Rachel Felder, author of Red Lipstick: An Ode to a Beauty Icon, tells us exactly why we’re so drawn to having crimson lips and the special power that they hold.
Every woman has a beauty staple she can’t live without—inky black mascara, perhaps, or a concealer that hides even the darkest lines on an exhausted morning—but there’s only one makeup item that’s simultaneously empowering, edgy, alluring, glamourous, crisp, bold, polished, and, somehow, both modern and classic.
It is, of course, red lipstick.
Women have been reddening their lips for centuries, and with good reason: nothing can command a room, or boost one’s self-confidence, in precisely the same way. Wearing it underlines what you’re saying before you’ve uttered a word; it expresses a confidence that’s unavoidable. And, admittedly, it’s both sword and shield: it makes you seem unquestionably self-assured, even if you’re actually trembling inside. In a sense, it’s the ultimate feminist accessory, since it’s at once extra-strong and undeniably, proudly womanly.
Not surprisingly, women have been reddening their lips for centuries, ever since around 2500 B.C. In ancient Egypt, a couple centuries later, Cleopatra famously wore it, coating her lips with a shade of crimson made from grinding red beetles. Her subjects reddened their lips as well, but used less-expensive ground red ochre as the colourant, which gave off a different, more rust-toned hue. Cleopatra’s red was an expression of her status, wealth, and authority.
Queen Elizabeth I, much later, loved red lips too. When she died at age 69, a thick coating of red stain—up to a half an inch, some historians believe—was left indelibly on her lips. When the current Queen Elizabeth was planning her coronation in 1953, she commissioned a special lipstick for the day that was created to match the rich burgundy shade of her ceremonial gown, that was dubbed “Balmoral Red.”
Unlike, say, a pale pink or muted mauve, red lipstick revels in both its femininity and power. That’s why it became a symbol of the suffragette movement, both in Britain and the U.S. Women wore it while protesting for the right to vote as a virtual uniform, as a symbol of their female force. At one especially big march in New York City in 1912, cosmetics entrepreneur Elizabeth Arden sent staff out alongside the protesters’ route on Fifth Avenue with cartons of tube of red lipstick, instructing them to hand it out to the suffragettes like one might offer water to runners during a marathon.
Today, it’s worn in the same way by women like the U.S. congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It broadcasts and underlines her strength—and the strength of her convictions—in a way that nothing else could. Even in an image quickly seen on Instagram, it’s clear that she means business. That also part of the appeal for celebrities like Madonna, a fan for decades, and, frequently, Teresa May.
Red lipstick also afforded women a way to become successful entrepreneurs in an era when most executives were male. Groundbreakers like Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden built massive businesses in the first half of the twentieth century fueled by the sale of many, many tubes of red, which was essentially the default colour of lipstick for many years. Coco Chanel’s first makeup collection in 1924 consisted of just three items: a trio of different shades of red lipstick.
My own love affair with red lipstick began in my teens, when the neutral lip glosses my friends wore seemed to clash with both my admittedly big personality and wide, large mouth. Wearing it helped me revel in my sense of self, to own my differences instead of trying to hide and deny them. I went through a period of trying a variety of bright shades—fluorescent pink, magenta, intense orange—but nothing had the force of red. It made me feel sophisticated and strong; it became my armour, and constant companion, helping me gain some of the confidence every teenager longs to have.
Becoming a red lipstick person, for me, has also meant turning into someone that’s undeniably comfortable in her own skin. Some people say they can’t pull off red lips, but that’s really incorrect: it can look great on anyone with a bit of attention to the details—like, say, an easy-to-wear glossy finish instead of a matte one, and a shade with an undertone that flatters one’s colouring — and also the right mindset. Once you’ve found the right one — or wardrobe of options, for choices depending on mood and occasion — it’s hard not to be hooked.
Wearing red lipstick does seem to put you into a sort of club—an inclusive group of women whose internal strength is silently expressed by crimson lips. I feel it when I walk in a room with my decidedly red mouth—it’s a sort of unspoken sense of shared confidence and womanliness. And, quite wonderfully, the price of admission to this admirable group of women is simply the purchase of a tube of red lipstick–something that’s comparatively affordable, easy to find, and fueled as much by attitude as the color it adds to each woman’s lips.
Written by Rachel Felder, author of Red Lipstick: An Ode to a Beauty Icon, published by Harper Design.
Images: Getty / Roberto Delgado