War, Women, and Lipstick
A celebration of the female voice with a ferocious colour of strength.
Lipstick is the most treasured and essential item that women cannot live without, and the shade that has the most culturally staying power is red. But did you know that the colour has a rich history lavished in identity, freedom, and liberation?
Whether we want to embrace our sensuality, or want to make a bold statement at a holiday party, there’s a reason for our inclination to reach for red lipstick. We know that the words coming out of a beautifully lipsticked mouth are more fierce than one without.
Red lips have been a signature look in fashion for more than 5,000 years, and it exudes sexuality, mystery, and power. Throughout the centuries, it’s been worn by women to feel bolder, stronger, and more confident. Women during the suffrage movement in the early 1900's wore it to defy the norm, and the factory-working woman considered her lipstick as part of her armour as she struggled to make her way through WWII.
Today, nearly all women own a tube of red lipstick, whether it’s a classic shade they’ve been wearing devotedly for years, or a glamorous boost for those special occasions. To wear red lipstick is to be shamelessly, visibly feminine in a male-dominated world that is systematically stacked against us.
The Pursuit of Freedom and Liberation
Wearing makeup alone was once considered socially unacceptable, but Elizabeth Arden broke the mold by opening the Red Door Salon on Fifth Avenue in New York City. It was uncommon for a woman to run her own business in 1910, since it had only been a few decades of women being able to hold property of their own.
In 1912, Elizabeth participated in the suffrage movement, and supplied her own self-designed lipstick called Red Door Red to women going through turbulent times. With an intention for the colour to symbolize hope, power, and strength, the striking shade of lipstick became a symbol of female solidarity, and fearlessness.
The Fear of Sexual Prowess in the 1920's
Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, Gloria Swanson, and Louise Brooks were some of the most famous old Hollywood actresses who embraced their sexuality, and they weren’t afraid of being unapologetically feminine, either.
When technicolour films were introduced, women around the globe could finally see the rich colours they were admiring on screen. The way actresses used lipstick to alter the shape of their mouths lead to the infamous “Cupid’s Bow” look that became popular during the Flapper era.
In breaking away from conservative Victorian values, women started cutting their hair into stylish bobs, wore dresses that were shorter, and painted their eyelids with smokey shades. These changes were a declaration of female independence, and women had new ideas about how to live.
The On-Screen Lip for Cultural Ubiquity
Throughout the 1930's and 1940's, the daring red lip was still a trending fad for women, whether they were housewives, or glamorous actresses on screen.
In Red Lipstick: An Ode to a Beauty Icon by Rachel Felder, we learn that Crimson-lipped actresses continued to “help fuel that cultural ubiquity, as they favoured wearing red lipstick on-screen, even when playing roles in period films where it wasn’t historically correct”.
For example, when Vivien Leigh played Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, she wore perfectly applied red lipstick, despite the story being set during the American Civil War.
In the 1950’s, red lipstick was embraced by actresses such as Elizabeth Taylor, and Marilyn Monroe. It continued to be a fashion accessory that was playfully feminine, and extravagantly powerful.
The Patriotic Duty in WWII
During WWII, red lipstick became a patriotic duty when recruiting women to contribute to the war effort. When women were laboured to provide weapons to troops in munitions factories, they wore red lipstick to boost their sense of morale. In fact, because Adolf Hitler despised red lipstick, American women were encouraged to wear it in propaganda ads.
A soldier wrote in a 1941 Vogue article, “To look unattractive these days is downright morale-breaking and should be considered treason.”
Because of this, women kept red lipstick well-stocked in the bathrooms of these factories where they were employed. Our makeup hero, Elizabeth Arden designed another lipstick called Victory Red, and similar shades from other cosmetic brands came out during that period.
Beauty gave women a chance to fight the war from home, and patriotic campaigns such as “War, Women, and Lipstick” flourished the scene. As it seems, makeup was essential for bringing back a sense of normalcy for women during WWII.
