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Lips of a Bygone Era

The Fascinating History of Lipstick

By Poe Casavant

Back in grade school, one of my favorite books was Top Secret by John Reynolds Gardiner, the story of a boy trying to invent human photosynthesis. Yes, you read that correctly. He was attempting to create humans that could live off water and sunlight alone, just like a plant. The boy’s teacher tried to persuade him to research something less ridiculous, assigning him a project on lipstick instead. While the author intended it to be a comedic punishment, (Because who in their right mind would want to research something so trivial?) the history of one of our most popular cosmetics is anything but dull.

The first known use of lipstick was over five-thousand years ago, in Sumer, a southern region of Mesopotamia, now part of Iraq. Although today, the purchase and use of lipstick is heavily skewed toward women, lipstick began its life without gender roles, and was used to signify high status individuals. While crushed insects, fruits, and clays were common sources of pigment, wealthier citizens were able to purchase crushed gemstones. The glittering powder was applied to both their eyelids and lips, a showy reminder of their place in society.

The first civilization to embrace lipstick for the masses was ancient Egypt, where cosmetics were used not just for aesthetics, but also to protect skin from the glaring sun. Early ingredients included lead, iodine, and bromine mannite, which created striking purple and black shades. Beautiful as they were, these mixtures were also toxic, and left people scrambling for alternative ingredients. Egyptians discovered that carmine dye, a brilliant red color that is still in use today, could be extracted from insects, and more importantly, didn’t poison its users. This shade of red is supposedly the color that Cleopatra was known to wear during her rule.

The appeal of lip color spread to the east, with China creating the first known beeswax lipstick. Not only did this provide color, but the wax was used to protect their lips from the elements. Japan followed suit, adding a tar mixture to their beeswax bases to create deep, rich shades, which stood out dramatically from the pale makeup of the time. In Australia, Aboriginal women applied shades of crushed ochre to their lips and bodies for ceremonial purposes. 

In 9AD, an Arab scientist, Abulcasis, created the first modern, solid lipstick, entirely by accident. He was attempting to create a solid perfume that could be molded into an easy-to-apply shape. He realized that by adding dyes, his mold was perfect for lip color applications as well, and he began producing the world’s first solid lipsticks.

Though much of the world was whole-heartedly embracing lip color, throughout the Middle Ages, Europe openly shunned such frivolity. Puritanical Christianity had taken root, and red lips were associated with Satansim and witchcraft. The only women who were allowed—and sometimes forced—to wear lipstick were prostitutes, as a way of symbolizing their low-class profession. Though it was socially taboo, many women would secretly apply moisturizing lip balms with hints of dye mixed in, to give the appearance of healthy, rosy lips.

It wasn’t until Queen Elizabeth I took the throne that the tide began to turn. Her signature look of a pale face and red lips caught on with the elite of Europe, and noblewomen began painting their lips to match. Actors and actresses also began to embrace red shades as a way to make their emotions more obvious while performing onstage.

In the late 19th century, as the Victorian era was coming to a close, the French cosmetic company, Guerlain, became the first to mass produce lipsticks, eventually ending the common practice of women creating their own lip color at home. It was made by mixing pigment with deer tallow, castor oil, and beeswax. Society was slow to embrace dramatic change, and women were encouraged to stick to neutral shades to hide the fact that they were unnaturally enhancing their beauty. But with the ready availability of new shades, and changing attitudes toward beauty and women’s empowerment, by the 1920s, American and European women were openly wearing red lipstick, no longer hiding their use of cosmetics. Lipstick, especially in bright red shades, was seen as a symbol of feminism.

Throughout the twentieth century, our love affair with lipstick has never waned, though several trends have come and gone. From the “bee sting” lips worn by flappers in the 20s, to the red-lipped bombshells of the 50s, to the glossy, shimmery lips of late 90s pop stars, our fascination with the colors has held strong. Lip colors are now available in every hue imaginable, from glosses, to matte creams, to no-smear stains. With such variety available, the average woman now spends about $2,000 on new lipsticks over the course of her lifetime. 

So the next time you reach into your purse to swipe on a little dash of red, it’s worth remembering that the humble lipstick has a fascinating—and, dare we say it—a quite colorful past.

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