The Powerful History Of Red Lipstick

These days, red lipstick is worn for countless reasons and by people of virtually all ages and many different backgrounds and walks of life. One might wear it to match an article of clothing, to add a bold pop of color for a night out, or even to make a political or social statement. Modern day celebrities seem to know the power of red lipstick, and some have made it an iconic staple of their identity for a time. Take Taylor Swift's "Red" era, when her album of the same name was sweeping the world. And she is far from alone. 


Seventeen Magazine  published an article directed at young women and girls, showing current celebs rocking the look. Everyone from Taylor to Demi Lovato to Emma Roberts to Kat Grahm were pictured sporting the classic, glamorous look. And Teen Vogue recently rounded up the thirty most iconic red lipstick looks from the past several decades, covering everyone from Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe to Elizabeth Taylor and Beyonce. 

So what exactly is it about red lipstick that seems to make such a powerful and bold statement? Maybe it has something to do with the astoundingly complex, political, and powerful history of this seemingly-simply cosmetic. 

Red lipstick in ancient times

If you thought red lipstick originated sometime in the 19th or 20th centuries, have we got some news for you! The truth of the matter is, this particular cosmetic product has ancient roots that are over 5,000 years old (via Besame). In Mesopotamia, over 5 millennia ago, people used to crush red gemstones into a fine powder and wear it on their lips to create the shimmering scarlet hue. And later in history, people used everything from red algae to the scales of fish to color their lips red. What we think of as lipstick today (molded into a solid form to be applied to the lips) was first invented by Abu Al-Qasim Al-Zahrawi during a time known as the Islamic Golden Age, which took place around 622 A.D. (via Lumen Learning).


Another ancient origin of red lipstick is Egypt; the famous Cleopatra is said to have colored her lips red by using a paste made from crushed insects (via Real Simple). Interestingly, this is still how some red dye, sometimes used in lip color, is made. If your lipstick contains an ingredient called "carmine," it is likely made from crushing a certain type of beetle found in Mexico and Central America (via PETA).  

Votes for women

In 1912, American women began marching, protesting, and holding rallies and demonstrations demanding the right to vote in elections the way that men could. These women, known as suffragettes, often wore red lipstick while attending these protests and rallies (Real Simple). Red lipstick was not something "respectable" women of the time were expected to wear, as modesty and conservative dress were still what society deemed necessary for women. By wearing red lipstick at these marches, suffragettes were sending a powerful message that they were not the women of previous generations; they were modern, independent-minded people who demanded equal rights to make decisions about what happened in their country and their lives. 


At the time, these women were scorned for "terrorizing" men with their progressive ideals and their oh-so-scary red lips while they spoke up loudly and clearly about what they saw as a grave injustice and inequality in the society in which they were expected to live and serve, but not have any control.

The idea of red lipstick as a political statement carried into the 1940's and the WWII era. Adolf Hitler famously hated red lipstick, and so as a show of rebellion against his fascist regime, women in allied countries, including the United States, began wearing red lipstick proudly as a statement that they were members of a free nation that was fighting for justice and freedom from fascism.    


Modern statements made by red lipstick

Today, red lipstick is still worn by some to make a clear political statement and to harken back to these periods of history in which women stepped up to claim their power and to fight for justice as they saw fit. For example, New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) can usually be seen wearing a red lip, whether working in Washington, giving an interview, or posting on social media.


In 2020, AOC talked to Vogue about her choice to wear this very-noticeable color on the regular. First, she pointed out how much more attention people pay to the way women in politics dress and groom than how the men in politics do, saying, "Femininity has power, and in politics there is so much criticism and nitpicking about how women and femme people present ourselves." She went on to explain, "Just being a woman is quite politicised here in Washington." While some think caring about fashion in her line of work is "frivolous," AOC says how she presents herself is one of the most important decisions she makes. 

And one of the decisions she makes is to pop on some red lip color. Why? Because like the many before her, it makes her feel bold and confident. In her case, it also reflects her culture. "Being Latina, this is like very much our culture, where we come from, I will wear a red lip when I want confidence, when I need a boost of confidence."


How to pick the best red for you

Whether you have been on a decade-long hunt for the perfect shade of red or are just recently becoming interested in trying out this bold, historical lip color, celebs and beauty experts are ready with some advice for you. Byrdie rounded up some celebrity secrets where it comes to how several of them get their signature scarlet looks. If you're a Swiftie, it might interest you to know that Taylor swears by Nars Velvet Matte Lip Pencil in the shade Dragon Girl. Meanwhile, makeup artist to the stars Rachel Goodwin relies on  Rouge Allure Velvet Luminous Matte Lip Color in shade La Fascinante to help fair-skinned stars like Emma Stone make a bold statement. 


Zendaya, who has been an ambassador for the brand, says that Lancôme's L'Absolu Rouge Ruby is her go-to. Rather than the fire engine red sported by Stone and Swift, this hue is a more classic, ruby-toned shade and looks sophisticated and gorgeous on her. And if you're looking for a blood red shade, look no further than the choice of Gabrielle Union's makeup artist, Vincent Oquendo. Oquendo chose KVD Vegan Beauty's Everlasting Liquid Lipstick in shade Nahz Fur A Too for his famous client.

Tips on getting a long-lasting lip look

Now that you've chosen your ideal shade of red, how do you get it to stay put while marching in a protest, dancing with your friends, or sipping wine with your beau? Southern Living has some great tips to not only get a perfect application, but also help it to stay in place. 


First, start with a clean slate. It's a good idea to gently exfoliate your lips and ensure they are feeling soft, smooth, and hydrated before beginning. Once you've done that, you could consider starting with a lip primer. If that isn't something you regularly carry around in your makeup bag, concealer will work just as well in a pinch! 

One of the ways red lipstick can go from glamorous to messy quickly is by feathering and bleeding outside the lines of your lips. The best way to prevent this is to use a good lip liner. You can either use one that matches the shade of your lipstick, or you can use a neutral shade that matches your natural lip color. Either way, ensure the liner is well sharpened and take your time. 


Next, apply the lip color. Some people insist a lip brush is the best way, others use their fingers, and many apply the product directly from the tube. Whatever your preference is, it's a good idea to blot afterwards to prevent transfer. A light dusting of translucent powder over the lipstick will also help it last longer!