A Brief History Of The Classic Red Lip

A Brief History Of The Classic Red Lip


Lipstick–and makeup in general–is a funny thing. Used by women for centuries to adorn, shape and define, it has become a symbol of changing times, fashions, views and cultures. But throughout these years, the lip colour of choice has been steadfast: red.

Vivid, iconic, and striking, red lips have stood the test of time, with countless authors writing tomes devoted to its enduring beauty, including writer, makeup artist and brand-builder Lisa Eldridge, who developed an entire chapter to the shade in her book Face Paint: The History of Makeup.

Join me as I take a look back at the roots of the classic red lip.

Prehistoric Preening

We see the first documented iteration of the classic red lip in the prehistoric period, when lip paint was creating using crushed beetles, plant extracts and fruit juices. These primitive measures demonstrate that no matter how limited resources are, women will find a way to showcase their beauty and personality.

In 2500 BCE, women would crush gemstones, white lead and grainy red rocks to create a stain-like effect. Fast forward a hundred generations or so to 25 AD, where beeswax mixed with pink and red paint (so healthy) smooths things out for a subtler, more natural look.

Religion Rules

Sweeping Catholicism across the West and constant talk of burning hellfire meant that seductive looks were obviously forbidden. Women opted for more virginal, barely-there bases that demonstrated their modesty and chastity.

Long Live The Queen


It’s now 1560, and Queen Lizzie’s on the throne. An enduring symbol of the powerfully feminine spirit, she is most often depicted rocking a bold red lip. This image of the pale, flame-haired ruler has become synonymous with authority and prestige. Even our current Queen has taken inspiration and opting for a ruby-red lip look now and again!

Geisha Glamour


Let’s look at Geishas now. Although courtesans and mistresses have played a role in Japanese culture for centuries, it was only in the at the end of the 19th century that the geishas we are most familiar with sprung into popular consciousness.

The ritual of the geisha applying thick white paint and drawing on heart-shaped lips conveys femininity as an art form. Red lips signify poise, elegance—and most crucially—the ideal state of health and fertility for male visitors.

French Innovations

Whilst red lipstick, lip stain and rouge typically contained natural ingredients using merely what was available at the time by the mid-1880s, a designated lipstick pomade had been created, by French cosmetic house Guerlain. This momentous period meant that from that point onward, lipstick in all forms would become more accessible and thus more meaningful and powerful as the world headed towards the 20th century.

Changing Views

Contrastingly, whilst lipstick was becoming more accessible to women, Victorian England (and Europe in general) was rejecting the notion of painted faces. Red lips were associated with prostitution and were considered cheap, provocative and wholly un-ladylike. Victorian women instead devoted their time at their dressing tables to maintaining a porcelain complexion and appearing as un-blemished and milky-white as possible. Skincare became the new way to pamper, without resorting to subversive colours and textures.

In the mid-1900s, the red lip was back in fashion; suffragettes would smear the scarlet hue onto their lips as a symbol of autonomy and female empowerment. Although red lips throughout history often demonstrated a woman’s class, character and social standing, this was the first time red lipstick has been used to display a political conviction.

20th Century Girls

Moving swiftly through the 20th century, we find ourselves in a new age: beauty products are being produced in factories, everyone is at war and with chaos comes opportunity. In 1915, the first twist-up lipstick was invented. Ironically, the ‘bullet’ shapes of some of our favourite brands, are simply based on how practical and uniform this narrow cylinder is to make.

In the 20s and 30s, lipsticks were being released by just about everyone, in shades and textures that were previously unheard of.


During WWII, the Americans utilized the well-known image of Rosie the Riveter, calling women to action and to support the war effort– whilst wearing a full face of makeup of course.


Again, we see the red lip becoming a symbol of female power and also to express an ideal of female beauty–although Rosie is encouraging women to get stuck in, she still embodies ideals of youth, poise and beauty. It can be said that this image paved the way for portraying women as elegant and picture-perfect, no matter the occasion.

The Golden Age of Hollywood meant that displays of femininity were provided to the public in glorious technicolour. Stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe exude confidence, sensuality and youth both on and off-screen. Their statement beauty product? A bold lip, of course.


In the 1970s, rock chicks like Debbie Harry were known to pair a bold red pout with more distressed and subversive clothing. Even Chrissy Hynde was known to whip out the rouge once in a while. Red lipstick was becoming a mode of transformation for artists, by combining elements of punk with traditional beauty ideals, to create something wholly unique and unusual.

We see this with Madonna too. Since the 1980s, she has used red lipstick to accent her various personas. From disco kid to goth queen, her lips more-or-less stayed vivid red.


Lipstick Nostalgia

Nowadays, it’s hard to find an artist, celebrity or public figure who hasn’t opted for a red lip– or a beauty brand that hasn’t launched their take on the classic red lip. Gwen Stefani, Christina Aguilera and Taylor Swift have all dabbled with a ‘Hollywood siren’ persona in order to embody the feminine ideals of the 50s.

Dita Von Teese tops off her 20s and 30s-inspired burlesque routines with a wash of crimson and countless Asian beauty brands have launched ranges aimed at creating a bright, luminous and milky complexion and the perfect red lip.

The Present-Day Pout

Now, in 2016, lips being tested to the limit–we are over-lining, plumping with fillers, and manipulating our natural features like never before.


From ancient beginnings with natural dyes and stone to the current liquid lipstick trend, red lips have only grown in popularity.

From this journey through the history of the red lip, we see that time and time again, red lipstick is the go-to option when looking to make an impression. With lipstick sales skyrocketing and an increasingly saturated beauty market with big-name brands and celebrities offering their take on the classic colour, the only question is; which brand will you choose? 

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