The History of Red Lipstick
We’re enrolling you in Red Lip 101.
It's confidence in a tube. It’s the makeup product with instant va-va-voom. From the deepest crimsons to the brightest cherry hues, red lipstick is the can’t-miss style shot—if you take it, you’re always going to score a stunning look. That’s why we’re constantly singing its praises (as evidenced here and here) and are always looking for new ways to incorporate a red lip into our days and nights. Where, though, did it come from?
The origins of red lipstick can be traced to the Sumerian region of southern Mesopotamia, circa 3,500 B.C.E. It was there that red rocks—perhaps a variety of gemstone—were crushed into a powder to tint the lips red. (Visionary, no?) Lip color of all shades also became an undeniably popular trend in Ancient Egypt, where Cleopatra was known to wear lip paint created using crushed insects mixed into a vibrant paste.
Other additives, such as ground fish scales and some other (frankly very harmful) elements, gave early lipstick a variety of hues, textures, and finishes. Some of the additions were toxic when applied to the skin, so all in all, we’re glad these particular practices have been lost to history.
Throughout the stretch of time from the origins of the practice to today, wearing lipstick has been an ever-changing social signifier. Depending on the decade, century, or region, wearing lipstick has carried with it a multitude of meanings: It could be alluring, a proclamation of social status, or a performance of wealth. It could be an admission of wickedness, vanity, or a failing of morality. It could be a showing of elegance or a visual statement of confidence—all depended (and, indeed, still depends) on the ideas swirling through the social conventions of the era. For example, at one point in Roman history, men regularly took to wearing lip color, red and otherwise.
The chemistry changed too. The additions of oils, waxes, and petroleum came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when first chemists and then cosmetics companies worked to increase the longevity of wear, the variety of hues, and the moisturizing potential of the formulas.
And then there's the packaging. In Ancient Egypt, lip color was mixed in pots. What we know today as a typical lipstick package—a bullet with a cap and a twist-up mechanism—was first patented by Nashville, Tennessee-native James Bruce Mason Jr. That was in 1923, and since then, lipsticks have evolved along with the beauty trends of the passing decades. One thing that doesn’t change, though, is the instant impact of a red lip. No matter what it says, it always makes a statement.
WATCH: How to Apply Long-Lasting Lipstick
Everyone who dons a red makes it their own. From Cleopatra to Marilyn Monroe, there has never been a shortage of iconic red-lip looks. What’s your favorite red? Do you have a brand or a specific shade that is your beauty calling card? Or are you in the red-is-for-special-occasions-only camp?