When you see a woman walking down the street with red lipstick on, what do you think? You may think she is confident, or perhaps she is going on a date. Maybe you associate a red lip with French Girl beauty. Or maybe you think little of it because it has become such a classic beauty staple. But before this shade had any of these connotations, it was an act of rebellion, and before that, it was a sign of promiscuity. The significance of a red lip has evolved greatly over time, and it has existed throughout history.
The Origins of the Red Lip
Before actual makeup even existed, people found a way to add red pigment to their lips. Beauty expert Erin Parsons revealed that there is evidence of women from ancient civilizations all over the world wearing red lipstick; Though it was less of a lipstick and more natural pigments crushed up to create lip colors. Parsons shared, "During the Zhou dynasty in China, we see the use of cinnabar pigment for red lipstick... In ancient Egypt and Sumer, red ochre would have been used to create red pigments used in cosmetics."
The Medieval Period (400s-1400s)
During the Medieval Period in Europe, lipstick was used to distinguish social classes. During the 1200s, upper class women in Italy wore bright pink shades, while lower classes wore earthier, red shades. It was during this time that religious groups began to speak out against lipstick because they saw it challenged God. This further added to the stigma placed on lower class women who wore lip shades as bold and obvious as red.
1700s - 1800s
Lipstick, in particular red lipstick, faced large scrutiny in England in the 1700s. This began the era of people condemning makeup for being used to "trick" men. Rather discouraging lipstick, the government decided that any woman who "seduced" a man into marriage through the use of cosmetics could have their marriage annulled and face witchcraft charges. On the other hand, women in France at this time were encouraged to wear a red lip in order to make their complexion appear paler. America, during the 1700s, flip flopped between English and French ideals regarding lip color.
As the Victorian Era began in the 1800s, Queen Victoria claimed that makeup was unacceptable and impolite for anyone but prostitutes and actresses. Women who desired lip color at this time did it through means other than cosmetics, such as using household items or even biting their lips to redden them. Though still heavily stigmatized, cosmetics began to see a rise in the late 1800s, partially because of Parisian cosmetic brands.
The Suffrage Movement (1910s
Source: Teen Vogue
Though lipstick has begun to grow in popularity, red lips in particular were still seen as a sign of moral inferiority. In reaction to this, the use of red lipstick was used as an act of rebellion and liberation during the suffrage movement in the early 1900s. Cosmetics historian Gabriela Hernandez told Teen Vogue, "[Red lipstick] was seen as the mark of the independent, emancipated woman, which at the time was thought to be quite scandalous." In their fight for equality, women used a look that was revered as unsavory by men to rebel against patriarchal standards.
Elizabeth Arden was even said to have been handing out red lipstick to suffragists marching by her storefront in New York. After this, makeup became more common for women in American society, and Elizabeth Arden contributed greatly to the supply.
WWI & WWII
Source: Citizen Femme
During wartimes, red lipstick strangely enough served a large purpose. World War I created a rise in the use of red lipstick among women as a symbol of women's newfound freedom and their place in the workforce when men went off to war.
When World War II broke out, the red lip surprisingly acted as a political statement. It was said that Adolf Hitler despised red lipstick on women, and therefore women in America and other allied nations began wearing the shade as an act of rebellion against fascism. The red lip was called a "Badge of Courage" and became the ultimate symbol of patriotism at this time.
Old Hollywood Glamor
Starting in the 1950s and 60s, the red lip became synonymous with Hollywood glamor. Actresses like Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball, and Elizabeth Taylor were among the wave of women who popularized the look. Lucille in particular became known for overdrawn red lips. Though it was not commonly seen in everyday looks, red lips came to the forefront in actresses and those embodying the glamorous Hollywood beauty. This was one of the first times that a red lip was seen as sexy without the connotations of low class or prostitution. To this day, the exact shades worn by these women are sought after.
After the 80s were filled with neons and bright lipstick, the 90s transitioned to a period of dark lip shades, often dark reds. Celebrities like Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, and Madonna helped popularize red lips during this era, and they came to be one of the defining beauty trends of this decade. Madonna wore MAC's Russian Red lipstick on her Blonde Ambition Tour, and beauty experts have said this extremely popular shade is what first made MAC a global cosmetics company in the 90s. To this day, Russian Red is named one of the best red lipsticks on the market!
What Does a Red Lip Mean Today?
Source: Marie Claire
Today, the once highly controversial red lip is no longer as condemned as it once was. However, there is still significance in red lipstick. Celebrities all over including Taylor Swift, Lupita Nyong'o, and Emma Stone show love for a red lip, but it is not just actors and singers rocking the look today.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman to ever serve in Congress and a favorite among Gen-Z, is always seen in a bold, red lip at work, and this was not just a random choice. She explained that not only is red lipstick a quick way to look good, but it even gives her a boost of confidence at work.
After a long history of symbolism, judgment, condemnation, and politicization, red lipstick has become something so personal to the person wearing it. For the most part, it is not longer a giant statement; for some it is just something they like the look of. A bold red lip just gives them a boost of confidence. So when you see a woman walking down the street with red lipstick on, you probably don't think much of it anymore, but the extensive history of the look makes it much more significant than you may realize.