From Witches To Suffragettes: The History of Lipstick

A sordid history from start to finish, Andrea Andres delves into the fantastic story of the humble red lippy.

Red lipstick: a classic shade that exudes glam, sexiness, and femininity.  A foundational piece in any makeup bag, and a signifying look for starlets from Marilyn Monroe to Dita Von Teese. But a red lip didn’t always have it easy, from a tumultuous social history to becoming the beacon of vivacity that it is today.

Lipstick’s vibrant history can be traced back to the Sumerian city-state of Ur, circa 3500 B.C. Ur’s Queen Schub-ad used a mixture of white lead and crushed red rocks to create history’s first lip paint. The ancient Egyptians also adopted wearing rouge, but as a signifier of social status rather than gender. 

In early Ancient Greece, women shunned lipstick and makeup. Lipstick on a woman was a sign that she was a prostitute. It was this association that led to the first known regulation of lipstick. Greek prostitutes were required to wear lipstick publicly and could be punished for improperly posing as ladies. These regulations were one of many that focused on protecting men from the deception of lipstick, and its wearers’.

Fast forward to the 1500s, red lipstick was embraced by Queen Elizabeth I and it was believed that lipstick could even ward off death. During this time, lipstick usage incurred the wrath of the Church and the state, so much so that the English parliament even passed a law that declared that the use of makeup to trick an Englishman into marriage is punishable as witchcraft. Another law was passed during the 1700s that declared that a woman caught using lipstick and other cosmetics to seduce men into marriage could have nuptials annulled and be charged for witchcraft. 

But by the turn of the 20th Century, lipstick took on a new meaning. The leaders of the Suffragettes, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, donned red lipstick as an act of female freedom and defiance. It was a standard rally procedure for suffragettes to wear a bold red lip. Elizabeth Arden was even handing out red lipstick during protests. After endless prosecution by social norms, male authority, and the church, the red lip became a symbol of feminism and freedom. 

Thanks to the stars of the Silent Era, lipstick’s reputation softened. By the 1930s, Vogue declared that lipstick was “the most important cosmetic for women”. The red lip has remained a classic ever since. 

We may take the red tube of lipstick for granted, but the next time you browse lipstick or swipe on a red lip, remember that behind every tube is a history of derision but also of rebellion, strength and resilience.