In this series, we explore how beauty has played a role in meaningful and empowering movements that helped to shape our world today.
Taylor Swift, Lupita Nyong’o, the woman next door whom you may have never exchanged words with, you who are reading this. Curious about what the common denominator between all four is? Having red lipsticks as a part of your beauty journey. This is whether or not it’s your preferred choice of shade, even if you’re not that into makeup at all. At one point in your life (or maybe in the future), for sure, a shade of red has and will touch your lips. It’s not a staple makeup product for nothing. It’s its own beauty icon.
But it’s not just because it's bright and bold and interesting to look at. The red lipstick actually has a strong role not just in beauty history, but in human history — period. Today, we dive deep into its appeal, impact, and power to empower.
From Ancient civilisation to modern times
As humans, we’re naturally drawn to what’s ‘beautiful’. But moving away from subjectivities, we’re talking about raw human instincts. It’s why there’s a certain body type that attracts us or why a certain scent draws us in even before our informed biases come in. Human attraction suggests that we are drawn to what looks healthy or capable or beautiful because it follows the concept of ‘survival of the fittest’. As a result, vanity came into the picture. And the red lipstick was born.
As early as 3500 B.C.E. in Mesopotamia, people used red rocks to create pigments that they can use to colour their skin. In Ancient Egypt, Cleopatra, as well as other people in positions of power regardless of gender, was said to don red paint on her lips as a sign of social status. Same goes with Ancient Rome.
Self-proclaimed lipstick addict and account executive Vanessa, 23, guessed that red lipstick in history was “previously sexualised or ‘required’ by men until a certain shift.” Interestingly, she’s right to some extent.
In Ancient Greece, prostitutes were the only ones who can wear red lipstick. In fact, it was said to be the first recorded law related to painting your lips red. It wasn’t in any way derogatory, however, as prostitutes own more legal power to earn land, businesses, and even have rights over men compared to other Athenian women at the time.
Fast forward to recent history, Elizabeth Arden (founder of her eponymous brand) handed red lipsticks to suffragettes who marched for women’s right to vote in 1912. At a time where women weren’t allowed to vote, wearing makeup and even owning a business was also a big no-no. Still, Elizabeth used beauty as a platform to help push for causes that will empower fellow women.
This transitioned to one of the biggest roles red lipstick played in history, which was during World War II in the 40s. Red lipstick was prohibited in Germany under Nazi rule. Meanwhile, in America, it was finally embraced as a luxury along with clothes or bags.
However, as common resources were needed to create military artillery, materials used to create makeup (and makeup tubes) became scarce. Women were called to help in the production line as men enlisted for the war. In an effort to exercise strength in femininity despite the chaos of the time, women made do with what’s left of the cosmetic carcass at the time to feel empowered.
That’s when Elizabeth Arden stepped in again to create makeup kits for women in service. The aim was to boost morale and to prove that there is power in vanity. It’s not shallow or selfish; it’s normal and necessary.
This inspired many beauty brands today, past and present, to build on the legacy of the red lipstick as a sign of empowerment. One of these brands is Avon.
“While development for a lipstick product started in the early 1910s, it was not until 1919 that Avon actually commercialised it,” shared a representative from Avon Philippines. “Back then there were only two shades of red available — a light tone and a dark tone. Over the years, with the rise of feminism and ratification of women’s suffrage by the 1920s, more women began to see the red lips as a symbol of empowerment because of its dauntless tone. So as the decades passed, Avon committed to making sure the red shade evolved with the women it’s made for — bold and powerful.”
But why ‘red’?
Avon’s rep shared: “Red has also been a symbol of power, passion, life, and dedication.” Because of this, it was a clear choice to symbolise “the century-long fight of women to gain their seat at the table not just because we want to — but because we deserve it.”
Going back to account executive Vanessa, wearing red lips isn’t something her parents support because there’s still an underlying notion that the strong colour is “sexualised or too showy especially in a corporate setting.” However, she thinks that “putting bold red lipstick is a feminine choice of strength” just like how makeup is in general.
Meanwhile, student Ara, 17, shared that it is a colour that makes people feel empowered regardless of age or status.
“I’ve always thought that wearing those intimidating wine and blood red shades would make people take me seriously. I think colours give off how you want people to perceive you, especially red, which leaves a strong impression, like you want to be desired or stand out,” she explained.
Ara also likes the accessibility of the red lipstick. Because it is a classic, finding a good red lipstick to suit you is easier than finding other shades, especially in the drugstore.
The ongoing affair between beauty and empowerment
The red lipstick’s history proves that despite the common notion that beauty or vanity is shallow, it is anything but. It symbolised power, strength, and even gender-equality during the ancient times because both men and women sported it. Its meaning changed over the years, but it never faded in what it meant for those who use it.
“Just like in lipsticks, longevity is important in any social movement,” the Avon representative said. “We need to keep pushing, keep fighting for what we stand for. Consistency is the key because social change does not happen overnight. The power to stay is the power to change.”
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