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Gender Trouble

Debbie Harry is an icon associating rock and glamour in very male-dominated pop scene in the late 1970s. Yet this music scene is precisely the place where lipstick will play a role in absorbing different subcultures and fostering  androgynous personalities. David Bowie, in several of his incarnations, is a key figure here. Slightly later in the 1970s in the context of post-punk and new wave Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Cure’s Robert Smith (on whom lipstick is smeared rather than carefully applied!) epitomise an androgynous look in which red lips becomes both a sign of glamour and of danger, an imagery fed by the vampire revival set in motion with the publication of Ann Rice’s 1976 novel Interview with the Vampire and which durably inspires Goth street fashion.

Boy George’s lipstick-wearing androgyny in the 1980s is indebted to that legacy although it also channels a Hollywood glamour or the 1950s. In this, he is similar to the Madonna of Like a Virgin  - who will subsequently surrender to full glamour retro with Material Girl – and who paves the way for Courtney Love and her red lips glamour/grunge look.

Girls and Women

There is an entire iconography (in film, advertising, art and so forth) in which red lipstick represents a turning point from childhood to womanhood. Perhaps one of the most notorious images of the 1970s is that of the child star Brooke Shields in Louis Malle’s 1978 film La Petite (Pretty Baby). In her 1985 film Rouge Baiser, director Véra Belmont tells the story of the emancipation of a young communist woman in the early 1950s who dreams of Rita Hayworth’s Gilda: the colour red here symbolises both her socialist allegiance and the forbidden Hollywood glamour, while the gesture of putting on lipstick and acquiring a tube of ‘Rouge Baiser’ lipstick is a sign of growing up (contemporary to the loss of her virginity).

Boys wearing Lipstick

The photographs of Armin Morbach for Tush Magazine (2011) featuring a beautiful ginger bearded model (Johnny Harrington) smearing bright lipstick, are not so much provocative, as pointing to a new kind of beauty. A number of blogs and tumblers devoted to men in lipstick seem to confirm this. Tom Ford lipstick superficially picked up that trend in a 2014 campaign. Here, boys are painted with lipstick but the brand plays safe: the make-up is not for men: it simply bears the name of a man to affirm a sexual freedom that 1950s ads already alluded to: one can have many men just like one can have many lipsticks.

Brands / Social Media

It is notable that make up brands recapitulate the history of red lips through their lipstick names (Nars has a ‘Cruella’ lip crayon) and special lines (Mac creates special editions after pop/film stars), and beauty magazines look at movies to contextualise their looks. Moreover, there are dozens of tumblers, pinterest and blogs dedicated to imagery of red lipstick, as well as thousands of make up tutorials and photos of samples, swatches and so forth.


In the 1990s and early years of the 21st century, bright lips disappear as new make up artists like Bobbi Brown promote a new natural and ‘fresh’ look, with neutral lipsticks (Bobbi Brown essentials, 1991). The supermodels era - Elle MacPherson, aka The Body and Cindy Crawford all contribute to a movement that suggest that red lips are a thing of the past, rejected by a new American puritanism. Today however, a quick flip through magazines, make up tutorials and beauty blogs shows the trend has returned and is alive and kicking, but with a difference: it is not presented as ‘easy’, but rather bright red is often offered up as a bold choice to adopt.

Its connotations have also changed:  It no longer represents only a highly sexualised Hollywood glamour: its meaning has been transformed by the counter-cultural or subcultures of the 1970s and the cult of the androgynous. Beyond changing fashions, red lipstick is endowed with quasi-feminist values, and becomes a sign of a self-affirmation beyond gender divisions.

Sources and Further Reading

Damisch, Hubert. The Judgement of Pâris Flammarion1987.

Haggerty, Deirdre. ‘Makeup survey reveals 'most iconic beauty trends of all time'., 24 April 2014. 

Rustenholz, Alain. Maquillage. Éditions du Chêne, 2000.

Wagoner, Mackenzie. “9 Iconic Lipstick Moments in Film and the Shades to Match”,,  10 September 2014.

Temporary Fashion Museum
Guus Beumer
Maureen Mooren

This project is part of the programme track Things and Materials and the folder Material innovation.

Fashion has quietly renewed the very idea of renewal by constantly selling the past as a future, thereby framing current reality. This contrasts sharply with the idea that renewal always stems from technological innovation.