There’s a famous phrase, something that Voltaire said. “To hold a pen is to be at war.” Who knew that the same could be said for lipstick?
Pigmented beautification—in the form of eye kohl, lip rouges, and other cosmetics—has been sought out and used by powerful, revolutionary women since the dawn of time. Women have been applying natural resources to their skin, lips, and faces since at least 3500 BCE.
Fashion magazines, Hollywood starlets, and the demoralizing beauty standards thrust upon women have falsely suggested a pre-existing narrative of cosmetics owning us. The truth? The truth is far more complex, especially in regards to the one lipstick hue even the most bro man in your life will recognize: red. It’s true: red lipstick has liberated women as much as it has shackled them to the limitations of their social status during the given time period. It is important to note, however, that society’s impression and belief systems surrounding red lipstick have never altered suddenly or randomly. Rather, the changing opinions surrounding the perceived propriety (and impropriety) of red lipstick have always reflected and coincided with the sociopolitical movements of the time.
The history of red lipstick is impressive (and impressively long)—that’s not why we’re sharing the timeline of lipstick history with you today.
Today, on National Lipstick Day, we share the history of red lipstick with you in the hopes that doing so will challenge you (as it has challenged us) to celebrate lipstick as a revolutionary tool for change AND a tool for beauty.
Today, we celebrate by raising awareness of the many women that have been empowered by cosmetics. When we look back in time with consciousness and a keen eye, we start to see the patterns. The patterns here are clear: red lipstick, through the good and the bad, the ugly and the enlightening, has always been political.
Yes, even when used against women, red lipstick has led to revolutions and changed the world. We owe a lot of our freedoms today to the women who bravely wore red lipstick, who bravely owned their beauty, who bravely took control of their destiny by taking ownership of their own bodies. In history, this act that we now take for granted—the act of adorning our lips with rouge—was often the most revolutionary, rebellious act available to women. Lest we forget, women have only had the right to vote for 100 years (well, 101 years, to be precise). Before women had the right to vote, they had little ability to speak their minds or make a statement.
If you are a woman who feels limited by existing sexism today… imagine what the reality of a woman 101 years ago must have been like. Yes; it is true. At its worst, red lipstick has been used by those in power against women. Women in red lipstick have been called reincarnations of Satan. Women in red lipstick have been charged with witchcraft and burned at the stake. Yet, even at its worst—even during the horrifying realities mentioned above— (red) lipstick has been a tool and weapon for women without a voice. In a world where those in power have continuously attempted to own and control us by leveraging beauty against us, we have stood up: as women, as sisters, as mothers and daughters. We have taken the worst of what we were given and prospered; we have done this with our lips painted red time and time again.
When we had no voice, the loud red on our lips spoke for us.
The Ancient History of Red Lipstick
- 3500 BCE — Women in the Indus Valley use natural resources to protect their lips from the elements (the wind, the sun, etc.); a preference for resources that naturally stain lips quickly evolves.
- 3000 BCE — In Mesopotamia, crushed jewels and gemstones are mixed with tallow and wax. The resulting paste is applied to the lips of wealthy women, creating an association between lip rouge and an elevated status in society.
- 50 BCE — Cleopatra’s apothecaries use ground beetle parts to color their cosmetic mixes with a vibrant red hue. They successfully create the lip rouge that we now associate Cleopatra’s beauty with.
- 400 ACE — The first laws regulating lipstick appear in Ancient Greece. Prostitutes are charged and punished for appearing publicly without their lip paints (doing so was considered equal to impersonating a young lady).
The Medieval History of Red Lipstick
- 700 ACE — The Church demonizes cosmetics, calling women who wear lipstick “the incarnation of Satan” for daring to “challenge God’s craftsmanship”.
- 800 ACE — Chemist, surgeon, and physician Abu al-Qasim al-Sahrawi creates solid, molded sticks of perfumed color during the Islamic Golden Age… yes, lipstick has officially arrived!
The Modern History of Red Lipstick
- 1500 ACE — Queen Elizabeth I’s love of lip rouge makes painted lips commonplace in the Elizabethean court, even inspiring the invention of the lip pencil. Elsewhere in Europe, however, women are charged with witchcraft (and often burned at the stake) for wearing red lipstick.
- 1850 ACE — The distaste for make-up, considered “impolite” during the Victorian era, leads to a flourishing black market for lip rouge and eye kohl.
