A History of Red Lipstick: From Suffragettes to Coco Chanel

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

From the suffragettes until present day, red lipstick has always been a symbol. (Shutterstock)

Click on the audio player above to hear the full interview.

Red lipstick is as en vogue as ever this summer. But did you know that behind that color is a rich history steeped in identity, self-expression, and liberation?

According to Madeleine Marsh, author of "Compacts and Cosmetics," red lipstick "is in fact more than anything else about female strength."

Since the dawn of time, women have decorated themselves. Marsh found the first representation of lipstick on an ancient Egyptian papyrus, but red lipstick wasn't always socially acceptable. During the early 20th century, women who wore red lipstick were seen as prostitutes.

Modern-day makeup really gained popularity after World War I. When the United States invented the metal push-up lipstick tube, cosmetics became more portable and mainstream than ever.

"The first and most famous manifestation of red lipstick was in fact in New York when the suffragettes took to the streets, banded together, and as part of their defiance and fight for the vote, they all wore bright red lipstick," explains Marsh.

It's no surprise that lipstick continued to gain popularity after that period, and the accessory came to represent strength during World War II.

"Cosmetics were certainly hard to come across because we were making more important things, but the lipstick that was being made was given names like 'Fighting Red!' 'Patriot Red!' 'Grenadier Red!' And ladies were encouraged to look your best to do your best," says Marsh. "On one hand lipstick is always being portrayed as about sexuality, but that strong vain and the power of women and the power of presenting yourself in a strong way is always there, too."

According to Marsh, lipstick fell out of vogue for a time during the 1970s when the modern feminist movement began to take off. Cosmetics were seen as tools of patriarchal oppression.

"But if you think of Rosie the Riveter—there she is, this big butch lady in her overalls with arms like prize winning hams, yet she's got hennaed hair, red nail varnish, and bright red lipstick," she says. "You can be a lipstick feminist quite happily."

But not everyone liked red lipstick. French fashion designer Coco Chanel found it along with red nail polish vulgar, complaining that house guests left stains on her glassware and table linens.

While some might say that cosmetics and lipstick are trivial, Marsh says the symbolism of these products runs deep.

"It's about much more than that because it shows us what we expect women to be at particular periods," says Marsh. "During the war, having your lipstick on was part of your fight against the enemy."

Adolf Hitler also hated the trend and said that it was made from "animal fat rescued from sewage." 

"The Aryan ideal was a pure, un-scrubbed face," says Marsh. "Visitors to Hitler's country retreat, lady visitors were actually given a little list of things they must not do: Avoid excessive cosmetics, avoid red lipstick, and on no account ever are they to color their nails."

Red lipstick is a part of history, but Marsh says don't count on men, now or then, to pay much attention.

"I think men don't really notice a lot of the time," she says. "It really comes down to how you feel about yourself, and that makes you attractive."


Madeleine Marsh

Produced by:

Megan Quellhorst


T.J. Raphael

Comments [9]

You can't talk about cosmetics and ignore Anne Leonard with her minions on YouTube.

If you are going to be socially responsible, you can't be so one-sided. I enjoy the cultural history as much as anyone but with this airing you have been servants to power, IMHO.

Jun. 23 2014 01:06 AM
carolita from NYC

Actually, when I put my make up on in the subway, it's because I have a job that requires it, and it's no great pleasure for me, Larry, above.
Also, I get too many unwelcome comments from gross male strangers when I wear red lipstick. I had to stop just to keep from being angry all the time.

Jun. 17 2014 09:37 PM
Denise from Minneapolis

I've always heard that red lipstick wasfirst used thousands of years ago by sacred prostitutes because it simulates an engorged vulva and/or indicated oral prowess.

Jun. 17 2014 03:04 PM
priscilla from oregon

it's not just lipstick that conveys red power. twenty years ago, more or less, when professional women dressed in man-style grey flannel suits and floppy bow ties, women lawyers never wore anything brightly colored to court. Then one day I was appearing for the first hearing on a huge case in Chicago and knew there would be literally dozens of lawyers standing up to get a word in. casting caution to the wind, I wore a stunning red wool suit to the hearing. Sure enough, as all of us stood up, the judge looked up and down the rowsos grey and more grey suited men, looked directly at me, and said, "let's hear first from the lady in red." Go red!

Jun. 17 2014 02:06 PM
Jessen from Springfield, OR

I guess many people feel the need, either occasionally or not so much, to deploy an overt signal of strength. But then, someone who is more introverted may have their strengths, but be more reserved about when and how they express them. The historical references suggest that groups trying to make sea-change used red as another way of distinguishing themselves. The question is, at what point does it become so over-used that it becomes less meaningful or blasé?

