A Short History of Red Lipstick

The Beauty SaloonBeauty History

The first lipstick was made of white lead and crushed red rocks, and while its formula and its connotations have changed many times over the course of human history, lipstick’s popularity has never waned. It seems no color has more staying power or a more storied past than the iconic, perennial favorite, red. Please enjoy this short history of the lip cosmetic that all vintage beauty aficionados know and love.

  • 50 B.C. Both men and women wear lipstick to denote social status in ancient Egypt. Orange, magenta, and blue-black are popular colors, but the avante garde prefer red carmine paint.
  • 700 B.C. In ancient Greece, red lipstick is reserved for prostitutes. Under the law, prostitutes who appear in public without lip paint and other makeup can be punished for improperly posing as ladies.
  • 1500s A.D. Residents of Elizabethan England believe lip rouge can work magic, and possibly even ward off death. Queen Elizabeth herself believes this so fervently, it is said that at the time of her death, her lips are caked with a half inch of crimson lipstick.
  • 1800s Victorian society eschews makeup, relegating it to actresses and prostitutes. Some determined beauty buffs secretly trade recipes and make lip rouge with their friends in underground lip rouge societies.
  • 1910s In the US, leading suffragettes endorse lip rouge as an emblem of women’s emancipation and incorporate the use of a bright red shade into standard rally procedure beginning with the 1912 New York Suffragette Rally.
  • 1920s 50 million American women now use lipstick. Flappers paint their lips scarlet to shock their elders, but other women wear lip color to imitate the shape of their favorite movie stars’ lips. These “cupid’s bow” looks are popularized by Max Factor when he uses a single thumbprint of rouge to prevent lip pomade from melting under hot film set lights.
  • 1940s Despite the rationing of other cosmetics, lipstick is promoted as a vital symbol of patriotism and personal morale during WWII. The US Marines even have a mandatory, official shade, “Montezuma Red”, meant to match the red trim on the women’s green uniforms.
  • 1950s 98% of American women wear lipstick, and red is arguably the shade of choice. Lipstick is so heavily marketed, and competition so fierce, that a period known as the “lipstick wars” begins, with cosmetics companies attempting to destroy one another. Elizabeth Taylor loves her signature red so much that she forbids anyone else on her movie sets to wear it.
  • 1980s Red lipstick falls out of favor during the 60s and 70s, but reemerges in a big way as the go-to color for women during the “Me Decade”. MAC releases their now classic “Russian Red”, popularized by Madonna.