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How Red Lipstick Went From Illegal to Everywhere

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Marilyn Monroe, wearing her signature lip color.
Marilyn Monroe, wearing her signature lip color.
Getty Images

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There’s lipstick, and then there’s red lipstick. It carries with it a symbolic value that we don’t associate with say, pale pink, or peach lipstick. It’s virtues get extolled in the movie Why I Wore [red] Lipstick to my Masectomy when the protagonist explains "I love red lipstick because it’s a choice. Wearing it shows confidence, demands that the world pay attention and dares you to live up to it… I felt like the women who wore red lipstick were more deserving than me, more powerful than me."

That’s a lot of power to attribute to a stick of oil and wax.

The most obvious explanation for the fact that red lipstick seems different from other lipsticks is because, as Ken Cosgrove quips in Mad Men "lipstick was invented to simulate the flush of a woman's face when a man treated her right." Wearing pink lipstick indicates that, yes, you have a genitals. Wearing red lipstick indicates that you have genitals that are super aroused (the labia gets darker as you get more excited.)


Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

That explains why, for much of history, red lipstick in particular was associated with prostitutes — though it was also associated with some other sexy-seeming women. Cleopatra, the ultimate classic sex symbol, wore red lipstick made from crushed carmine beetles around 3000 BC, which may have helped her seduce Caesar and Anthony. People were understandably surprised when Queen Elizabeth — the Virgin Queen — wore it in the 16th century, as it was generally associated with lower class women, and, again, prostitutes.

Just for reference, whenever we're talking about just about any kind of fashion or make-up trend, it somehow had its origins with Queen Elizabeth. It doesn’t matter what it was, that’s just always the case. If we ever talk about, say, colored contacts, it’s inevitably going to have been introduced by Queen Elizabeth, perhaps by holding emeralds in front of her face and claiming her eyes were green now.

By 1770, cosmetics of any kind were banned in England, and the law claimed that, "women found guilty of seducing men into matrimony by a cosmetic means could be tried for witchcraft." That law even it made its way to Pennsylvania (though Martha Washington had her own favorite recipe for red lipstick that involved wax, hogs’ lard, spermaceti, alkanet root, almond oil, balsam, raisins, and sugar.)

This is pretty absurd, as it shouldn’t be a woman’s problem if a man is too stupid to figure out that human lips are not naturally the same shade as a tomato.

People in France seemingly felt the same way, as by that period cosmetics became so fashionable among women at court that prostitutes were the only people not wearing them. That "make-up is LYING" attitude continued in England up until 1854 — an article in the Saturday Evening Review that year denounced it as trickery.

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The actress Sarah Bernhardt may have been responsible for bringing red lipstick back in vogue in the 1880s. At a time when many women were still reluctant to wear any cosmetics, the world renowned actress — perhaps most famous for playing the title role in Hamlet — brazenly applied it in public. Fortunately, lipstick in its modern form had recently been invented, so she didn’t need to apply it with a brush from a jar. She helped popularize what she called the "stylo d'amour" or "love pen." It might have helped that Sarah was originally from France.

But that was Sarah Bernhardt. She also refused to wear a corset, played male roles, and generally did a whole bunch of really cool things that the average woman of the time didn’t do. Not all women embraced the trend; even Lola Montez, another feminist sex symbol who brought down the Bavarian Monarchy (Google her) informed women that wearing lipstick would lead to certain destruction. At that time, according to Jessica Pallingston’s totally fantastic, must read book Lipstick: A History of the World’s Favorite Cosmetic, the notion of the time was very much that beauty came from within and "lipstick societies underground traded recipes as if they were cooking up moonshine."

But that might have been why red lipstick became a surprisingly feminist symbol for the suffragette movement. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman marched at the 1912 New York City Suffragette March, they wore red lipstick. It soon began to be regarded as a look that represented female liberation — not in terms of sexual freedoms, but social ones. Flappers began favoring dark red lipstick. It became a legitimate symbol of power and, for men, of terror. In New York in the 1920’s, all lipstick almost got banned again, because of fear that women might use it to poison men.

But what was rebellious for one generation soon came to be seen as a symbol of American womanhood.


Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Adolf Hitler, who loved the idea of women embracing very traditional roles, hated red lipstick. Women visiting his country estate were even instructed that they should "avoid red lipstick."

I can’t say that it was borne out of a desire to stick it to Hitler, but during the war years in America (and to some extent England) wearing lipstick was seen as women’s patriotic duty. Women were expected to look beautiful, so the men fighting abroad had something to dream of. That meant lipstick, and it was almost always red. "Auxiliary Red" — as you might expect, a bright red lipstick — was advertised as "the lipstick for servicewomen." Other brands like "Fighting Red — A Brave New Lipstick Color" or "Emblem Red" followed shortly.

All of this meant that by the 1950’s, red lipstick had become a standard at a time when 98% of American women wore lipstick (for perspective, only 96% brushed their teeth). Only the names for lipstick changed, from ones about fighting the good fight to ones like "Love that Red!" or "Royalty Red." It became the ultimate emblem of not rebellion, but of femininity. Ads showing ladies applying their red lipstick encouraged women to "take time out for beauty" — just like Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth and Elizabeth Taylor, who were all fans of the shade.

So, it only took about 4,950 years for red lipstick to become entirely socially acceptable. It might be bit of an overstatement to talk about how it’s something that "shows confidence" and "dares you to live up to it," but it’s still a rare item that can appeal to sex symbols, patriots and feminists.