The History Of Black Lipstick Is More Colorful Than You Might've Imagined

The makeup you have rolling around in your bathroom drawer and the bottom of your purse isn't as cut and dry as the drugstore shelves it came off of. Everything you use to spiff yourself up has a history to it, and the history of black lipstick is an interesting one. While the little black tube might make you think of everything from the goths with fishnet gloves of junior high, to the Kardashians with their glossy ponytails and fashionably bee-stung pouts, an onyx lip encompasses more than just subculture angst and high glamour. It's been around for thousands of years, and has seen itself passed down to different cultures, transforming depending on whose hands it came across, and picking up new meaning and symbolism along the way. 

In the 1920s, the silent film starlets laid their claim on the look, using its dark shade to play up the iconic Cupid's Bow aesthetic. The lip hue was also prevalent in the '50s, even though most might think of Mad Men reds when picturing the era. In a short decade, the lipstick color went through yet another transformation, signaling social change in the '60s, then falling into the hands of countercultures for years thereafter. It was a roller coaster ride, and we're about to go on it. Below is the history of black lipstick.

1. Where It All Started: Egypt

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Egyptian women in 4000 BC were the first ones to slay with their makeup kits, paving the way for don't-mess-with-me lips. According to Broadly, a feminist channel of Vice, "They [wore] green eyeshadow, blue-black lipstick, red rouge, henna on their feet, and [accented] their breasts and nipples in blue and gold." Talk about bold. Not only did they swath themselves in fearless colors, but women weren't the only ones dabbing on lipstick in front of bathroom mirrors. 

LEDA at Harvard Law reported that "Egyptian men and women boldly applied makeup as part of their daily routine." A wet stick of lipstick was more of a status symbol than a gender divider, but it seemed that women were the only ones who thought to bring it with them to the afterlife. LEDA continued, "In life, it became a social mandate to apply lip paint using wet sticks of wood, and, in death, each well-to-do woman took at least two pots of lip paint to her tomb." And you thought you were committed to your favorite lipstick tube.

2. 1920s: Black Lipstick Is Useful, But Not For Reasons You Might Think

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The 1920s was an era during which flappers Charleston-ed, Hollywood sparkled, and everything roared. Movie sirens like Clara Bow embodied the flirty, reckless youth of "The New Woman," and everyone seemingly wanted to copy the styles of the silent film stars who lit up projector screens. 

But while their bowed lips might have looked red and slick in the silent films, they were actually black. According to Broadly, since movies were in grayscale, the darker the lip, the brighter red the shade was assumed to be. Thus why a smear of tar-black on the lips did the trick.

Broadly reported, "At this time, makeup was primarily heavy greasepaint and was typically used in theater productions, and Factor, a Polish Jew who immigrated to the United States in 1904, came up with a more blendable version in primary colors, calling it 'flexible greasepaint.'"

LEDA further explained, "Unbeknownst to the viewing public, Max Factor also used black lipstick on actresses, because it looked better than pink and red when photographed."

So instead of using a strong red like the viewers thought he did, Factor instead dipped into black to achieve that iconic "Clara Bow Look." While siren red was the popular shade back in the '20s, it appears that it really should have been an inky onyx.

3. 1950s: The Stuff Of Horror Films

When you think "1950s," chances are you don't conjure up images of black lipstick. Not even Sandy showed up with a black lippie when she came to meet Danny in painted-on leather, so that's saying something. The '50s were all about that Marilyn Monroe red or meet-you-at-the-soda-shop pink, either highlighting a woman's sex appeal or playing up her ribbon-wearing innocence. So where did that leave black lipstick?

On horror movie sets, of course. According to the Beauty Schools Of America, "In the 1950s, black lipstick had been worn by actresses starring in horror films." The shade let viewers know who the temptress was: A woman so wanton that not even the reddest of reds could satisfy her. Just think of Vampira, a 1950s television horror host with inky lips and pointed brows. That's the kind of woman who rocked a black pout.

4. 1970s: Challenging Cultural Norms

In the 1970s, we experienced an interesting dichotomy: People were both rebelling against and with lipstick. Many women burned their bras and threw their lipstick tubes in the trash, while punk rockers smeared on black slicks of paint across their mouths to show what they thought of society. LEDA explained, "As it had so often before, lipstick became a symbol of social rebellion, adopted by both sexes of the punk-rock music and cultural movement to express sex, violence, and general nonconformity. Purple and black became the most popular colors due to this contingent."

Lipstick was no longer a pretty shade you dabbed on between lunches, but rather a tool for challenging cultural norms. While they might be the most known for it, however, punks weren't the only ones using the shade.

