have been boycotts of lipstick because of its objectifying connotation and rallies embracing red lipstick during rape awareness campaigns on university campuses.
Red lipstick has been associated with some of the most famous, iconic, female figures. People like Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, historical queens, empresses and princesses. It’s something women have either died for, and even from.
The average lipstick costs $6. Eighty percent of women in the United States wear lipstick everyday. World famous cosmetic companies like Clinique are reported to sell one tube of lipstick a minute. Fashion magazines around the world are advertising thousands of shades of red this spring, simply because red lips are classic and fun.
What might also be considered is how much of this trend is political. The choice to flaunt red lips can be out of protest or solidarity. It can be an expression of women’s sexual liberation, which is always controversially inflated through consumer power to buy cosmetics and clothes. It could be one of the most subtly meaningful $6 you choose to spend or not spend this spring. The most beautiful aspect of women’s fashion is not necessarily having a choice of what to wear, but knowing what one is choosing to wear in the first place.