Read My Lips. Part 2

Red lipstick is the cosmetic equivalent of the Little Black Dress. It is loaded with popular culture references both contemporary and historical. Whereas pink is worn to create and bolster the youthful, feminine image of its wearer, red is an archetype in its own right. Its obvious artifice heightens the sense of its independence from the woman underneath it. Those who put it on deliberately buy into a rich of world of association, which they may or may not be able to control.


The woman behind the soft pink lipstick proved remarkably consistent, with opinion divided only on the heady subject of whether or not she was a loser. The pillar-box red, on the other hand, which I splashed around afterwards, provoked far more eclectic character imaginings. For one interviewee, she was a trendy young stylist; for another, an embalmed crone, reminiscing about the evening she spilt a babycham down herself and had her bottom pinched by Liberace.  Its multitudinous connotations and often controversial nature mean that it can be worn by different people for different reasons. However, as this list by an interviewee proves (“young trendy girls, prostitutes, transvestites, blonde people, Spanish-looking people, pale people, actresses, celebrities”) there is a common element. (And it’s not just that they were all sitting in the front row at Vivienne Westwood). Red lipstick, regardless of who wears it, inevitably carries a lingering odour of exoticism and sexuality, theatricality and glamour. Trying to remove the connotation is like trying to clean a lace hanky stained with grease paint and semen. The controversy of red, then, lies not in uncertainty of meaning but our opinions and interpretation of it.

Photography Alastair Strong for Beauty Papers Issue One

Lipstick of any colour has long been considered the most sexual of the cosmetics. That we know we look good applying it is a given; who’s ever paused halfway through a conversation to pump up their bronzer? There is eroticism inherent in the very act of touching object to lip, which accounts for the continued stigmatisation of public lipstick application long after the wearing of it became acceptable. With red lipstick, this innate naughtiness is at its most pronounced. The interviewees took it as granted that semiotically the shade’s a lurid puddle of stirred passions, dark desires, guilt-ridden toreadors and Anna Paquin screaming for more. In direct contrast to its virginal confrere white, red has long been symbolically associated with awakened sexuality, be it the cloak of borderline pubescent Little Red Riding Hood, the scarlet sheath sported by Jessica Rabbit, or the poet Andrew Marvell’s troublingly erotic description of a fawn that is “lillies without, roses within.” Given this it is not surprising that red lips have long been considered The Ultimate in physical attractiveness. A thirteenth-century French poet described the ideal mouth as “plump and redder than cochineal”, and although cochineal doesn’t fit easily into a contemporary frame of reference, I think we can imagine it very red indeed. In more recent culture, sexual ingénue Snow White had “lips as red as blood” and countless screen sirens have smeared their lips crimson. Many thinkers have, of course, subscribed the inherent eroticism of red lips to the visual relationship between scarlet-painted mouth and enflamed vulva. (Don’t pretend you’re shocked, you knew I’d have to mention it eventually). The surrealists, in particular, were quite taken with the resemblance, visually exploiting it in works such as Man Ray’s L’Heure de l’Observatoire (1932) and Salvador Dali’s Lip Sofa(1970). Desmond Morris, a zoologist, puts it rather tastefully in his book, Body Watching: “During erotic arousal, lips become swollen, much redder, and more protuberant. The change they undergo mimics closely the alterations that are taking place on the other labia of the female genitals… It also explains why women have for thousands of years painted their lips red to make themselves more visually exciting.” Frankly, I don’t think you can be any clearer than that.

"Red lipstick, regardless of who wears it, inevitably carries a lingering odour of exoticism and sexuality, theatricality and glamour. Trying to remove the connotation is like trying to clean a lace hanky stained with grease paint and semen"