The Backlash of Lipstick Feminism
“Our society does not expect men to feel ashamed of pursuits considered generally male — sports cars, certain professional sports. A woman, on the other hand, is always aware of how a bright lipstick or a carefully-put-together outfit might very well make others assume her to be frivolous.”
— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of We Should All Be Feminists.
The terms, feminine and feminist aren’t mutually exclusive, and what makes a woman ideal is who she is — red lipstick or not. But here at The Glossary, we wear our makeup loud and proud.
By wearing red lipstick, we hold our head up high and loudly proclaim in the words of Meghan Markle: “I am a woman who wants to look good, and still stand up for the equality of women. There is no uniform for feminism.”
Here are some inspiring quotes from women who understand what it’s like to slay all day, and still come home to a perfectly applied lipstick.
1. Becca Bycott
I kept trying to beat down the fear of everything happening between work, my family, and the freakish reality of our country now under Trump. I needed a distraction. It was as if Coco Chanel was right here, whispering her famous quote in my ear: “If you’re sad, add more lipstick and attack.”
2. Zita F
For me, since I’ve been using it, lipstick is a way to express and embrace my femininity. Using Russian Red is a statement, and it’s telling the world that I can wear it. This is me, take it or leave it. I chose it, and I won’t let your reaction change my choice.
3. Sherry McGuinn
As a screenwriter, I have to say that there is something very “noir” about a red lip. Cinema’s most lethal femme fatales — the ones that inspired men to do really stupid things — wore their red lips like a badge of honour. “Come and get me, baby, if you’ve got the balls.”
— My Big Red Lips 💄
4. Dahlia DeWinters
It’s a brief, pigmented escape from everyday life. As you apply your blood red lip, for just a moment, it can transport you to the white sands and aqua waters of the Maldives.
5. Bel Perez
Red hair, red eyeshadow, red lipstick. How could I not feel empowered and confident when I was exactly who I wanted to be? Most importantly, who I knew I was. I was daring, confident, and took steps forward in my life one lipstick shade at a time!
6. Josefiene Pertosa
My experience with being bold about my lipstick helped me be more courageous in other areas as well. The lipstick is a reminder that just because I feel like I am bold, it doesn’t mean that there will be negative consequences. Being brave is not the same as being stupid. Quite often, courage leads to compliments.
7. Kyrie Gray
Now, whenever I’m feeling like nothing is going my way I swipe on that lipstick. Even when working from home, if I have a bad case of writer’s block or pitch anxiety, on the lipstick goes. It’s like going into a phone booth and coming out as superman.
As we can see, red lipstick is indeed a powerhouse, and it’s the makeup product in our beauty bag that gives us strength. Makeup can be nothing more than a vanity tool today, but red lipstick is still a timeless trend, and the history speaks for itself.
From the beginning of time, lipstick has been a rebellious way for women to try out a new identity, and powerful leaders such as Cleopatra wore crushed ants and fish scales on her face to rock a sexy pout.
Queen Elizabeth flaunted her bold sense of style without any fear, Suffragettes marched to gain the right to vote with the support of Elizabeth Arden, and women working in weaponry factories fought their way through WWII with red lipstick. Fast forward 74 years, and we continue to see the modern day woman rocking a shade of blazing crimson on her lips.
These women were the warriors we are today.
For them, having their red lipstick on was a celebration of female strength, and for us, it’s no different. #LipstickisSelfCare
Pour yourself a drink, put on some lipstick, and pull yourself together.
— Elizabeth Taylor
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Laughlin, Kathleen A., and Jacqueline L. Castledine. Breaking the Wave: Women, Their Organizations, and Feminism, 1945–1985. New York: Routledge, 2011, 4.
Ryan, Barbara. Feminism and the Women’s Movement: Dynamics of Change in Social Movement Ideology, and Activism. New York: Routledge, 1992, 42.
LeGates, Marlene. In Their Time: A History of Feminism in Western Society. New York: Routledge, 2001, 361.