According to Taylor Swift, red lips (among other things) never go out of style. As we slip into the rich, bold colors of fall that may feel like the case, but has red lipstick always been the classic that we consider it now? In honor of the change of season we’re taking a look at the history of the always iconic red lipstick.
Around 5000 years ago ancient Sumerians invented lipstick. Men and women alike crushed gemstones and used what they created to decorate their eyes and lips. A few millennia later women of the Indus Valley were using red-toned lipstick and makeup to adorn their faces. The Romans and Egyptians weren’t too far behind them and Cleopatra VII became the first “celebrity” wearer of red lipstick: she allegedly crushed ants and carmine in a beeswax base to create her own signature red. Other Egyptians used concoctions made of iodine and bromine and thus created the first toxic lipstick.
It was during the Islamic Golden Age, however, that lipstick as we know it now first began to emerge. Medieval surgeon Al-Zahrawi was a man of many scientific talents and invented a lot of things we use today (deodorant and hand lotion among them) but his greatest gift to cosmetics was his invention of solid, perfumed, molded lipsticks that he described in encyclopedia of medicine, the Kitam at-Tasrif.
Lipstick would die down as popular opinion of it shifted from elegant decoration to signifier of low-class women and prostitutes. England’s Queen Elizabeth I would briefly revive the reputation of red lipstick with her signature white face, bright red lip style before they fell out of fashion again. In 1770 the British Parliament even went so far as to pass a law that specifically stated that women who wore makeup (including red lipstick) were witches trying to lure men into marriage. Thus began the attitude that, on some level, makeup in general was a form of deceit. This negative opinion of makeup in general, but specifically of red lipstick remained for almost a century.
It was at the end of the nineteenth centure when red lipstick began to reclaim respectability. The trustworthy and taste-making Sears Roebuck catalog began offering “rouge” suitable for both lips and cheeks. This worked out nicely as motion pictures were just starting around that time. With all film then being black and white actresses needed something to make their lips stand out. It was red lipstick that did the trick, making natural lips dramatic enough to stand out in moving pictures.
What was good enough for the early silver screen was good enough for fashionable ladies everywhere. Lipstick fully and truly entered the mainstream beauty world in 1915 when Maurice Levy invented the very first metal lipstick tube. This invention, which replaced lipstick that was simply wrapped in paper, made it easier to carry around. Soon after Levy’s invention the major beauty houses started making and selling lipstick. Some of those early brands are still classics today: Chanel, Elizabeth Arden, Estée Lauder.
The 40s and 50s were the golden age of red lipstick, thanks to even further movie stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, and Ava Gardner. These women defined sexiness and class in their era and soon the majority of American women were wearing lipstick to emulate their screen idols and nearly all lipstick made then was red. It was old Hollywood glam all the way. Revlon, then the leading cosmetics company in the United States, released four reds in the 1950s that are still iconic and available today: Love That Red, Certainly Red, Fire and Ice, and Cherries in the Snow.
Red briefly dipped in popularity in the 1960s as nudes and pastels became the colors of the mod era. Red was still available in the 60s and 70s, though and by the 1990s had made a big comeback thanks to MAC Cosmetics introducing their first line of lipsticks and, specifically, the very first Viva Glam which remains a popular lipstick even now.
From ancient Sumeria all the way through to Taylor Swift, red really has been a constant color, never really disappearing. Maybe Taylor’s right after all. A classic never does go out of style.
Looking for your own classic, iconic red? Try one of these vintage shades!
Revlon’s “Certainly Red”. First introduced in 1951 this is one of Revlon’s first red shades and is still widely available today.
MAC’s Viva Glam. The original Viva Glam campaign lipstick, there is no other red quite like it. It was an instant classic that keeps getting better with time.
Chanel’s Rouge Allure in “Pirate”. Intense and chic at the same time, this lipstick isn’t quite the original Chanel red, but it’s a perfect and beautiful timeless shade that is both playful and refined.
Do you have a favorite red lipstick? Let me know in comments!