The Surprising—and Significant—History of Red Lipstick

Give a girl the right lipstick and she can conquer the world.

Audrey Hepburn

"There is a shade of red for every woman."

—Audrey Hepburn

Wise words indeed from the 20th century. Sure, you can take them literally; after all, red lipstick comes in a wide range of hues—from the deepest crimsons to the brightest cherries—one bound to flatter any woman's skin tone. But given the complicated history of red lipstick during the early 1900s, the quote takes on a different meaning.

A red lipstick is one of the most integral items in a woman's makeup bag. Today, a scarlet pout is one of the world's most powerful beauty symbols, but where did this iconic beauty product come from?

Red lipstick has a colorful, tumultuous history.

Many historians acknowledge ancient Sumerians (in 3500 BC in southern Mesopotamia) for inventing it by crushing red rocks into a powder to tint lips red. Others credit the ancient Egyptian elites, who mixed crushed insects into a vibrant paste of red waxes for Cleopatra, among others.

It's been a social signifier conveying a multitude of meanings.

Depending on the location and century, this visual statement signaled a flirtatious seduction, declaration of social status, show of wealth, or indication of confidence.

In 1912, when American women marched for equal rights (including the right to vote), suffragettes wore red lipstick to bring attention to their cause. "This was seen as the mark of the independent emancipated woman, which at the time was thought to be quite scandalous," says Gabriela Hernandez, who started her Bésame Cosmetics line with a lipstick from 1920. "This subversive action would have brought censure from men (and some women) who regarded these women as morally lacking."

Suffrage leaders—Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in particular—loved red lipstick for its ability to intimidate men, and protesters adopted the bold color as a sign of defiance. Cosmetics brand founder Elizabeth Arden passed out free tubes of bright red lipstick to women along the Fifth Avenue suffragette march route in New York City. That's when red lipstick became a symbol of women's liberation and rebellion. Women applied red lipstick in public to shock men and declare their independence from the social stratifications that limited them.

Red lip color gained popularity internationally as women's rights movements spread worldwide.

As red lipstick symbolized American suffrage, its sway traveled across the pond and then some. British suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst donned a red lip, which helped spread the symbolic action among her fellow activists.

Interestingly, this simple beauty product has been used—and scorned—as a feminist tactic for "terrorizing" men. Adolf Hitler famously hated red lipstick so, in Allied countries, it became a sign of patriotism and a statement against fascism. World War II aside, this undeniably feminine color bestowed women with a mysterious aura of power that came off to some as frightening, morally dubious, and highly intimidating.

Red lipstick as a political statement is still seen in this century. In 2018, Nicaraguan men and women sported red lipstick and uploaded photos of themselves to social media to show their support for the release of anti-government protesters. In Chile in 2019, almost 10,000 women took to the streets with black blindfolds and red lips to denounce sexual violence in the country.

"Women who wear this color say that it emboldens them," says Hernandez. "The color red has carried this connotation for centuries, and it still does to this day. The 'Iron Lady' Margaret Thatcher, who served as prime minister of the United Kingdom, always sported a red lip; and now we see it in [U.S. Representative] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez."

Wearing red lips still empowers women today.

It's chic, elegant, and flattering, but also bold, defiant, undeniably feminine, and visually powerful. "The women's movement was about women having choices, which included the way they looked and wore cosmetics. I think the choices in makeup available today enable people to express their preferences. There is a sea of choices to aid in discovery and self-expression." says Hernandez. "Red is the color of passion and strength. I think makeup now is really a mirror of what you believe for others to see."

If you're looking for your own tube of empowerment, here are some of our personal favorites.

01 of 09

Besame Cosmetics Red Lipstick - 1920


Company founder Gabriela Hernandez started her brand with this lipstick inspired by the nascent movement. One of the first colors she found to match vintage cosmetics for modern wear, it's been the brand's staple red ever since. With its striking deep hue and blue-toned base, we have to say: They nailed it.

02 of 09

Elizabeth Arden Lip Color Lipstick in Statement Red Matte

Elizabeth Arden Lip Color Lipstick, Statement Red Matte

The woman who helped start it all, Elizabeth Arden, was a formidable backer for women's rights. Her red lipstick helped women reach the place they are today, so it only makes sense to be included here. Infused with an anti-aging formula that helps seal in moisture, it leaves your lips feeling soft and gives them a voluminous appearance.

03 of 09

Covergirl Outlast UltiMatte One Step Liquid Lip Color in Wine O'Clock

Outlast UltiMatte One Step Liquid Lip Color, Wine O'Clock

The pointed applicator on this liquid lipstick ensures precise application without bleeding or feathering. This matte lip color is formulated like a stain to be transfer-resistant, so there's no need to reapply 10 times a day.

04 of 09

REVLON Super Lustrous Glass Shine in Fire & Ice


A recent addition to REVLON's Super Lustrous family, this Super Lustrous Glass Shine is the perfect fusion of gloss and lipstick—an ideal option for drier lips. Its moisturizing formula offers incredibly glassy shine and brilliant color that instantly melts in as you swipe.

05 of 09

Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick in Beso

red lipstick stila

Stay all day is right—I mean seriously! This waterproof red liquid lipstick lasted through two meals, drinks, and a nap (and I'm a stomach sleeper). You'll also love it if you hate the feeling of makeup on your lips; despite its incredible staying power, it has a featherlight feel.

06 of 09

YSL Rouge Pur Couture Lipstick in Le Rouge

red lipstick ysl

Dressed in probably the most ~luxe~ casing in lipstick history (just look at that gold packaging), the highly pigmented color inside is packed with antioxidants for a dewier finish than most lipsticks.

07 of 09

KISS New York Professional's Fierce Cream Lipstick in Red Orange


This vitamin-E-infused formula is most memorable for its uncommonly creamy texture. Although it's a red, this shade has a slight orangey tint, making it extra bright and flattering to most skin tones.

08 of 09

Hermès Beauty Rouge Hermes Satin lipstick in Rouge H

red lipstick hermes

Rouge Hermès, the first and most emblematic of the Hermès Beauty line, is a classic and mainstay in the lipstick business. This iconic collection has 24 shades with evocative names, but our favorite has to be Rouge H, a deep burgundy with just a hint of brown.

09 of 09

Patrick Ta Major Beauty Headlines Matte Suede Lipstick in That's Why She's Late


Straight from Kim Kardashian's makeup artist, Patrick Ta's makeup collection doesn't disappoint. You can't miss the popping pigments in his lipstick range—or his product names (such as Oh She's Single and She's Not From Here). This creamy formula has ultra-fine spherical particles that leave a matte, blurred finish without feeling dry or tacky.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles