Black, white and red: the three primary colours of make up are the only shades used by illustrator René Gruau in his 1949 advertisment for French lipstick Rouge Baiser. It shows the head of a woman supported by a long neck, wearing a black blindfold and sporting sensuously pursed, bright red lips. Like many of Gruau’s drawings made for magazines and advertising, this image for Rouge Baiser evokes the post-war Parisian woman, in a mix of provocativeness and chic. The slogan, which roughly translates as: “without hesitating: Rouge Baiser” partly explains the blindfold, although the image makes no logical sense. Yet, like many slogans, it is strong precisely because it is mysterious: it refuses to settle between bourgeois chic and eroticism, fetishist domination and feminist affirmation.
A 2014 survey commissioned by the British drugstore chain Superdrug concluded that bright red lipstick as worn by Marilyn Monroe was considered to be the ‘most iconic beauty trend ever’. In the age of smoky eyes and fake eyelashes, red lipstick might seem an outdated choice. We are, after all, far from the time when lipstick was one of the only beauty products not rationed in the USA during the Second World War, and the trend for natural coloured lips is a popular day wear look in the streets of our capital cities. What then, we may ask, are the reasons for this collective excitement, and what makes red lips such an enduring visual icon? and how has this changed over time? Gruau’s Rouge Baiser advertisement offers some clues by stressing contradictory cultural and moral values (domination and subordination, chic and sleazy). Moreover it evokes a wide range of aesthetic motifs that need to be unpacked, dissected and examined.
Background Notes and the Meaning of Red
Since its origins, which are contemporary with the origins of man, make up has oscillated between nature and artifice: between protecting (and complementing) the body and the face in a natural way and adorning it for ritual or symbolic reasons and to spectacular effect. In this dual relation between imitation and expression, red lipstick undoubtedly belongs to the realm of artifice and expression. It is specifically around that duality that it earns its ambiguousness: it is both attractive and repulsive, sexy and foreboding, frightening and attractive: all connotations that, as Sigmund Freud pointed out also belong to the female genitalia, which red lips evoke in a subliminal way.
Red in cosmetics has a long history that stretches to Antiquity. Its primary connotations are sex, sin, blood, and life. In Europe, until the late eighteenth century, ‘rouge’ (which comes in little pots) is a cosmetic product used for the cheeks and the lips. It is immensely successful in 18th-century Europe, where it is worn bright and thick on the cheekbones. France is a major production centre of rouge in this period. Its use becomes less fashionable as pale complexions become more fashionable in 19th-century Europe, and it is frowned upon by moralising Victorians. It reappears towards the end of the nineteenth century, first on actresses and demi-mondaines.
The Working Woman and the Vamp
Originally reserved for actors and prostitutes, the use of make-up becomes widespread after 1918 as women increasingly join the workforce, and the modern lipstick, made of carmine, oil and wax and presented in a tube is born around 1911. Women ‘put their face on to go to work,’ while American cosmetic firms like Elizabeth Arden and Max Factor find in Hollywood's studios their first clients and a powerful marketing tool for their products. As it becomes mass-produced and circulated, make up eventually becomes obligatory in certain work sectors (retail, hotel business etc.). Yet lipstick in those contexts is the subject of greater subtlety: it must be present, but discreet. There are degrees of redness that separate the carefully made up working woman from the vamp. Carefully drawn and painted lips associated with drawn eyebrows complete the almost machine-like look of the working girl in inter-war years. This is followed, in the 1940s, by a softer look in which red lipstick connotes the energy and independence of the modern working girl, even in the army.
Red lips are also an emblem of Hollywood glamour. From the 1930s on, stars such as Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and later Marilyn Monroe are photographed for publicity purposes wearing evening gowns and cocktail dresses, with red lips. Yet there are differences between a Garbo who wears make up as a mask, recreating a distant and idealised, almost abstract beauty with thin and well outlined lips, and, some twenty years later, the clearly sexual, shiny luscious lips of Marilyn Monroe.
Whereas those evening gowns seem a far cry form the modern working girl, in reality, one can think of Hollywood as a distorted mirror for the professional woman, a space of fantasy. The TV series Mad Men captures some of the ideas behind lipstick for the 1950s American woman: confidence and romance. And, while cosmetic brands (often middle and mass-market) insist on the non-transfer quality of lipstick, Hollywood’s icons, with their perfectly outlined lips, painted matt and latter shiny, create a dematerialised idea of the kiss. In the Paris fashion world of the 1950s, drawn by Gruau and photographed by Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, red lips on Dovima and other star models of the time becomes more abstract even. No longer sexual, it becomes a graphic sign that completes a particular look.
1961 offers an interesting visual moment in this confrontation: it is the year both Walt Disney’s 101 Dalmatians and Breakfast at Tiffany’s are released. The first one introduces the fur-loving Cruella de Ville, (a caricature inspired by the Hollywood actress Tallulah Bankhead), clad in black and white outfits and vermillion lips. The second features the fausse-ingénue call-girl Holly Golightly played by a demure Audrey Hepburn who utters an ultimate but resolutely working girl line:
“a girl shouldn’t read this sort of thing without her lipstick”:
the perfect ambiguous incarnation of red lips: working woman AND vamp.
If Hollywood beauty is a staple of the red lipstick history, the retro fashion that sweeps the 1970s creates another kind of dualistic incarnations of the red lips look: men and little girls posing as women.
The 1970s and the Invention of Retro
If mainstream iconography suggests that the 1960s and 1970s forego red lips and explore instead palettes of beige, shimmering pinks, and oranges, Yves Saint Laurent’s notorious 1971 collection, which pioneered a retro look in haute couture by looking back at the 1940s, paves the way for a return to red lips. Faye Dunaway, in Polanski’s 1974 Chinatown (set in 1937) exemplifies this perfectly: new Hollywood looks back at old Hollywood glamour, as does, in a different way, Debbie Harry whose red lips glamour, tinged with a hardness also meets another theme, that of androgyny in the context of music. In Germany, Fassbinder’s heroines, from Maria Braun to Lili Marleen, incarnated by Hanna Schygulla, are similarly framed by 1940s and 1950s narratives in which classical red lips glamour prevails.
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 Flammarion, 1987.
Haggerty, Deirdre. ‘Makeup survey reveals 'most iconic beauty trends of all time'. Examiner.com, 24 April 2014.
Rustenholz, Alain. Maquillage. Éditions du Chêne, 2000.
Wagoner, Mackenzie. “9 Iconic Lipstick Moments in Film and the Shades to Match”, Vogue.com, 10 September 2014.