Royalty, Prostitutes, Witches & Movie Stars: The History of Red Lipstick

To celebrate the release of our first true red lipstick, we at Axiology would like to touch on the history and meaning of red lipstick. Red lipstick is thought of as one of the most powerful symbols of female sexuality and beauty in the Western world. Its history spans centuries, and its formulations and connotations have varied considerably over the years.

From royalty to prostitutes, and witches to movie stars, read on for the history of red lipstick!


Axiology True Lipstick

A Brief History Of Red Lipstick

Based on cosmetic cases found at archaeological sites dating back to 5,000 years ago, it’s thought that Ancient Sumerians were the first to wear lipstick. These ancient cosmetics were made by mixing crushed gemstones with oils and waxes.

Ancient Egyptians also wore red lipstick as an indicator of social status. Egyptian red lipstick was made from crushed bugs - an ingredient that still appears in many lipsticks today.  

In Ancient Greece, prostitutes were required by law to sport red lip pigment, lest they be confused for a respectable woman of the upper class. Ancient Greek lipstick was made from a combination of red dye, sheep sweat, and crocodile droppings.

In 16th century England, Queen Elizabeth revived red lipstick’s popularity with her signature look of alabaster skin with crimson lips. At this time, red lipstick was made from beeswax and red plant-based dyes, and was worn only by upper class women.

However, by the 1700’s, red lipstick was outlawed in England on the basis that women were using cosmetics as a tool to seduce men into marriage. The charge? Witchcraft! Similar laws prevailed in the United States, where a marriage could be annulled if it was found that the woman had been wearing red lipstick during courtship.

Until the late 1800’s, most lipstick was DIY, made with carmine dye extracted from insects called cochineal. The first commercially produced lipstick was invented in 1884 by French perfumers. This lipstick was formulated from a combination of deer tallow, castor oil, and beeswax. At this time, lipstick was not sold in the metal or plastic tubes we know today. Instead, it was sold in paper tubes, small pots, or wrapped in paper.

In the late 1800’s, Guerlain began to manufacture red lipstick made from grapefruit, butter, and wax. The Sears Roebuck catalog was selling rouge for the lips and cheeks in the late 1890’s.

By 1912, undisguised use of cosmetics was popular with fashionable women in Western culture. Metal lipstick tubes became available in 1911, making it easier for women to reapply their lipstick on the go.

In 1923, the first swivel-up lipstick tube, the design still commonly used today, was patented by James Brace Mason Jr. During WWII, metal tubes were replaced by plastic tubes.

The Symbolism of Red Lipstick

Axiology True Lipstick

As a symbol, red lipstick has undergone many permutations. For ancient Egyptians and Elizabethan England, red lipstick was a symbol of status, reserved for the upper classes only. Between the Renaissance and the end of the 19th century, obvious use of cosmetics in the Western world was associated more with actors and prostitutes rather than respectable women.

In the early 20th century, after centuries of male authority limiting the use of cosmetics, wearing red lipstick was seen as an act of female rebellion. In fact, red lipstick was very popular amongst the suffragettes.

With the flapper movement and the rise of silent films in the 1920’s, red lipstick, particularly dark red lipstick, became enormously popular. At this time, red lipstick began to represent a woman’s sexuality.

For this reason, many frowned upon teenage girls wearing lipstick. A 1937 survey revealed that over 50% of teenage girls fought with their parents about wearing lipstick. It was implied that girls who wore red lipstick acted provocatively.

During the 1950’s, red lipstick entered the mainstream, with two-thirds of teenage girls reporting that they wore lipstick in a 1951 survey. In another survey, 98% of American women claimed to wear lipstick daily.

By the 1960’s, lipstick had solidified as a symbol of femininity, and has maintained this status into the 21st century.

The Axiology Difference

Axiology True Red Lipstick

Today, most red lipsticks are still pigmented with crushed up bugs called cochineal, or using synthetic dyes like Red 22. While these lipsticks may achieve a glamorous red shade, they are harmful to animals and our health.

At Axiology, we strive to create all-natural, vegan cosmetics that you can feel good about wearing. Typically, it is very difficult to create natural, red lipstick using only earth-based pigments, as they tend to turn the shade too brown or too orange. However, we have finally landed on a true red formulation using iron oxides and mica! We are so excited about True, and hope you are too.

How will you rock our true red lipstick? Let us know in the comments!


Axiology True Lipstick

By: Colleen Welsch

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