For me, red lipstick will always be associated with a particular woman – Jill, the charismatic, clever and fearless linchpin of our office, whose scarlet lips signalled like a red flag that she was in charge. Everything about Jill was graceful and confident: from her sophisticated wardrobe, to her opinionated views and crimson Chanel pout – she was everything I wanted to be.
Inspired by her potent combination of cosmetics and confidence, I set about experimenting with the bold lips that she was never without, and myself and others had always deemed me too shy to wear. I armed myself with a rich, creamy red lipstick, the kind that slips on like satin and sets like velvet.
Although it wasn’t instant, with time and practice, simple sweeps of vibrant colour helped erase years of self-doubt and bestowed my lips and confidence with the characteristics that set me on my way to becoming what I considered ‘that kind of woman’.
However, I’ve realised that, even now, it’s unclear what kind of woman actually does wear red lipstick. The cosmetic itself is rife with associations (some flattering, others considerably less so), and she who dares to wear red lipstick welcomes the gamut of assumptions about her character.
For centuries, red lips have largely been seen as a stamp of immorality. In more God-fearing medieval times, it was believed that creating a plump, sexualised mouth would earn you a fast-track ticket to hell. Several hundred years later, Parliament passed a law condemning lipstick, considering it a sign of witchcraft.
To confuse further our feelings about the cosmetic, there have been large stretches in history that were entire pro-red lippie. The Sumerians invented the stuff (just 200 miles outside Babylon), and Egyptian women fully embraced deepening one’s lip colour, going as far as to make sure they were buried with pots of rouge. Perhaps most famously, Queen Elizabeth I, known for her piercing red lips, elevated the shade into something regal, instead of seedy.
It wasn’t until the Golden Age of Hollywood, with its Technicolor films and glamorous studio portraits, that red lipstick came to be considered widely acceptable – even aspirational. Consider Jean Harlow’s pointed red pout in the 1930s, Veronica Lake’s in the 1940s and Marilyn Monroe’s in the 1950s. None of these actresses was known for playing the girlish ingénue. They were women with overtly feminine power. They were knowing.
The lure of looking feminine but remaining powerful was such a glorious notion, it’s little wonder women started to use red lipstick as a tool to communicate their own self-possession.
‘Red lipstick is a source of strength,’ says Poppy King, creator of Lipstick Queen. ‘You put it on and suddenly you feel more capable than you did without it.’
Debbie Harry asserted herself in the boys’ club that was the New York City punk scene with talent and red lipstick. Gwen Stefani is rarely without her signature crimson pout. And shy Heather Sweet from Michigan probably wouldn’t have made the same cultural impact as Dita Von Teese if it weren’t for her red lipstick.
If some of the world’s most intelligent and charismatic women are using red lipstick for all it’s worth, it begs the question – why do so many women avoid it?
If red lipstick is a sign of self-assurance, our collective confidence must be coming on in leaps and bounds. On the small screen, we’ve elevated Mad Men’s office vixen Joan Holloway into an unlikely style icon. Hardly a slip of a woman, she wears red lipstick and a quiet confidence, to boot.
‘It’s a show of female strength,’ says King. ‘Look at where we are at the moment: some think this economic mess we’re in is men’s fault. So it’s as if subconsciously, we’re feeling entirely justified in going back to the way we women do things.’
Even the act of applying red lipstick is empowering. By dressing your lips in red, it draws people’s attention to you, especially your mouth, and subsequently, the words that come out of it.
‘It’s a symbol of prowess,’ says King. Unlike other cosmetics, many of which correct or camouflage something we don’t like about ourselves, red lipstick is about assertion.
‘When I cajole a red-lipstick virgin into wearing it, they often say they feel like they could do anything now,’ says King. ‘One customer said she put it on before giving birth because it made her feel strong.’
That’s the thing about red lipstick – it’s a beautiful case of chicken and egg. It may require confidence to wear, but confidence can actually be a result of putting on red lipstick – and no one needs to know which comes first.