When Lips Speak for Themselves: A Reading List on Red Lipstick

Humanity’s love affair with red lipstick dates back to 3500 B.C. when Queen Shub-Ad of Ur, one of the Sumerian city-states of ancient Mesopotamia, first wore a red lip made with a base of white lead and crushed red rocks.

Mine dates back to 2013 A.D.

I was back in my hometown cruising the makeup aisles of a 24-hour drugstore around midnight on the eve of my sister’s funeral. I was 23 and my 22-year-old sister had died in a car accident five days earlier. Everything felt beyond my control, physically, emotionally, and mentally. Indulging in cheap retail therapy seemed like the only thing I could do to feel like I had any power over anything. Finding a new lipstick, spending six or seven bucks on a cosmetic that would stick with me when my face went sideways at any moment, became my mission. And lipstick would stay on my face — it wouldn’t betray me like my wimpy waterproof mascara had.

I stared down rack after rack of tubes sealed shut with plastic, my eyes scanning for something called Pacifies Hurt or This Kind of Thing Happens to Other People. My puffy eyes gravitated toward the darker shades of red: a spectrum that reflected back to me the degrees of anger and grief I felt. A palette that required confidence, a quality I was stripped of but wanted to seem like I had — just to get through the next 24 hours. After spending hours comparing the tiniest of shade variations under fluorescent light, I went home with a tube of matte Really Red.

Really Red got me from the first time I applied it in the bathroom mirror of my childhood home. Seeing myself with it on, I saw who I wanted to be: someone who was brave to face the day ahead. Even if the world as I knew it was over, I was someone who looked as if there was a shred of her world left. At the funeral, Really Red spoke for me when words stuck to the top of my mouth, or when it was for the best that I didn’t say anything. With a smile, Really Red could say, “it’s okay to approach me.” And with a purse of my lips, I let Really Red say “go to hell” to those who said that “god just needed another angel” and “it was part of God’s plan.”

For years I wore Really Red to make me look like I felt OK. Six years later my collection of lipsticks has expanded, but every shade is red. It’s the color I wear because when I wear it now I actually believe I’m OK, because it’s still the color that gets me, and because on any given day when I catch myself in the mirror with it on, I see the person I want to be. And therein lies the power of red lipstick: its innate ability to be anything at any time for its wearer.

Starting with an overview of its history, the following longreads explore the past and present of red lipstick, the personal and social implications of wearing it, and how it functions as a source of power for its wearer.

1. The History of Red Lipstick, From Ancient Egypt to Taylor Swift & Everything In Between (Marlen Komar, November 2016, Bustle)

Komar takes us on a journey of this bold shade, from ancient civilization and the Middle Ages, to the Elizabethan and Victorian Eras, and into the early 1900s to the present.

The beauty-minded public has had a long love affair with red lipstick, as it made its way from Cleopatra’s vanity to giving Queen Elizabeth I her “kiss of death,” leaping from Marilyn Monroe’s flirty smirk to your mom’s lips when she swiped it on in the mirror each morning. From murder, to prostitution, to witchcraft accusations, the history of red lipstick has a sexy past that’s 5,000 years deep.

2. Someone Called Mother (Marcia Aldrich and Jill Talbot, March 2019, Longreads)

In this collaborative essay by Marcia Aldrich and Jill Talbot, the authors paint their mothers as enigmatic figures, described as “never young” or melancholic or distant or withholding of affection. It’s only after theirs mother die — through brief anecdotes, going through their belongings, finding a “tinted Chapstick in Merlot and a gold tube of Raspberry Pink worn down to the nub,” seeing different versions in old photographs — that the authors get to know the women their mothers once were. Women they continue to search for.

I never knew this woman — she was lost to me before I was born. Someone else had written over her open beauty, crushed that vulnerability, that yearning, because more than anything what I saw in her face was yearning. Only the red lipstick remained. Would I could have known that earlier mother, what a difference it might have made, but it wasn’t to be. She hid her away like a secret — my mother’s secret heart, so secret I never saw it.

3. On Blood, Birth, and The Talismanic Power of Red Lipstick (Jessica Friedmann, April 2018, Literary Hub)

Friedmann, in this excerpt from her book Things That Helped, weaves her daily ritual of wearing red lipstick with the physical and emotional transitions of going from girlhood to womanhood, along with the difficult transitions of wife to mother. She writes: “There is a fine, powdery shell between me and the world, a shell made of lipstick and pencil and foundation. Where others might see the mask as an indulgence, a dabbling in performative femininity that could be powerfully stripped back for the feminist cause, I cling to it as I cling to everything that holds me together and holds me in.”

The lipsticks that I own are steeped in sex and blood. In my collection, I have Lady Danger; Relentlessly Red; Good to Go. Cosmo tells me early on that the painted mouth is supposed to evoke the labia, voluptuous and slightly parted, and the names of my lipsticks bear this out: they are unequivocal. There are fast cars, danger, and passion. There is fire, lust, anger, poppies, roses, all of them packed into small, dark tubes.

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I wonder what my child sees when he looks at me in the mirror.

