Kiss Kiss // A History of Red Lipstick

[Originally posted on aesthetic, a blog created as part of a teaching project for my medical degree. I found the topic so interesting, that I wanted to share it here] As a follow up to my Bold Lip Colour Look, I've created a blog post highlighting a brief history of lipstick, including legislation, witchcraft and prostitutes. Let's get lippy as we take a dive into the brief history of lipstick



From a psychological point of view, naturally red lips indicate a higher level of oestroegen, indicating fertility in women. Some say that lipstick was invented to give women the natural flush of lip colour post orgasm, but it goes back further than that.

The first recorded usage of lipstick was by the Ancient Sumerians, about 5000 years ago. The suspected pioneer of lipstick was Queen Pubabi of Ur, created lipstick with pulverised red rocks and lead. The practice spread, and both men and women of Sumer and Assyria would paint their lips red with lead.

When lipstick travelled to the Egyptian culture, it denoted social class rather than gender. Like all cosmetics, the keen Egyptian chemists would concoct lipstick at home, from crushed ants and beetles. Colours started to vary, with lipsticks of orange, magenta, and inky blue black.


Red lipstick was also a vital cosmetic in Ancient China. Lipsticks were made with beeswax to protect from chapped lips, with added scented oils and pigments from plants, blood or vermillion. Lipstick varied massively from dynasty to dynasty; during the Pre-Qin & Han Dynasties, women would apply a big red dot to the lower lip, and painted the upper lip in a pointed shape. In the Tang Dynasty, powder was applied before lipstick, and it was then applied in whatever pattern they liked - "cherry blossom" patterns became particularly popular. In the late Tang Dyansty, more and more patterns became popular, with a reported 17 lip patterns in high use for the last 30 years of the Tang Dyanasty. It was believed that lip colour was used to appease the gods, however it also appeased your social status your own spirit and well-being. Win win!

While the Minoans retained the liberal Eastern values of make up, as discussed on my post about blush, through Ancient Greek times, societal views on make up completely changed. lipstick became a symbol of prostitutes, who would concoct lipstick from some pretty disgusting ingredients including crocodile faeces and sheep sweat mixed with red wine. It was during the Greek era that lipstick faced its first of many government regulations: prostitutes who were seen without their lipstick could be imprisoned for imitating ladies. In the Ancient Roman period however, lipstick became a symbol of class rather than gender. Weathly Roman women would have cosmatae, who were essentially make up slaves, hired to apply and create cosmetics for their masters. Empress Poppaea Sabina had no fewer than 100 slaves on her "beauty team."

Following the fall of the Roman Empire, in the UK, lipstick became more and more associated with lower class, improper morals and prostitutes, until the Middle Ages, when religious criticism of makeup took hold. Throughout Western history, religion has been used (to varying degrees of effect) to shame and (at some points literally) demonize women who chose to wear lipstick;

a woman who wore make up is deemed as incarnation of Satan

Which is a pretty bold claim for someone who's just in the mood for a fun coloured lipstick. While bold colours were all but outlawed, tints of lily and rose were allowed due to their associated with purity; women would use sheep fat and mashed up roots. Following The Crusades, an allure was created around the use of cosmetics; the rich hired alchemists to make lipstick, and to apply it whilst reciting incantations.



As with blush, opinions on lipstick changed with Elizabeth I. Elizabeth was a known fan of lip rouge, making it fashionable for other women to wear it. She even swore by its healing powers, believing that it had the power to ward off death. On her deathbed, she was wearing layers of lipstick, to the point that her lips were cracked. Following her death, society fell out of love with lipstick, and back to the belief that it was improper, associated with dubious morals and generally disgusting. While people did continue to wear it, in 1770, lipstick was outlawed:

All women of whatever age, rank, profession or degree, whether virgins, maids or widows, that shall, from and after such Act, impose upon, seduce and betray into matrimony any of His Majesty’s subjects, by the scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes or bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the law in force against witchcraft and the like misdemeanours and [their] marriage[s], upon conviction, shall become null and void.

To translate: women who wear lipstick and seduce / fall in love with / marry men with cosmetics are definitely witches and their marriages became annulled because they trapped the poor men with their witchy lipstick witch powers. Needless to say, 1770 UK was more than a bit backwards.


In France however, lipstick was loved. By now it had come commercial, and brands like Guerlain (still running today) became popular. Lipstick and all cosmetics was seen as a sign of wealth and class, while the natural look was reserved for prostitutes; in the 1780s, Frenchwomen reportedly went through two million pots of lip rouge per year. Across the oceans in America, they became obsessed with recreating the French aesthetic, going through some fairly odd lengths to redden their lips; people would rub ribbon on their lips, or carry lemons with them to suck to naturally redden their lips. George Washington's wife even had her own recipe featuring raisins, sugar, wax and (among others) alkanet root. It's suspected that these attitudes came from a slight rebellious attitude towards the Brits. In the 1700's, the US was still a colony of the UK, and they did not like it.

