The Fascinating History Of Red Lipstick

The history of red lipstick is a winding tale of power, death, rebellion, and bawdiness. Some smeared it on despite the stigma, while others literally poisoned themselves with toxic lipstick formulas in order to look beautiful. Powerful women used it to assert their space, and others used it to build courage and flirt with the idea of coming out of their boxes.

Lipstick has inspired women like Dita Von Teese to assert, "Heels and red lipstick will put the fear of God into people," and was the driving force behind Coco Chanel's comment, "If you're sad, add more lipstick and attack." Wearing a bold red can give a feeling of power, making one feel like a different version of themselves.

The beauty-minded public has had a long love affair with red lipstick, as it made its way from Cleopatra's vanity to giving Queen Elizabeth I her "kiss of death," leaping from Marilyn Monroe's flirty smirk to your mom's lips when she swiped it on in the mirror each morning. From murder, to prostitution, to witchcraft accusations, the history of red lipstick has a sexy past that's 5,000 years deep. Revel in it below.

Ancient Civilizations


Even 5,000 years ago, people dabbled with pots and paints. Ancient Sumerian men and women were the first to invent lipstick, making it out of crushed gemstones and white lead and painting their lips and eyes with the concoction. According to The Toast, "this was not the last time people were like, 'Check out all this sweet lead! Hey, what if we put it on our mouths oh god I’m dying.'" Egyptians like Cleopatra also added red lip paint to their arsenal, crushing bugs to create a crimson for their lips.

"She (or her slaves) allegedly created lipstick out of flowers, red ocher, fish scales, crushed ants and carmine in a beeswax base to create her own signature red," Rachel Weingarten, beauty historian and author of Hello Gorgeous! Beauty Products in America '40s-'60s , tells Bustle. She says that royalty and the upper class wore color on their lips as a display of social status rather than gender, which is why you'd also see men decorating their faces.

While stains were seen as signs of aristocracy in Egypt, Greece saw it as the mark of the plebeian — or the prostitute. This led to the first known regulation related to makeup, which determined that prostitutes without their trademark wine stained lips could run into some trouble with the law. "Prostitutes were expected to use lip colors and obvious makeup in public, or else they would be punished because it implied that they were deceitfully posing as ladies," Gabriela Hernandez, author of Classic Beauty: The History of Makeup and founder of Besame Cosmetics, explains.

The Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, people tended to go bare-faced, but not out of choice. Instead, the Church decided that painting one's face was a challenge to God and his workmanship, and banned their use.

"Pictures of devils putting lipstick on women appeared often, and women frequently had to address their lipstick use at confession," Sally Pointer, the author of The Artifice of Beauty: A History and Practical Guide to Perfumes and Cosmetics, wrote in her book. But then again, priests did offer some sympathy for husbands, creating a loophole: the use of lipstick was not a mortal sin if done “to remedy severe disfigurement or so as to be not looked down upon by [one’s] husband.” Bless.

The Elizabethan Era

Throughout the 16th century, the relationship between lipstick and the Church continued to be a rocky one, like that one couple that keeps breaking up and getting back together again. While the Dark and Middle Ages saw a strict policy against lip rouge, Queen Elizabeth I paid no attention to the Church's fire and brimstone.

So devoted was she to her lip shade that she went as far as believing it had magical powers, suspecting that it had the ability to heal and ward off death. Which was a darkly ironic leap, seeing how one of the main ingredients was white lead.

"Queen Elizabeth I made her own lip colors, but many of the lipsticks of the time contained ceruse which is made from lead. This would slowly poison and disfigure the wearer until they died of lead poisoning," Hernandez confirms. Finding the Queen dead with a half-inch of lead heavily caked on her lips led to her very literal "kiss of death," giving lip paint a sinister spin.

After her death, the Church swung back to treating lipstick as an issue of morality, to the point where laws were issued. It wasn't just impolite to go trade turnips at the market while wearing red: It was black magic. "The church discouraged the use of cosmetics as being deceitful to men and sinful, and England even had a law punishing its use as witchcraft," Hernandez shares.

The hysteria managed to cross the ocean and over to the colonies. "Like England, some American states also 'protected' men from the 'trickery' of lipstick by allowing a marriage to be annulled if the wife had used lip color during the couple's courtship," Fashionista reported.

That law made its way even to progressive states like Pennsylvania, though according to Racked, Martha Washington still had her own favorite recipe for red lipstick that involved ingredients like wax, hogs’ lard, and raisins. Rules or no rules, women weren't giving up their stains.

The Victorian Era

While the notion of pointy hats and striped stockings disappeared with the turn of the Victorian era in the late 1800's, red lipstick was still seen as something uncomfortably shocking. This fact that only egged on French actress Sarah Bernhardt, notorious for applying her lipstick at cafes and street corners.

"Applying makeup in those days was considered an intimate act simply because it wasn't done in public. So the logic goes that applying it in public made men think of the boudoir where most women beautified themselves. It was also done with a brush, so it was a fairly sensual process. Add to that Bernhardt's flair for the dramatic (the woman slept in a coffin, after all!) and it's likely that it was very saucy indeed," Weingarten notes.

