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The history of red lipsticks and the best ones to buy: Dior, Giorgio Armani, M.A.C. Cosmetics, and more

The history of red lipsticks and the best ones to buy: Dior, Giorgio Armani, M.A.C. Cosmetics, and more

Go down in history

Text: Emily Heng


Image: Instagram | @maccosmetics
Image: Instagram | @whoabella

Much like the Game of Thrones finale, iPhone 11 Pro's camera design, and, uh, Greta Thunberg, red lipstick remains a highly contentious topic, even today. Isn't that crazy? Seeing how it has graced women's pout since the beginning of time (well not quite, but you get our drift), making bold statements, brightening complexions, and whitening teeth simultaneously. Celebrated figures Dita Von Teese and Coco Chanel are full of its praise, claiming it empowers and amplifies a woman's confidence. Detractors, on the other hand, call the shade vulgar and cheap. What is the source of this heated debate? Is there more to a crimson tube than just prettifying your pucker? And most importantly, how has it endured the test of time? We answer those burning questions by breaking down the sordid history and eventual reign of the hue. Turning back the clock in three, two...

The history of red lipsticks

Lipsticks were first popularised around 2500 B.C., by Ancient Sumerian men and women who made them out of crushed gemstones and — believe it or not — white lead. Barring the fact that the earliest lipsticks could actually kill its users, it was a trend that swept across both Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, where Cleopatra was famously known to grind up beetles and ants to get the right shade of blood red. The first-ever documented lipstick was, also, red. Beauty historian, Rachel Weingarten, explains in an interview with Bustle that royalty and the upper class then began to wear colour on their lips as a display of social status rather than gender, which was why men decorated their faces too.

Queen Elizabeth I wore red lipstick daily. Upon her demise, she was discovered to have multiple layers of lead caked on her lips. Ironically enough, she believed it could heal and ward off death — this led red lipstick to fall out of favour rapidly. According to the Toast, the British Parliament later declared that women who wore bright lipstick and seduced men by flaunting it would have their marriages annulled. Women in favour of the beauty trend were also accused of witchcraft. As such, heavier cosmetics, including red lipsticks, were used almost exclusively by prostitutes.

A rapid turnaround occurred in the 1900s. Lipsticks were no longer unsafe, as they were now formulated with beeswax and castor oil. In 1915, the first metal tube of lipstick (previous iterations came wrapped in silk paper) was manufactured, making it accessible to more women. The real turning point came about when suffragettes took to the streets to protest for women's rights donning bright red lipsticks.

"Whilst the explicit intention of the suffragists was Votes for Women, the implicit message was that whether they were 'New Women' cycling in bloomers and sensible shoes, or elegant ladies in big hats and bright lipstick, women should be free to choose what they wanted to look like and who they wanted to be," historian Madeleine Marsh shared in her book Compacts and Cosmetics. Thus, red lipstick became a symbol for independence, bravery, and above all, feminism — a perception that has (mostly) lasted until present day.

The reign of red lipsticks

Red lipsticks are still a favourite in 2019, with many a beauty brand developing signature tints as universally flattering as they are bold. We round up the ones that steal the show, below.

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