As previously discussed, during the Victorian era, lipstick continued to be seen as improper and vulgar under the ruling of Queen Victoria, however women still had ways, including transferring colour from wrapping paper (which was brightly coloured and transferrable-when-wet), and having slightly tinted lipbalm for medicinal reasons (which genuinely sounds like an excuse I used in high school. I couldn't help it that my lips were so chapped!). An early British fashion magazine La Belle Assemblee was printed in 1806, and even though it clearly depicted women who were rouged and lipsticked, it didn't mention cosmetics even once. Towards the end of the century


attitudes became more relaxed, in part due to the shameless use of lipstick by high class prostitutes (demi-mondaines) and actresses. Actresses became icons in the late Victorian era with cultural columns (gossip) in the papers tracking their move. Women wanted to look like the glamorous women on stage (who needed make up thanks to stage lighting which still washes you out on stage), especially as it became known that Queen Victoria's son, Edward VII would regularly have affairs with actresses. Cosmetic companies latched onto this, however it was still deemed fairly unacceptable to admit to wearing make up, especially something as bold as lipstick (facial lotions / powders were okay). As one advert put it:

True lovers of beauty do not attempt to paint the lily or add perfume to the rose; but as the rose and the lily seen rain and sunshine to blossom forth in pristine freshness and fragrance, so do we mortals require the little accessories of the toilette to look our radiant best

A bit elaborate for an advert! These attitudes would take a cosmic shift in the 19th Century.

New York actress Sarah Bernhardt would go out in public during the late 1800’s wearing lipstick, gradually changing the perception of makeup. Another prominent actress to change how makeup was viewed was Billie Burke. Now known as Glinda the Good Witch, Burke was a famous stage actress in both New York and London, and from


1912 to 1914, she wrote a column for the Chicago Day Book discussing various topics. One of them was, of course, makeup. One entry was titled:

Billy Burke Says It's All Right to Makeup Your Face - But Make It Look as If Nature Did It

Still fairly old fashioned, but this caused a major shift; more and more women found it okay to wear makeup. Burke also discussed the differences between stage makeup and day makeup, showing that it can be worn everyday, off stage, and you don’t have to be a prostitute!

Another major influence in the early 20th Century were the suffragettes. In the UK, Emmeline Pankhurst et al were breaking windows just to be heard, and the tide was truly turning in terms of Womens Rights. As a result, lipstick started to be viewed as a feminist symbol. Outspoken leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman were actively pro lipstick, and in the 1912 New York Wage Earner’s Suffrage Rally, thousands of women rallied together at Cooper Union and campaigned for the right to vote whilst wearing bright red lipstick as a symbol of defiance against men and female rebellion.

By 1915, is was even easier to protest the patriarchy with colourful lips, as lipstick started to be produced in portable tubes, as opposed to the previous creamy liquids that needed to be applied with a brush. Not everyone was painting their lips to fight the power however. The Gibson Girl (or the wannabe Gibson Girl), the personification of class and beauty in the late 19th and early 20th Century would colour their lips by biting them or sucking on hot cinnamon drops. The more modern Gibson Girl would just wear lipstick. By 1920, it was easier to by lipstick in tube formation, thanks to actresess and feminists, lipstick was no longer something to be ashamed of. The first pro lipstick article to hit the UK was in 1924, where Vogue printed an article called “A Defence of Rouge.” The US was a bit ahead, as they were properly advertising lipstick in 1923. This in in part, due to Hollywood (back to the actresses).


Just like today, actresses were a major influence on fashion and beauty, and just like today, there were magazines, articles and columns dedicated to “getting the look” of actresses like Josphine Baker and Clara Bow. Bold Hollywood lipstick was a must for silent black and white films. Max Factor (founder of … Max Factor) was pivotal in Hollywood makeup. Movies used to try and use theatrical makeup, but under the hot lights and modern cameras it just looked wrong. Max Factor developed a new range of formulas and colours that would look good on camera, and in person. In 1916 he was hired as makeup supervisor for the movie Joan The Woman, and by 1924 he’d opened his own shop selling makeup to the masses. As for lipstick, it was a must on film; the pomade previously used would run under the lights, so Factor developed a creamy formula, and just put a thumbprint in the centre of the actresses lips. With a bit of refinement, this is how the small pout and cupids bow aesthetic of women like Clara Bow came to be. As films were still silent, the actresses needed to convey a vast array of expressions, and makeup was a tool to enhance that.