Jun. 17 2014 01:42 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn,N.Y.

Many women treat their face as a blank canvas.
My favorite transformation of women are when they "do their makeup" on the subway,(during rush hour!)

Jun. 17 2014 01:26 PM
JL from Oregon

I don't like make-up or lipstick on any woman. It's a mask, it's unnatural, and it looks ridiculous, especially when it's lathered on in layers. I wish women would embrace their natural beauty and throw-away the face paint.

Jun. 17 2014 12:58 PM
eva lake from Portland, OR

I wrote about it a long time ago (2008):

The New York Times had a piece on red lipstick and, to a certain degree, how it traverses on art. It started off with saying that red lipstick had made a comeback. It also explored a trend of women perversely kissing paintings made by men, wearing their most indelible red.

They say that you can get rid of the red initially, but that it keeps coming back. It will resurface, sometimes years later. Indeed, the woman has made her mark permanently, branded the work. Oh, there are so many ways to interpret this. The women quoted in the article seem to come from love and adoration of the artwork, but I think much more is at play here, and at stake.

I have a pal who has not lived here long. She believes her perpetual red lipstick makes others uncomfortable around her. I was a little puzzled, as I love lipstick, especially red, and don’t think much about it one way or another.

Sure, sometimes a fellow would tell me he did not want his women to wear lipstick. But I always figured that this was the same fellow who had the magazine rolled up under his bed, filled with girls wearing nothing but.

Do people avert their eyes when you whip it out? - as though you’ve got some kind of sex toy in your hand? My friend says they look away while you’re doing it (applying the paint) and they also look at her lipstick traces on cocktail glasses with a vague repulsion. This doesn’t happen with soft lip-glosses, mind you. It’s the commitment (or rather aggression) of red which sends them. Is it because, as someone in the Times article says: “Red is primary and violent – it’s the universal gash.” -? (Italics mine.)

We followed this trend from personal style into the art itself. Can women venture boldly into color and if they do, how is it met? Surely not repulsion? Or is color just fluff?

- We found some depressing indications that the more subtle the color, the more we are encased in a dreary encaustic grey – so like the weather! - the more seriously it might be taken. This is not a down-the-line assessment, and I am not going to give examples here either, but it’s never been a high-color town anyway, until more and more of the out-of-town New Garde arrived (thank God). And some of this relates to a general chromophobia which has nothing to do with gender.

Of course this is all reminding me of Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus. That book speaks of gloriously aggressive times and aggressive characters, while not exactly being any kind of landmark feminist manifesto. Yet who wears lipstick - ? Are there chapters on Siouxsieand Lydia Lunch, exploring that very title? No. Yes, the title is lifted from an Elvis Costello song, but I think there was a big missed opportunity.

To see the comments:

Jun. 17 2014 12:41 PM

Admittedly Madeleine Marsh spoke intelligently and put the traditional use of makeup (by women) into an interesting historic and social context, but it was so as to enhance her rather political view of the matter. I could tell that Mr. Hockenberry was rather sarcastic about what Ms. Marsh implied, that makeup is really important for women to use so as to practice "liberation to be sensual," and that men have to appreciate women more for going through the trouble of having good appearances by using makeup.

I think that women have to free themselves from this preoccupation with cosmetics. Forget if suffragettes used it. Women of the 1970s Feminist movement condemned it. Of course a "Third wave" feminist movement came after the one of the 70s; and went back to condoning lipstick use as a message that women need not give up being "pretty" or "sensual" to be "strong" and "taken seriously."
It actually set women back to the stone ages and the idea that women can stick to their traditional place (being attractive) and also progress in society is what is largely responsible for the fact that decades after the suffragettes and after the 1970s feminist movement, there still hasn't been a woman President in the US though there have been women Prime Ministers or Heads of State in other countries, and that is a minor example really. There are still few women in engineering and science. Women are still facing sexism in the workplace etc. It has a lot to do with the failure of women to stop stereotyping themselves.

Serously; Humans do not have red lips. How did it become some standard of "beauty" to have red lips? The only other people who color their lips red are clowns.

The cosmetic industry laughs all the way to the bank whenever a woman buys lipstick.(I won't go into the topic that sometimes men use lipstick. It still is to emulate women). It is another sucker who has profited the pockets of Revlon, Avon, Max Factor ( etc) but which keeps women addicted
to the superficiality of so-called "beauty," and of course it keeps women thinking that all they have to spend is several dollars on makeup every few months, or weeks, so as to "renew" their youth.


Jun. 17 2014 12:01 PM

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