For some of the interviewees, the prospect of uniting their two sets of lips in crimson harmony was too visceral a one. “I look like a total whore who is going to give someone a blow job any second when I wear red,” said Georgina, who rapidly clarified that this wasn’t a look she’d ever want to go for. Colour connotations and biological explanations aside, the trickle down effect often makes glamour seem cheap and sensuality tarty. The negative cultural associations surrounding the colour have their roots in a history of popular objection. In the wonderfully entitled 1653 work, The Loathsomeness of Long Haire, puritan writer Thomas Hall describes red as “the badge of a harlot”. Now, the wonderful and complicated relationship between female sexuality and society can be mused over endlessly but this is about lipstick, so we’ll set it aside for Germaine Greer and dinner parties. However, it is worth exploring one particular aspect that frequently occurs in the marketing rhetoric surrounding the subject: power. A key aspect of the historical aversion to female sexuality is a fear of its ability to mislead, to madden, to weaken and to sway. (All, incidentally, good names for perfumes.) If masculine power is defined primarily by strength, the female weapon to match it is beauty. The Bible is populated by astonishingly seductive women, from Eve to Salome and Judith to Delilah, whose feminine charms prove the undoing of great men. Roman mythology contains the horrific myth of the vagina dentata(‘toothed vagina’), brought vividly to life in Mitchell Litchenstein’s 2007 gore fest, Teeth. Nowhere else is a more explicit link drawn between the painted mouth and the monstrous emasculating power of the female organ. Historical criticism of lipstick explicitly addresses its ‘unnatural’ power, with Thomas Hall (who really likes short hair), cursing its uncanny ability “to kindle a fire and flame of lust in the hearts of those who case eyes upon it.” A 1770 British Act of Parliament actually decreed that “women found guilty of seducing men into matrimony by a cosmetic means could be tried for witchcraft”. Imagine that decree put into action today; the Walk of Fame would run puce-coloured with Botox. Tapping into the fact that masculine enslavement might not prove entirely unattractive to both genders, much twentieth century lipstick advertising has sold its product on the basis of its seductive power. A 1945 Revlon advert for its classic colour ‘Fatal Apple’, deliberately inverts Puritan criticism with the line, “The most tempting colour since Eve winked at Adam.” In the famous Fire and Ice campaign, a picture is painted of a woman who is wild and gloriously elated by sexual independence and power, albeit in a distinctly 1950s fashion. The over-excited copy quizzes ecstatically: “Have you ever danced with your shoes off? Do you close your eyes when you’re kissed? Do you sometimes hope the man next to you will be a psychiatrist?” (italics, my own) and finally, my personal favourite, “Would you streak your hair platinum without consulting your husband?”

Photography Yelena Yemchuk for Beauty Papers Issue Five

To return to the interviewees, though, in case they start to feel neglected and as though their opinions aren’t important, who consistently interpreted red lipstick as something worn to increase sexual power. It is for this very reason that the more confident wear it themselves. Now, you might think that in these sexually emancipated times all traditional objections to the colour would be swept away. I know I did. However, the relationship that some of the interviewees have with it is complicated and occasionally contradictory. One terribly earnest girl condemned it as “a bit slutty” before going on to say that “red lipstick makes me feel more sexy and confident.” I would have pointed my pen accusingly at her and demanded an explanation but she’d already gone on to say, interestingly, that “I think men react to red lipstick the same way whereas women consider it as a threat towards them.” This recurring theme, that the lady in red lipstick prefers the company of an all-male pack, is a curious one, providing a direct contrast to the universal attractiveness of the demure pink wearer. Quite simply, red lipstick is perceived as predatory and women don’t like predators. Or not, at least, when they’re women. Fortunately, we can all console ourselves with the belief that a sexually aggressive approach 110% definitely fails to attract any object of desire in a more lasting sense. The interviewees certainly did, a lot, and all agreed that the woman in this lipstick would be, at best, just a bit of fun and, at worst, intimidating. In this sense, red lipstick highlights another paradox inherent in most lip coatings; what looks good doesn’t feel good. A lipstick designed to incite the desire to touch texturally repels it. Gloss, incidentally, is just plain disgusting.