Meanwhile the flappers were taking a page from the feminists and shaking up the establishment. The flappers were a whole new of woman. Their skirts were short and their hair was shorter. They listened to jazz, had their own slang, and acted like men; drinking, swearing and having casual sex. Flappers were a major shift from Victorian gender roles which still had some place in society, and were a sign of rebellion against the establishment; the flappers were against prohibition, against established gender roles, and were pro lipstick. Fashions were directly influenced by Coco Chanel, and make up was a direct reaction to the natural, demure Gibson Girl. Lipstick was now dark, in shades like purple, burgundy and red. Helena Rubeinstein invented a product called “cupids bow,” which supposedly shaped the cupids bow for that Clara Bow aesthetic. Makeup wasn’t just a rebellion however; some women believed the adverts that lipstick would protect the mouth from the increasing industrialisation, and as more and more women started getting jobs, makeup was encouraged for women to look their best whilst competing with men and other women for employment. The 20s and 30s saw massive changes in terms of lipstick perception, but it was hard to get a change of perception bigger than World War II


Just look at Rosie the Riveter; makeup, muscles and sheer determination. Feminists loved her for her pro women stance, and “the establishment,” loved her for productivity and patriotism. In the World Wars, women were encouraged to take up the jobs that men previously had, in the factories, farms, hospitals, and the US military enlisted about 350 thousand women for the armed forces. Red lipstick became a sign of patriotism, and was encouraged by the government to boost morale. In fact, the US government didn’t just like lipstick, they deemed it “necessary and vital.” Elizabeth Arden created a makeup kit for the American Marine Corps, complete with red lipstick to match the uniform. The lipstick industry was booming, even though the metal tubes could no longer be used due to rations, and lipstick was being sold in rolled up paper. Women at home were wearing patriot red, women in the trenches were wearing patriot red, and women in the soldiers fantasy’s were wearing pin up red.

Introducing the Pin Up Girl. A step up from the ladylike and soft Gibson Girl, soldiers were encouraged to keep posters of pin up girls for morale, but this bought up the debate of female sexuality. Makeup started advertising and encouraging women to “seek out the marine” and “spell it out to them.” While the adverts weren’t overtly sexual, it was


obvious to everyone what they meant. While the government was pro make up, and pro pinup girl, they were anti female sexuality, considering it threatening to the war effort and to society. While women were being advertised to go for it, adverts aimed at men were warning them of the dangers of venereal diseases. Pin ups, adverts and government messages started a good girl/ bad girl dichotomy; the good girls went off to war, while the bad girls were sexual and posed for pictures. The only issue was all these girls looked the same. Red lips were on the trenches and on the posters, leading to an ultimate Madonna/Whore complex.

Following the war, make up, particularly lipstick, became a necessity for women of the 50s. In 1949, Revlon produced an indelible lipstick, bringing in the golden age of lipstick. Air hostesses, and some secretaries were required to wear lipstick for their jobs, and 98% of American women regularly wore lipstick. (Compare this to 96% of women who brushed their teeth… ew.) It’s hard to talk about 50s makeup and lipstick without talking about the ultimate bombshell: Marilyn Monroe.

As photographer Milton H. Greene said: “You don’t just wake up in the morning and wash your face and comb your hair and go out and look like Marilyn Monroe.” As a child, Norma


Jean idolised Jean Harlow; she died her hair platinum blonde, she had plastic surgery to correct her chin and her nose, and met her makeup artist Allan “Whitey” Snyder. They had a very close relationship; he helped her with her stage fright, did her makeup for her funeral, and helped her find her look that would make her an icon. Once they found “the look,” in 1952, they refined it for every occasion; a natural version, a version for all her films and a version for PR shots. Compared to the tough, smart appearance of other high profile actresses like Katherine Hepburn, with Monroe, the studios wanted someone who would essentially cater directly to men. Unlike Grace Kelly, another movie blonde, who had an upper class background, and an unachievable sophistication, there was something approachable about Marliyn. She wasn’t perfect, in a lot of her films she appeared ditzy and classless in comparison to her peers. As feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey put it:

“By the mid 1950s, she stood for a brand of classless glamour, available to anyone using American cosmetics, nylons and peroxide”

She cultivated a lot of look-a-likes both in and out the film industry. While her look was carefully cultivated by Whitey, the average girl would try and copy with some blonde


hair dye, hot rollers, foundation, and of course, red lipstick.

The Golden Age of lipstick truly was the 50s; after that, a whole new group of young people took over the cosmetic industry with their own look that was pretty far removed from a bright red lip. Lipstick made a brief comeback in the 70s, with black lipstick being popular in goth and punk subcultures. Lip gloss started to be more relevant, especially in the 90s, and for a good while, lipstick was seen as outdated by young people. Luckily, it’s back; we’ve recently realised that a bold lip colour is timeless.

Read More:

FacePaint: The Story of Make Up by Lisa Eldridge

Chinese MakeUp For Lips

Speak Softly and Carry a Lipstick”: Government Influence on Female Sexuality through Cosmetics During WWII by Adrienne Niederriter

Lipstick History

A Brief History of Red Lipstick

Reading Our Lips: The History of Lipstick Regulation in Western Seats of Power by Sarah Schaffer