For thousands of years, red lipstick has acted as a powerful tool.
The vibrant, look-at-me shade coats the lips with the weight and fortitude of a strong piece of armor. Its packaging is just as intense. Not only is it encased in a sleek, slender tube the size of a pocket knife, but it swivels with the utmost precision like a Samurai slowly drawing their sword to reveal the weapon inside.
“Red lipstick makes a statement without having to actually say anything,” KVD Beauty Global Veritas Artistry Ambassador Anthony Nguyen told E! News. “It’s a stand-out color that’s strong, sexy, bold, and exudes confidence.”
Out of all the makeup staples—mascara, eyeliner, blush and powders—nothing has stood the test of time quite like red lips. The intoxicating hue is so timeless Lady Gaga’s go-to makeup artist and Haus Labs Global Artistry Director Sarah Tanno perfectly summed up its allure, calling it, “the little black dress of makeup.“
If anything, it’s become an icon in its own right.
“I always signify red lipstick with something of great importance,” Tanno added. “You want to say something when you put on your favorite red lip.“
Tanno couldn’t be more spot on.
Suffragettes armored themselves with the striking color as they fought for the right to vote. In 1912, beauty pioneer Elizabeth Arden handed them the bullets—tiny, but mighty tubes of red lipstick that were shaped like ammunition.
The bold move symbolized strength, independence and defiance all in one.
“It wasn’t worn by everybody at that point,” Bésame Cosmetics founder and author of Classic Beauty: The History of Makeup Gabriela Hernandez told E!. “They were trying to say, ‘Hey, we’re independent, and we’re different and we wear whatever we want.‘”
The wild audacity of the suffragists showcased the ferocity of red lipstick, so much so that it became essential during World War II. At the time, beauty brands halted the production of its products, including lipstick, in order to use all of its materials for the war.
“At first, they cut it out,” Hernandez noted. “But then they saw morale really slip—not only their morale but the morale of the soldiers who wanted pretty girls to come back to.”
Once again, Elizabeth Arden was linked to a historical moment. To help lift their spirits, she created a fire-engine shade called Montezuma Red—an homage to the Marine Corps’ hymn—and was given the exclusive right to sell makeup on military bases.
“That color was marketed to women as a morale booster,” Hernandez explained. “You didn’t have pantyhose available. You didn’t have a lot of fabric. The only thing that stuck around were lipsticks.“
Red lipstick’s popularity also skyrocketed due to Hollywood. Long before influencers hyped up (yet another) champagne-colored highlighter or life-changing eye cream, actresses like Claudette Colbert, Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth were the first to promote cosmetics.
Although women had emulated silent era movie stars in the Jazz Age—cutting their hair into boyish bobs and rimming their eyes with heavy kohl liners—Technicolor, which exploded in the late 1930s, truly revolutionized the industry.
Now that women could see the makeup the actresses painted themselves with—like the bright cherry stain left behind after passionately kissing their co-star—they clamored to look like them.
“Reds were the shades that most actresses wore because it photographed well,” Hernandez pointed out, “And it was very definitive. You could see the lips.”
Back then, Hernandez said, actresses were assigned specific reds depending on the characters they were typecast as. In other words, Judy Garland mostly played girl-next-door roles, so she frequently wore soft and sweet rosy hues.
A dark, vampy color was saved for the seductive types. As makeup artist Nick Barose, who works with Lupita Nyong’o, Winona Ryder and Gugu Mbatha Raw, told E!, “It’s the color of blood, so when you wear it on your mouth, it adds a sense of femme fatale glamour.”
While the business model has evolved over time, it’s still a practice used today. Think of Euphoria‘s lead makeup artist, Donni Davy, who partnered with the creators of the hit HBO show and studio A24 to launch Half Magic Beauty.
Euphoria reignited people’s burning desire to experiment with makeup and Davy has supplied them with the tools they need to transform themselves. In the same way Davy maps out a character’s look to drive the story, her products are made with intention.
“I named my classic red shade Self Help because I wanted it to embody that pick-me-up kind of dopamine effect that a red lipstick can have,” Davy told E!. “It gives self-respect.”
All in all, red lipstick is here to stay. As Barose so adequately put it, “The trends might change, but the very idea of red lips will always be timeless.”
Hernandez added, “Women will continue to wear red lipstick because it’s a defining feature on the face.”