Vogue explained, "This choice was not only for the punk subculture: Hippies, rebels, new romantics, and glam rockers also took on black and purple shaded lipsticks. The term 'Manstick' was created (lipstick on men), seen in heavy metal bands such as Culture Club."

Shades of black opened the doorway to gender bending, where many men claimed the right to stock their bathroom cabinets with cosmetics without sacrificing their masculinity. For example, the sequin shimmering Bowie and glam-rocker Lou Reed were both fans, leading the way towards a new trend. According to Jessica Pallingston, author of Lipstick: A Celebration Of The World's Favorite Cosmetic, "The real trendsetters in lipstick came through rock 'n' roll... Now it was the guys, however, who were doing the lipstick trendsetting: David Bowie, Gary Glitter, Kiss, Alice Cooper, and a newly lipsticked Mick Jagger." 

5. 1980s: Goth Culture Takes Over

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In the 1980s, many punks turned into goths, and the youth that subscribed to that look wanted to separate itself from the over-the-top glitzy and gaudy glamour that was the Dynasty era.

According to Dazed, "London of the '70s and '80s saw a subcultural explosion, as the torn fishnets and bondage trousers of punk became the Victoriana of goth and the oversized proportions of New Romanticism." But wardrobes weren't the only things that got the dye treatment. Hair, eyes, and lips were slicked with black as a way to rebel against what was mainstream at the time.

So why all the black? You've got to unpack the subculture down to its roots in order to get that answer. According to The New York Times, "The origins of contemporary goth style are found in the Victorian cult of mourning," which explains the head-to-toe black, but not so much the dark shade of lip. 

It gets more interesting, though. Valerie Steele, author of Gothic: Dark Glamour, told The New York Times that the subculture took its look from the “diabolism, dandyism, and decadence of Dracula."  Steele explained, “Just as the devil is the prince of darkness, the dandy is the black prince of elegance. And the paradigm of the gothic man is a dandy vampire aristocrat." What better way to portray the living dead than with a black lip?

6. 1990s: The Craft Took Over Our Makeup Drawers

While teens were kicking up their motorcycle boots and listening to Nirvana and Riot Grrrl politics in their bedrooms, many were also toying with an onyx shade of lippie. Why? Because witches were so in.

Broadly found that "1996 is also the year The Craft comes out, inspiring moody teens around the world to aspire to join covens and wear black lipstick while hexing those who have wronged them. The Craft effect is real and palpable — shortly after the release, black lipstick becomes considered a 'disruptive force' in schools."

It's a sentiment that unfortunately still persists today. For example, in 2004, Principal Cherie Crain sent a dozen students home from Wilbur Middle School in Wichita, Kansas for dabbling in the gothic look. Crain explained her decision to MTV News, saying, "The problem is when kids go whole-hog with the look, then it takes on a sort of dark-side symbolism... This is a place to go to school, and to be a kid. And I don’t want kids being afraid or nervous. It’s a wholesome environment."  

Black is bold, but a black lip is downright edgy, giving the wearer an intense vibe. Harpers Bazaar explained, "Tapping into the whole 'witchy woman' aesthetic, the movie fashion worked in the trends of the time — from plaid and chokers to crosses and a full-on embrace of goth. This wasn't for the girls who connected with Cher Horowitz or Jawbreaker's girly cast — this was for the badass chicks of the '90s." It wasn't a shade for the lighthearted.

7. The 2000s: Stylish AF

Nowadays, the darkness taking over isn't a startling concept. The inky shade shows up everywhere from runways to red carpets, no longer being used in only gothic or hardcore images. You can just as easily pair a black lip with a feminine dress, or use it to add an extra dose of glamour to an evening look. 

Vogue recently reported of Fashion Week, "In New York, matte, jet-black pigment marked the avant-garde urban aesthetic at Rihanna’s Fenty x Puma, while Marc Jacobs chose obsidian pouts for a surge of gothic glamour. At Rodarte, lips were painted a no-shine merlot that provided a worthy counterpoint for models’s bold, full brows." The verdict on these bold choices? "Rain or shine, a slightly sinister lip has never looked so good."

Black lipstick has certainly taken off. Lorde's signature look is the black pout, the Kardashians rock it on a seemingly daily basis, and those at home who put it on are often seen as fashion-forward rather than Hot Topic-steeped. 

It appears that after centuries of use, the black lipstick has lost its subculture credentials and outsider stigma. It's up to you to decide if that's a shame or not. 

Images: Comedy Central (1); Columbia Pictures (1); DavidBowieVEVO/YouTube (1); Boy George (1); ABC (1)

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