Fascinating history behind a simple lipstick

Last Monday was National Lipstick Day. It is of course just an attempt by manufacturers to boost their sales, but it’s surprising what history that little bit of colour on a stick actually does have, writes Monica Dyson.

By Monica Dyson
Monday, 29th July 2019, 3:48 pm
Updated Thursday, 1st August 2019, 12:54 pm
Local business women, from left, Alison Fernandes, Louise Oliver and Faye Smith, apply their lipstick in  2011
Local business women, from left, Alison Fernandes, Louise Oliver and Faye Smith, apply their lipstick in 2011

Lipstick was originally invented in a primitive form over 5,000 years ago. The Ancient Egyptians used it to denote status rather than gender often using crushed bugs to get colour, whilst in Ancient Greece lip colour was first used by prostitutes. It was the Chinese who first invented bees wax lipstick, and Queen Elizabeth 1st popularised the white face and bright red lips look.

However in 1770 lipstick was banned as being thought of as a devilish attempt to trick men into marriage with a law proposed to Parliament that a marriage could be annulled if a woman was suspected of wearing cosmetics before her wedding day.

By the 19th century it was still not totally acceptable, being mostly worn by actors and loose women. Women were aware of the appeal that red lips had for the opposite sex and would bite their lips until blood came, making them full and red.

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Actress Sarah Bernhardt caused a scandal when she wore lipstick in public at the end of the 1800s, although George Washington had been known to wear it from time to time even earlier than that in the 1700s.

It was finally totally endorsed in the UK when Winston Churchill said it was good for the country’s morale, with Elizabeth Arden making a special red lipstick for the females in the armed forces in the Second World War.

However a survey around that time found that over 50 per cent of teenage girls fought with their fathers over the lipstick question. I suspect that is still happening today!

When people are asked what they would save in the event of fire, it is usual to say pets, photos and jewellery. Having no pets I would have to substitute lipsticks. My husband jokes that I never go to the bin without it. Joke?

By the 1950s teen books and magazines warned that men preferred the natural look over a made-up look and warned that wearing cosmetics could seriously ruin a girls chances of finding Mr Right, enjoy any popularity or a decent career. They might also be mistaken for prostitutes or loose women.

Lipstick was certainly said to make women more noticeable to the opposite sex with the lips being the most sensual part of the body.

The phrase ‘lipstick on his collar’ became a euphemism for a man who cheats on his partner, made popular by the Connie Francis song in 1959, and in 2011, an instantly forgettable number called’ Lipstick’ by Jedward, represented Ireland in the Eurovision Song Contest.

The one time celebrity Mandy Smith, who became famous for her under-age relationship with Rolling Stone Bill Wyman, subsequently married footballer Pat Van Den Hauwe. It was reported that one morning when he got up before her, he wrote ‘I Love You’ on her pillow. Unfortunately with her best lipstick. She divorced him some time after.

Good enough grounds for divorce, I say!

By 1915 lipsticks were sold in cylinder metal containers. Women could slide a tiny lever at the side of the tube with the edge of their finger nail to move the lipstick to the top of the case, followed by the first swivel up tube in 1923.

Flappers and suffragettes wore lipstick to symbolise their independence and the ‘cupids bow’ was made popular by star of silent films, Clara Bow.

Lip colours were quite limited for quite some time, but dark red was always the most popular shade for much of the 19th and 20th centuries and has recently emerged as the favourite colour of all time.

It was the popularity of Hollywood movies, particularly Technicolour in the 1950s that showed women how good lipstick could look. Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor were role models with their full dark red lips.

Revlon was one of the leaders in the field in those days. They brought out a new colour every six months so that women could buy them more frequently, matching colours to their personalities. They were responsible for one of the most successful advertising campaigns of all time with the ‘Fire and Ice’ promotion.

However, although Revlon together with other leading cosmetic houses like Estee Lauder were instrumental in bringing fashionable cosmetics to the masses, when I was experimenting with makeup in the 1950s their prices were far above what myself or my friends could afford. We spent our money on Rimmel, usually bought from the nearest Woolworth, where I remember buying the short lived Tangee lipstick. Rimmel remains a top selling brand to this day in a cosmetic world of vast choice.

Other favourites were Gala who added titanium to their lipsticks to give a bright, white appearance to products with names like Italian Pink. Goya gave us the pale shimmering look made popular by Brigitte Bardot and invented the ‘thick and thin’ lipsticks, which were two containers joined together by a chain, while Max Factor created a very popular colour called Strawberry Meringue. In the 1960s, white and also black lipsticks were popularized by groups like the Ronettes and Shirelles and more recently by the Goth and Punk sub cultures.

Today, bright colours like orange and hot pink are all the rage again. By the time you get to my age you’ve gone the full circle in lip colour fashions. It’s said that wearing lipstick boosts your confidence. Well, we certainly need all the help we can get, don’t we ladies?