The Surprising—and Significant—History of Red Lipstick
These are the wise words of the great Audrey Hepburn in the 20th century. Sure, you could construe this in a literal context; after all, red lipstick comes in a variety of hues—from the deepest crimsons to the brightest cherries—that are bound to be flattering on every woman’s skin tone. However, given the complicated history of red lipstick during that period, the quote takes on a different meaning entirely.
A red lipstick is one of the most integral items in a woman’s makeup bag. Today, a scarlet pout is one of the most powerful symbols of beauty in the world. But have you ever considered where the iconic beauty product came from?
The history of red lipstick is a colorful, tumultuous one, charged with centuries of significance. Many historians consider ancient Sumerians in 3500 BC southern Mesopotamia to be the first inventors of lipstick. Red rocks were crushed into a powder to tint the lips red. Others like to credit the birth of lipstick to the ancient Egyptian elites, where Cleopatra was known to wear lip paint created using crushed insects mixed into a vibrant paste of red waxes.
Regardless of its true origin, the concept of wearing red lipstick has always been a major social signifier that carried with it a multitude of meanings. Depending on the location and century, the visual statement was a flirtatious signal of seduction, a declaration of social status, a show of wealth, or an indication of confidence.
Perhaps most interestingly, the simple beauty product has even been used—and scorned—as a feminist tactic for “terrorizing” men. Adolf Hitler was one of the men who famously hated red lipstick, and in Allied countries, wearing it became a sign of patriotism and a statement against fascism. For whatever reason, the undeniably feminine color bestowed women with a mysterious aura of power that came off as frightening, morally dubious, and highly intimidating to some people.
In the U.S., this witnessed its peak in 1912, when women started to march in order to gain attention for equal rights (including the right to vote). In order to gain more notoriety and attention to their cause, some would wear red lipstick to public events.
“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 decided to adopt the bold color as a sign of defiance. Leading cosmetics brand founder Elizabeth Arden would pass out free tubes of bright red lipstick to the women along the Fifth Avenue suffragette march route in New York City. At that point, red lipstick became a symbol of not only women’s liberation, but rebellion. Women would publicly apply red lipstick with the intent to shock men and declare their independence from the social stratifications that limited them.
As red lipstick became a symbol of the American suffrage movement, it began to gain popularity internationally. As women's rights movements spread across the world, British suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst also donned a red lip, which helped spread the symbolic action among her fellow activists.
Red lipstick as a political statement is even seen today. 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 new State Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.”
By wearing red lips, women are empowered to tap into the same movement. It’s chic, elegant, and flattering, but it’s also so much more than that. It’s 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 empowering red lipstick, here are some of our personal favorites.