- 1900 ACE – 1920 ACE — American women fighting for suffrage adopt red lipstick as an unofficial uniform. Women fighting for suffrage abroad quickly follow suit, leading to the association of red lipstick with freedom and being heard without a voice. When the 19th amendment was passed in 1920, women in America were finally granted the right to vote (after some 70ish years fighting for that right).
- 1915 ACE — The invention of colored lip wax in push-tube form finally reaches the United States of America, becoming wildly popular from shore to shore. Modern lipstick (as we know) has finally arrived!
- 1920 ACE — The advent of photography as an art form normalizes daily lipstick wear. At the same time as glamorous red-lipped women start to appear in black and white photographs, a brilliant woman named Elizabeth Arden helps spread the power of lipstick in America by selling top-quality lipsticks in salons nationwide.
- 1939 ACE — Hitler’s famed hatred of red lipstick leads to Allied women both at home and abroad sporting red lipstick as a sign of solidarity with both the various Allied nations and the anti-facism movement.
- 1941 ACE — The United States military makes it a requirement for all women in the military to wear red lipstick. Although the requirement is no longer in effect today, it remained in effect from the year 1941 (when America joined the war) to 1945 (when the war ended).
The Lipstick Revolution Isn’t Over: Why Inclusiveness in the Beauty Industry is Our Next Big Fight
As recently as 2016, Ugandan model Aamito Lagum received unprecedented, ugly racist hate for wearing lipstick.
Huh? Yes, you read that right. After MAC cosmetics featured Lagum’s lips on their Instagram feed, the Internet went into a racist frenzy over the perceived impropriety of a fierce darker-skinned woman looking glorious in her favorite rouge. Yet… only 3 years later, in 2019, the global lipstick market was valued at $12.3 billion.
That’s a lot of money being spent by women, on women. It’s about time for us to unite and stand up—we must all speak up, regardless of our skin tone and of course ESPECIALLY so if we are women with the privilege of being white. We must speak up regarding the unjust treatment and irrational, warped beauty standards that are still set upon non-white women DAILY. We must speak up when we see hate.
Speaking up, of course, doesn’t always entail using our voice. Often, speaking up is best practiced by actively listening—listening and educating ourselves, listening and re-sharing the words of other women as much as possible. We must all help each other out.
Today, on National Lipstick Day, we challenge ourselves and we challenge the Pildora family to take their love of beauty just 1 tiny step further.
Today, we challenge ourselves and the Pildora family to celebrate through education and allyship.
We have always been in this together. Too many scores of women have perished for us to slink back into the comfortable shadows of half-freedoms now. And if you aren’t comfortable resharing or broadcasting non-white women’s narratives regarding their ugly beauty industry experiences? If you aren’t comfortable starting a conflict that you perceive to be (out of privilege) no longer yours? Remember two things:
- Women will not be free, not truly, until the day that ALL women are free.
The “freedom” afforded to white women today rests upon white supremacy and patriarchy; in time, this freedom will curdle and turn sour. The reality is that no human will ever truly be free until we are ALL freed from the shackles forced upon us by society—shackles of race, biological sex, gender identity, spirituality, and more.
- If you don’t know where to start, start by listening.
Listen and educate yourself. The rest will come, we promise. Our list of educational resources regarding this topic (found below) is far from complete, but it’s as good of a place as any for you to start.
Educational Resources on Racism and the Beauty Industry for Further Reading
- How the Beauty Industry is Hurting Women of Color
- From White to Very White to Kinda Brown: Analysis of Racist Practices in the Cosmetic Industry
- 7 Black-Owned Brand Founders On How The Beauty Industry Needs To Change
- ‘Making Black More Beautiful’: Black Women and the Cosmetics Industry in the Post-Civil Rights Era
- The Global Beauty Industry: Colorism, Racism and the National Body
- Beauty ideals were built on racist stereotypes. What now?
- The beauty industry is still failing black women
- More than Skin Deep: An Analysis of Black Women’s Experiences with Race, Skin Tone, and Cosmetics
- Is the beauty industry failing Black entrepreneurial women?
- The environmental injustice of beauty: framing chemical exposures from beauty products as a health disparities concern
- The Global Beauty Industry: Colorism, Racism, and the National Body (Framing 21st Century Social Issues)