The controversial origin of red lipstick

Discover the historical twists and turns this seductive and essential makeup tool took to get into your purse today.

Karolina | Kaboompics

The exact origin of red lipstick is largely unknown … a bit of a makeup mystery, if you will. But there are several theories and clues, dating back to ancient times.

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According to the magazine Mic, lip color began to be popular in the year 2500 B.C. with the Sumerian queen Puabi of Ur, who was frequently represented with stained lips. The next and most notable historical reference to red lipstick is centered on the women (and some men) of ancient Egypt, who ground up semi-precious stones and minerals to decorate their lips with. But the ointments used in this practice could sometimes cause progressive poisoning, and became known as the so-called “Kiss of Death.” It was Cleopatra who discovered a less toxic way, and began to have beetles and ants ground up to obtain the crimson toned stain she desired.

Old Paper With Egyptian Queen Cleopatra and sphinx. Tanja Vashchuk | Shutterstock

England vs. France

Another woman who contributed to popularizing red lipstick was Queen Elizabeth I of England, who wore the shade in the sixteenth century. She was a great lover of makeup, as can be appreciated from the many portraits in which she appears with a completely white face and brilliant red lips. The lip color she donned was attained thanks to a mixture of beeswax and some plant extracts.


Queen Elizabeth I, ” The Coronation portrait”, Unknown English artist, circa 1600. National Portrait Gallery, London

But things changed after 1700, and an anti-cosmetics movement was born in England. (One that makes Alicia Keys’ present-day #nomakeup ‘revolution’ look like child’s play.) It got so contentious at one point that the British Parliament promulgated a law under which a man could annul his marriage if he discovered that his wife had used makeup before their marriage. Why? They believed makeup to be a source of “witchcraft” used to seduce men.

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In France, however, the opposite makeup movement was taking place. Upper-class women wore lots of makeup, leaving the “natural look” for peasants and women of ill repute.

Actress Sarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra, 1891.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the two countries has incredibly different approaches to makeup: Queen Victoria declared that makeup was “impolite”; meanwhile, French cosmetics companies began to make more lipstick, and out of more sophisticated and healthy ingredients (such as castor oil). Slowly, more and more women from France wore it without shame, especially great actresses. Sarah Bernhardt, the French movie star, for example, stands out as one of the first to dare to apply it in public in the 1800s.

Twentieth Century

Red lipstick finally became socially acceptable when the New York suffragettes painted their lips red during their protests in 1912; their lip color became an act of independence and defiance, but at the same time began to normalize the practice of tinted makeup. So much so that in 1915, the little lipstick tube we now know and love was invented by Maurice Levy, making lipstick more practical and portable than ever before. (In the years before this tube invention, sticks of lip color came wrapped in silk paper.)

Suffrage parade, New York City, May 6, 1912. American Press Association

This new packaging also contributed to its popularization when it started to be sold by famous brands such as Chanel, Elizabeth Arden and Guerlain.

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By the 1930s, Vogue magazine declared lipstick, “the most important of women’s cosmetics,” and in the 50s, actresses like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor solidified red lipstick as a symbol of elegance and a weapon of seduction (though not a tool of sorcery). Ironically, Taylor, one of the most iconic red lipsticked women of history, played Cleopatra, basically the ‘mother’ of red lipstick, on the big screen.

Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1958. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer |

It’s pretty amazing how many years had to pass from 2500 B.C. to 2017 for something as small as a lipstick tube to be perfected. But of course, while the red lip has a long and interesting history, many other beauty trends come and go, and societal norms evolve and ideas of what’s sexy vs. what’s sorcery change; The important thing is that you, the person wearing the lipstick—no matter what shade it may be—stay rooted in your values, and unwavering in your inner beauty.

Adriana Bello
Adriana Bello
Adriana is the editor-in-chief of a fashion and lifestyle magazine in Venezuela. She believes elegance is a matter of good taste, not money. Her fashion icon is Coco Chanel but most of the time she feels like Bridget Jones.

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