Red Lipstick
Photo via @theadelaidehipster

“I saw the lipstick on the glass and wondered who would have done something like that for an interview. Then, after I saw you, I knew who it was.”

The comment came from a woman who was a fellow student in my graduate school program. She was talking about a red lipstick mark she spotted on a used glass in the office where applicants had been interviewed.

When I put on my lipstick that morning, the same as every morning, I hadn’t considered whether or not it was interview-appropriate. Red lips are so much a part of me that not wearing them would have felt like I was in disguise. I’m observant enough to know that it’s not for everyone and is probably brighter than what a lot of women wear day today, but the fact that a liberal-minded peer would remark on it gave me pause. In the 21st century, where tattoos and piercings are seen in many professional settings, why would red lipstick still raise an eyebrow?

I like a high-impact, high-contrast look. Red lips are one of those beauty classics that I’ve always stuck with. If anything, for me, it’s self-consciously old-fashioned and works with my vintage style. I’m clearly not alone in preferring colors that are bold and obvious. The red lip color has an enduring history; lips were reddened with wine lees, red ochre, madder, henna, vermillion cochineal, or cinnabar.

Despite the fact that people have embellished their appearance with cosmetics since the beginning of human history, the practice has not escaped criticism from those who chastise women for the falseness, and vanity cosmetics supposedly express. Personally, I blame Plato and his insistence on a standard of beauty that binds it to truth and virtue. In her comprehensive history of cosmetics, Facing Beauty: Painted Women and Cosmetic Art, scholar Aileen Ribeiro claims that from Plato onwards, most of our information about cosmetics in history derives from largely hostile commentary by men. Women’s voices — until the 20th century — are conspicuously absent.

Yet, women kept on painting their lips, rouging their cheeks, and lining their eyes. The term “glamour” first came into common language around the start of the 19th century and originally hinted at occult trickery, a kind of artifice that deceived the eye and can’t be trusted. Victorian morality may have equated “painted women” with fallen or wanton figures, but other 19th-century thinkers, such as Charles Baudelaire, saw cosmetics as anything but vulgar and hoped that in modern life they would display themselves with frankness and honesty, proclaiming: “it matters but little that the artifice and trickery are known to all, so long as their success is assured and their effect always irresistible.”

The connection between visible cosmetics and questionable morality persisted into the 20th century. Makeup was still connected to theater and prostitution, which were not acceptable means for women to make money, but that didn’t mean that wearing makeup wasn’t widespread. We know that some American women were already using feminine artifice as a subversive tactic. In 1912, a group of American suffragettes, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, wore red paint to a rally for women’s emancipation. Their lips were defiantly visible, brightly painted, and voicing radical ideas.

Red Lipstick History

By the 1920s, immaculately made-up Hollywood stars set the beauty standards for countless young women whose needs were met by a thriving cosmetics industry which, in the United States, was dominated by two women-owned companies, Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden. Lipstick was available in convenient metal tubes for easy application, and a red palette ruled.

The 1920s and 1930s were relatively liberating for many women in terms of fashion and self-expression, and enjoying the dramatic and playful possibilities of makeup was a big part of that. But in spite of their visibility, red lips still evoked a frisson of transgression. J.C. Flugel wrote The Psychology of Clothes in 1930, and according to his moralistic evolutionary perspective, cosmetics were acceptable if they imitated nature, but “when lips become red with an intensity that nature never gave even to her healthiest and loveliest daughters, there is a small but definitive step backwards towards barbarism.” Ouch.

Interestingly, he did acknowledge the “defiant use of powder-puff and lipstick” as a “token at once of triumph and of independence…a victory over old habits of sexual repression and social subordination.” But even so, there was one more man feeling a little too uncomfortable with women who chose to noticeably alter the color palette nature provided.

Red lipstick has weathered changes in fashion and beauty into the present. It seems to be featured or rediscovered every other season, and for many like myself, it remains a go-to. Yet, my mind keeps going back to the comment I quoted at the outset: Who would wear “something like that” for an interview. Is it still too theatrical, too brazen? Maybe it’s just too feminine, and therefore not serious enough. I wonder if my male interviewers thought that or if they noticed it at all.

I’ve always prided myself on having a strong personal style and the ability to set myself apart. The red lipstick, in my mind, was something traditional and conservative, a way to offset the balance. I guess I was wrong. And for an intelligent woman who I know is literate in feminism to comment on its propriety made me sad.

Looks from the past can be useful tools for thinking about history and how it shades our present. How are stale ideas — cosmetics are for the vain and frivolous, red is threatening — still circulating? Women’s rights have come a long way in this country, but things like fashion and beauty can still tap into currents of anti-feminist beliefs, notions that there is a right way to present oneself as a professional woman and that I should have been able to conform to that.

Except I didn’t, and still don’t want to.

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