Having confirmed, as well as only a group of women openly speculating can, that red lipstick is not, in fact, the way to anyone’s heart, it would appear that the real motive behind it is a desire for power, with sexuality as the weapon of choice. The interviewees all imagined a woman of the ball-busting career type, who wouldn’t wince at the sound of weaker skulls splintering beneath her enormous stilettos. Her approach to sex and relationships would be the same as her approach to business; target-oriented and focused on getting ahead: “She makes time for those with business connections, and those among her male friends who are still single.” In this context lipstick, quite literally, becomes war paint. Authorial intent is aggressively deployed and an innocuous stick of pigment, wax, oil and emollient is wielded like a luxury-branded mace. It should be no surprise that in the twentieth century, the increased usage of lipstick and the arrival of women in the work place have directly correlated. In 1933, US Vogue recognised its morale boosting powers when it wrote, “If we were perpetuating the gesture of the twentieth century for posterity, an ode could be written to it, and the way in which it serves as a staff for our morale, as well as a beautifier of our faces.” Continually high sales in the face of war, depression and recession back this up. World War II American and British posters for women at work are characterised by perfectly made up faces operating heavy machinery. Incredibly, in an act of inspired empathy, Allied forces gave lipsticks to the dying female inmates of liberated concentration camp, Bergen-Belson. A soldier who was present poignantly wrote: “I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick… At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.”

"A 1770 British Act of Parliament actually decreed that 'women found guilty of seducing men into matrimony by a cosmetic means could be tried for witchcraft'. Imagine that decree put into action today; the Walk of Fame would run puce-coloured with Botox."

If all lipstick is a mask, red is a colour that revels in its own artifice. This obviousness is another important component of its emboldening power.  Human beings have always used masks to gain an upper-hand over opponents, be it decoratively or through armour. To conceal features is to conceal purpose; historically, cosmetics have often exploited this. The stark face of the eighteenth century court beauty granted her the untouchability of the objet d’arte. The dark features of the 1920s vamp gave her the courage to overturn the old system and survive in an upturned post-war world. Meanwhile, in 2019, teenagers use Facetune to outshine their real-world selves, and the US has a tan-in-a-toupee for president. Red lipstick by parading its own artifice has the power both to project a desired personality and conceal a real one. No surprise then that the interviewees couldn’t help but ask, “What does she have to hide?” So much painted bravado sparks the suspicion that behind it something is lacking: “it could be used as a mask, behind which the wearer secretly struggles with all kinds of issues and insecurities that they wouldn’t want anyone to know about.” Resultantly, the collective character imaginings that this extensive piece of research produced saw practically every positive projection deliberately cultivated by the wearing of red lipstick, dismantled and exposed. For one interviewee, the sexual predator is, in fact, rather nervous; “She likes to think she’s sexually adventurous, but she’s really not.” For another, the glamour is rather pathetic show; “Whenever a girlfriend asks where it’s from she says, ‘I got it at the YSL sample sale’.” ‘Saffron’ has “just started university, moved to the East End, and wants to rip out her Surrey identity by the roots,” by proving just how trendy she is “but it somehow doesn’t quite fit.  Like her second hand vintage shoes; just half a size too big.” ‘Alex’, a successful businesswoman, “used to dress quirky until years of wearing a suit knocked it out of her.” She wears red lipstick to remind herself how crazy she once was but the fact that “on rare nights to herself she secretly listens to weird entirely non-mainstream stuff,” does nothing to alter the impression that she’s consoling herself with a lost dream. Most powerful was a character an interviewee created called ‘Pat’ who feels like she’s just stepped off the set of EastEnders. A retired air stewardess, she “walks around, fossilised in hairspray and immaculate in her shining cosmetic lacquer,” reminiscing about “when she felt young and gorgeous and was exploring the world.” Every aspect of Pat’s life is show, from her surname, “taken from an edition of Who’s Who… so as not to bring the good name of the family down,” (Pat was illegitimate), to her “structured clothing, shoulder pads, if she can find them, and navy.” Ironically, the red lipstick mask, for all its power and controversy, can reveal in quite another way than that in which it was intended.

So, to conclude (we got there eventually) when it comes to choosing a lipstick, we. the authors of our faces, have undeniable intent. The wealth of associations though, social, cultural and historical, that surround any lip colour mean that whether or not they succeed is quite another matter. Thank goodness for this article. I wish you happy and, above all, informed face painting.

Photography David Sims for Beauty Papers Issue Six

Ashley Mauritzen is a writer, speaker and commercial semiotician. The origins and expression of Identity, in its endlessly different shapes and sizes, lie at the heart of her work and life.