The Early 1900's

Before the flappers got their hands on it, the first and most famous public demonstration of red lipstick was performed by suffragettes as they poured into the New York streets in protest in 1912. In fact, according to Mic, Elizabeth Arden herself was handing out lipstick to marching suffragettes. "Whilst the explicit intention of the suffragists was Votes for Women, the implicit message was that whether they were ‘New Women’ cycling in bloomers and sensible shoes, or elegant ladies in big hats and bright lipstick, women should be free to chose what they wanted to look like and who they wanted to be," historian Madeleine Marsh shared in her book Compacts and Cosmetics. After centuries of the patriarchy limiting women to putting on their lip rogue in secret, the silk wrapped lipstick became a radical symbol of feminism and rebellion.

In 1915, the first lip color in a sliding metal tube was pushed into the market by inventor Maurice Levy, freeing women from the messy task of applying paper-wrapped red. "When the first twist-up lipstick tube was invented in 1915, lipstick became even more popular, as it was now much easier to carry around, versus before when it was found in small compacts or wrapped in paper," Toast reported. The modern recipe was made out of crushed insects, beeswax, and olive oil, and the it would turn rancid on the lips after just a couple of hours of wear. Surprisingly, that didn't stop women from using it.

While lipstick was still ascribed to unruly suffragettes, the stigma against a bright red pout began to recede thanks to Tinseltown and silent film stars like Clara Bow. "Women saw them in the movies and wanted to emulate their looks and personality. They became the model of what was attractive in women so it was easy to use their likenesses to sell product," Hernandez explains.

So much so that by the '30s, Vogue declared that lipstick was "the most important cosmetic for women," according to Fashionista, officially taking away its past taboo.


With the start of World War II red lipstick took on a patriotic spin, turning the morning routine into a civic duty that gave Hitler the finger. "Hitler hated red lipstick and would not allow any women around him to wear it since he claimed it contained animal fat from sewage," Hernandez shares. Lipstick became a "symbol of resilient femininity in the face of danger," according to Sarah Schaffer, author of Reading Our Lips: The History of Lipstick Regulation in Western Seats of Power, which boosted the morale of both women and the soldiers overseas. So much so that the government ordered factory dressing rooms to be stocked with lipstick to keep up female workers' efficiency.

Women also used their Victory Reds as a way to bring normalcy back to their new roles outside of the house. "Women wore it while going to the factories because it was the only thing left for them as far as a way to assert their femininity, since their clothing was very masculine and they couldn't do much with their hair since it had to be secured so it would not fall into the machinery," Hernandez points out.

Once the war was over and most women put away their work bandanas, red lipstick took a glamorous turn. In the '50s, a magazine ad changed the way women looked at the lipsticks in their purses, linking it to women that seldom stay well behaved. Revlon's iconic "Fire & Ice" campaign, split women into two categories via a quiz with questions like, "would you streak your hair with platinum without consulting your husband" and, "have you ever danced with your shoes off?" that would help them determine if they were "naughty or nice." According to Marsh, it was to bring about images of "Park Avenue whores — elegant but with the sexual thing underneath."

So why was it so successful? "It sparked interest in women because of the fact that it had questions that would qualify you as being either a good girl or a bad girl, more demure or daring. It sparked the imagination of women because it gave them a chance to explore both sides of their personalities since everybody could imagine themselves as being one or the other depending on the situation. The quiz included in the magazines helped to promote this lipstick and made the sales soar," Gabriela shares.

The '70s

When the images of Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall were replaced by Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy in the '60s, red lipstick lost its popularity in makeup drawers. "With the sexual revolution and invention of the miniskirt and birth control, red lipstick was seen as belonging to the last generation (and also, more visible on a man when you're up to no good!) so color choices changed," Weingarten explains. With hippies opting to go au naturel and feminists protesting against makeup as in cahoots with the male gaze, lips took on more neutral trends. But disco — and disco queens like Donna Summer, for example — changed all that.

"Disco's influence with bright colors did bring back the popularity of bold red lip and dark cheek shades," Gabriela confirmed. With Studio 64 and plenty of boogie nights, came a need for slinky jumpsuits and glamorous makeup, bringing back cherry red lips.

The '80s To Present Day

Juan Naharro Gimenez/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

When the 80's fitness boom played out across gyms and Jane Fonda videos, red faded in popularity. "Red lips were not as popular because of the workout craze in the '80s, which brought pink or rose into popularity as day colors, leaving reds for special occasions only," Hernandez shares.

But women like Madonna, Julia Roberts, and Linda Carter (aka Wonder Woman) kept vermilion in vogue throughout the decade. After that, the color has been on and off our radar and our lips. Nowadays, people choose their lip shade based on mood rather than trend, where they can pick out a cherry hue on a Tuesday and switch to black on Wednesday. But with the rise of Taylor Swift fans trying to emulate her classic red-lipped look, pinup styles rising in popularity, and beauty vloggers that challenge us to push beyond of our weekday makeup comfort zones, the world has recently seen a definite surge in bright-red hues.

Thankfully, there's no more wondering if your red lippie is filled with lead, if you'll be tried for witchcraft for wearing it on a first date, or if you'll mortally offend someone while reapplying in the coffee line. These days, the biggest difficulty in wearing red lipstick is choosing which shade you want to slip into your back pocket — which, considering the history, is nothing to pout about.

Images: Polygram Filmed Entertainment & Working Title Films; 'Darnley' Portrait, c. 1575 (1); Portrait of Barbara Dürer, c. 1490 (1); Louise Abbema (1); Elizabeth Arden (1); Revlon (1)