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I have worn lipstick since long before he was born; every day, for many years. I can’t remember, though, when habit became ritual. I feel as though if I could, if I could pin down the moment that commenced a daily ceremony, I might demarcate between girl and woman with clear, metaphoric ease. But when and how do you become a woman? It is a long, raw process that doesn’t seem to end.

4. Incarnadine, the Bloody Red of Fashionable Cosmetics and Shakespearean Poetics (Katy Kelleher, March 2018, The Paris Review)

Do you know what incarnadine means? I didn’t know until Kelleher illuminated my vocabulary. “Incarnadine is the color of tongues, steak, and drying (but not yet dried) blood.” Incarnadine has been painted by the likes of George Bellows and Berlinde de Bruyckere, Francis Bacon and Diego Velázquez. It’s been written about by Shakespeare and poet Mary Szybist. And while incarnadine may be a color that goes in and out of style when it comes to interior design, textile manufacturing, and fashion, “incarnadine lips are considered a classic.”

Chanel’s beloved deep-red nail polish, Vamp, is one of the most iconic shades of the nineties, and it still looks fresh today. Unlike interior designers, who can be a little wary of putting the fleshy associations of red front and center, make-up companies have no such qualms. Sure, there are plenty of lipsticks with names like Ruby Woo or Cherries in the Snow, but there are just as many called Bloodroses or Bad Blood.

5. Why Wearing Lipstick Is a Small Act of Joyful Resistance (Erika Thorkelson, October 2018, The Walrus)

For related reading, here’s a Guardian story from 2015 on Jasmina Golubovska, an activist photographed while applying lipstick at a protest in Macedonia.

To signify their lower class, sex workers in ancient Greece were required to wear lip color. Higher class women weren’t allowed to wear it all. And as Thorkelson argues, “this seems to be where the relationship between bright lip colour and subversive female sexuality became formalized.”

We now live in a time when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeting about the color of her red lipstick, Beso by Stila, causes the color to sell out to the masses. “Seen by some earlier feminists as a tool of patriarchal complicity, lipstick has become a symbol of twenty-first-century feminist revolt across the gender spectrum.”

Set against her own experience with makeup, which began with receiving a package of “lipsticks” when she was nine or ten, which led to her mother sponsoring a makeover at a Clinique counter, Thorkelson describes the history of makeup’s “power to unsettle.”

Lipstick calls attention to your mouth. It tells a room to read your lips. Yet most women and femme-leaning people I’ve spoken to say wearing it isn’t at all about attracting a mate. They say it’s about visibility or self-expression. They say it gives them joy. To wear lipstick is to be shamelessly, extravagantly, playfully, visibly feminine in a world where masculinity still feels like it holds most of the power.

6. The Undeniable Power of Red Lipstick (Danielle Decker, March 2018, Medium)

At the age of 20, Decker’s mom, “a serial red lipstick-wearer and the type of person who lights up a room when she walks in,” gifted her a tube of red lipstick. Thinking herself not glamorous enough to wear it, Decker stashed it in the bottom of her makeup bag, only wearing it to go out with friends but eventually wearing it every day when she learns years later that “you needn’t be glamorous to wear it; you are glamorous because you wear it.”

Which is why, aside from the fact that I love the way the color looks on me, I continue to wear red lipstick anywhere and everywhere. It took me long enough to feel worthy enough that I refuse to change my habits simply because a man might view me too sexually, too confidently, too aggressively, too whatever.

I look fabulous in red. And if it’s too much for you, if you think I’d look “sweeter” in a more demure color, if you’d rather I was less intimidating, guess what?

I couldn’t care less what you think.

7. Five Writers Unpack the Power of Red Lipstick (January 2019, Elle)

For these writers, red lipstick symbolizes a variety of things: freedom, a mother’s pride, survival, sanity, and respect. For Sophie Mackintosh, wearing red lipstick reminded her of her mother telling her she was beautiful. When Martha Hall Kelly saw a 92-year-old survivor of Ravensbrück, an all-female concentration camp, wear a scarlet-lipped smile, she saw “a celebration of her survival, of beating the odds.” And if Esmé Wijun Wang, who lives with schizoaffective disorder, “can wear bright red lipstick well,” it means she’s sane.

For Vivek Shraya, red lips are “a defiant choice—red refuses to be invisible”:

Before I even open my mouth, my red lips echo the color of blood, declaring: I am alive. They assert my sexuality—and yours, daring you to desire, to admit desire for what is often cast off as undesirable. My red lips are a manifestation of my rage, a reminder that I will no longer contain my anger inside my body, that I will not be silent about misogyny and white supremacy.

For Christela Alonzo, red lipstick is a reminder that her words matter:

The boldness of the shade against my brown skin made my mouth the center of attention. It was at that moment that I realized this was a color that would force people to look at my lips and really listen to the words I was saying. My mother sacrificed her relationship with her family in order to come to America in search of a better life for her children. I want to make sure that her lessons, her words, and her legacy don’t get erased. And every time I apply my bold red lipstick, I know they won’t be.

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Alison is a writer and recovering Floridian living in Ontario. She’s working on a memoir about the sudden death of her younger sister while learning to grieve. You can find her on Twitter @AlisonFishburn.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands