From Harlots to Hollywood: The History of Red Lipstick in the Western World

“Pour yourself a drink, put on some lipstick, and pull yourself together.” 
                                    -Elizabeth Taylor. Fellow Lover of Red Lipstick

Red Lips has become a symbol of womanhood, as both an act of rebellion, and as an iconic staple for traditional femininity and sex appeal. Today, it’s still an iconic look for all types of women. Over the course of its controversial history, bright Red Lips has flipped flopped between the symbol of wealth, to being part of a prostitute’s marker. Although the look peaked in the 1940s and 50s, thanks to the Glamorous fashions of Hollywood, its existence dates further back, as far as 5000 years in the Mesopotamia. Although Red Lipstick spans across the world and time – this article will mostly focus on Western History.

From the Roman Empire to the rise of Christianity

During the Roman Empire, cosmetics was a commodity indulged by both Elite men and women. Cosmetics at the time were mostly used with ingredients like mercury, which was expensive and difficult to acquire. Red lipstick was a favourite for both sexes. However, it didn’t come in the form of the cherry pout we’re used to today. It was likely to have been more of a darker hue, especially if it had been imported from the Ancient Egyptians, who crushed 7000 insects and bugs to create the deep crimson hue.

At the fall of the Roman Empire, cosmetics, particularly red lipsticks and rogues, were downgraded to the devil’s work, due to the rise of Christianity in Europe. Many religious leaders condemned the use of cosmetics, claiming it was a form of deception – citing Jezebel and her ‘painted ladies ( the religiously polite term for sex workers.) For many centuries, red lips and cosmetics, in general, were regarded a Harlot’s marker. Women of the night were expected to wear red lipsticks in order to distinguish themselves from the respectable, and God-fearing women.

A Revolutionary Return of Luxury

(16th-18th Century Europe)

When Queen Elizabeth I came to power, her signature pale face and red hair became quite fashionable among the elite. Despite it being a Harlot’s marker, some members of the court did dabble into a very slight tint of a rose hue to accentuate their lips under the powdery white skin. Cosmetics were also commonly worn by male stage actors. Men who played the character of a whore or female antagonist wore comically bright red lips as an indicator to the audience.

Red Lips did eventually make a triumphant comeback as a fashionable commodity to both the Elite and the general public. Luxuries and indulgences became highly popular once again, thanks to the new Georgian way of life. In the 18th Century, many members Upper Class in London, Paris, Venice and other cosmopolitan cities continued to adorn the powdered white faces, but to a much greater scale and a way to compliment their even more extravagant costumes and gowns. And so red lipstick made its deserving comeback for both men and women. However, as the French Revolution erupted, red lipstick, and makeup, in general, was regarded as a sign of support of the upper class and an expression of wealth. During the French Revolution from 1789-1799, anyone who openly wore red lipstick in public was arrested and tried as an open supporter of the upper class.

A Harlot’s Mark and a King’s Acquaintance

(19th Century Britain)

In 1770 Britain, Parliament banned the use of lipstick after Thomas Hall claimed it was the work of the devil, again, referencing Jezebel and the painted ladies. This notion carried on into the 19th Century, and throughout Queen Victoria’s reign, who openly detested the use of cosmetics of any sorts. As a result red lipstick was once again subjected to, you guessed it, sex worker. However, the French had a different attitude. Although the bright red lips were reserved for the Can-Can Dancers, and Harlots – some women experimented with the use of cosmetics, and indulged in a light cherry hue every now and again, both privately and in public.

As the Victorian era and its standards dwindle down towards the end of the 19th century, cosmetics became popular once again. King Edward and his fellow Elites were able to find good company with stage actresses and dancers, many of whom were the few who were bold enough to wear rouge and red lipstick off stage. One of the most notable was Sarah Bernhardt who was able to use her celebrity status to endorse makeup products for different companies. Women who were desperate to join the social circles also began experimenting with makeup. Though many of them never went as far as Sarah and her bright red lips.

The Rise of the Red Rage Rebellion

(Post WWI)

After the First World War, Women in Europe were caught in the middle of last remains of Victorian traditionalism, and the new wave of rebellion. The Suffragette movement for women’s rights to vote paved the way for upper and middle-class white women in both Europe and America. Although it had started long before the war, it propelled into the mainstream as marches for the vote caught the public’s attention.  In the US, Suffragettes wore bright red lips as a sign of protest, which caught on to other suffragette movements across the West.

In the 1920s the flapper period arose in the both the US and Europe. Woman stripped away from tradition, nailing the coffin of the last remains of Victorian fashion by wearing loose-fitting dresses, and significantly shorter hems, as well as snipping long locks into a stylish bob. Wearing makeup became an accessory to the new fashion movement for women. Heavy makeup, with dark shadow and distinct lips, became a norm. Red Lipstick came in a much darker and bolder hue, for nights out, and a coral orange during the day.

Patriotic Red

(Post WWII)

Due to short supplies, and a halt in trade in Western Europe, cosmetics became too much of a luxury to obtain for the everyday woman. Cosmetics were even banned in parts of Nazi Germany, mirroring the continuous trend of its sinister significance of Jezebel, who was married to a Jewish King. American Cosmetic Companies saw this as a prime marketing opportunity and advertised products as symbolic acts of patriotism, and an act of rebellion against a common enemy. Companies even released new lip shades in names such as ‘Freedom Red’, ‘Patriotic Red’ and ‘Victory Red’ as a way to boost morale, and give women the opportunity to support their troops.

Hollywood and A Husband Trapper


This trend continued after the war, where it settled into the role of a beauty necessity in an average woman’s everyday beauty routine. Due to the devastating amount of loss during the war, it became a woman’s duty to help rebuild society, by pro-creating.

In the 1940s-50s, it became a cultural norm for women to wear lipstick to help look put together, but most importantly, to trap a husband. Hollywood Actresses, like Marilyn Monroe, became every man’s fantasy and every Cosmetic Company’s valuable tool.

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