The Power of Red: There’s A Lot More To Your Lipstick

Red lipstick isn’t just a cosmetic but a powerful metaphor with its own history and journey. From porn to culture, and stereotypes to symbolism, red isn’t just sexy!

When Lipstick Under My Burkha released after infinite controversies, the only takeaway for a normal viewer was the red lipstick in it. In the denouement, when the four ladies share that cigarette and put their red lipsticks on, one couldn’t stop but adore them!

A still from Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016)

Lipsticks have been major symbols used in cinema and social moments to convey certain ideas. And that’s how our favourite red lipstick came into being, for it does not just carry one but millions of identities within itself.

History Of Red

It’s believed that the origin of lipsticks is marked in the Mesopotamian region. Around 3500 CE, the Mesopotamians made a tinge out of red rocks in the region. Legend also says that the Egyptians made a certain rudimentary kind of lipstick by crushing the bugs and ants. Our very own Cleopatra is known for applying bugs on her lips to give them a red hue.

However, as Christianity started taking hold, the lipstick usage declined. This happened because colouring or tampering with any body part was considered a sin.

In the Dark ages, around the 5th-15th century, applying lipstick was considered a communion with the devil. Painting your lips, particularly in red colour was considered a practice of black magic. Around the 1200s, red lipstick was worn by the lower class ladies in Italy and denoted a social standing, while the upper class wore pink.

However, around the 1900s we got the lipstick tube that we use today. As soon as the commercial production expanded, red lipstick became a symbol of suffrage in America. And there’s an interesting story behind it. In 1912, during the Suffragette movement, the women were marching past the house of Elizabeth Arden, who had set up a salon in New York. Arden immediately aligned with the women and gave them red lipsticks to wear!

The leaders of the movement – Elizabeth Stanton and Charlotte Gilman really loved red lipsticks because the colour shocked men and stood for liberation and rebellion.

When the mass went about demanding suffrage, wearing red, the same was adopted by the British counterparts. During World War II, Adolf Hitler is believed to have hated red lipstick but it later became an act of defiance and patriotism in allied countries where people started painting their lips red.

Red And Sex

When I was younger I was always a bit nervous about trying a red colour. My mom said red lip shades made us look slutty and grab unwanted attention. I remember one time going to my friend’s party wearing this classic cherry red shade. Some said I looked way too mature, bold, and gothy. However, in college, I have got more freedom to wear red shades. They make me feel confident, edgy, very sexy and lift my face like no other colour.

Aparajita Chatterjee, a student of Jadavpur University

Looking beyond the history of red lipsticks, we need to see how a simple colour can stand for divergent symbols in various cultures. For instance, wearing a red colour in Punjabi culture is prohibited for a woman before marriage, because red lipstick denotes their marital status. Though times are changing and women are embracing their desires, yet Punjabi culture strictly lays censor on using red colour while being unmarried.

In the movie Laaga Chunari Mein Daag starring Rani Mukherjee where she plays a sex worker, and on the big banner of the movie she is shown wearing red on lips and a black dress. On similar lines, the movie Chameli wherein Kareena Kapoor was a sex worker, we see her with dark red lips on the movie poster.

Stereotypes label red lipstick as being way too outrageous and that’s the reason it’s mostly associated with morally corrupt nature. In ancient Greece, all sex workers had to put red on their lips because that helped in differentiation from the sober folks. Also, the red light area is called red, deriving its symbolism from the red lipstick only!

Scientifically, the University of Manchester found that red lipstick draws attention to mouth mostly from the opposite sex. The reason is that non-human species display red while having sex or attracting the mate. During the copulating season, animals like monkeys develop redder faces and genitals, which mostly explains all the furore red lipstick causes and why red altogether is a colour of love and sex!

The sight of a porn actress biting her red lips is commonly visible on electronic media and adult websites. This again reflects how red lipstick, unlike other shades, has multiple facets to it.  Red is quintessential when it comes to the porn industry, for many makeup artists have said that they prefer their porn models to have “watermelon red lips”.

Red And Intersectionality

In India, soap operas and K-dramas usually shows the witch or villain wearing red with a white saree so that her lips look over the top. On the first front, such depiction is, flawed and misogynistic. This is also the kind of misogyny that harbours in our society, where extremely highlighted red colour invites glares and isn’t considered decent. It’s a colour that is visibly hot, sensuous, and arresting. The reason that it is misrepresented to being inappropriate.

It is also a colour of confidence and rage. So much so, that when men in old times went to war, women overtook them in the professional sphere and painted their lips red.

The red colour makes me feel very bossy and authoritative. I just feel myself and so comfortable in my body whenever I apply a crimson red tinge to my lips. It’s a powerful metaphor, but for me, it’s more about feeling confident and dominating.

Bhavya Chauhan, a student of Delhi University

The relationship with skin colour and wearing red lipstick has always been a matter of contention. The prevailing stereotypes often call out women with darker skin tones to not try it. It’s needless to mention how Black Hollywood actresses are constantly mocked for wearing red shades.

As a dark-skinned woman, I was always asked to not wear red lest I would look slutty in the eyes of patriarchy. I toned my lipstick down to subtler shades until the day I put it on and felt like a total diva. I Iove everything to do with red lipstick. It’s such a statement!

Anandi Sen, a student of Delhi University

In December 2019, around 10000 women in Chile took to streets wearing black blindfolds and red lips to denounce sexual violence. The reason that they chose red colour was that it stood as a strong metaphor for femininity and liberation. Most often women resort to indirect ways to portray their hidden desires and aspirations. Red lipstick is a way to channelise that anger, frustration and repression that they are subjected to every day. Red colour gives the kind of authority to women which makes them feel individually confident. Who doesn’t know Marilyn Monroe, who mostly had red on her lips which again depicted independence?

Marilyn Monroe owning the red colour. (Image Credits: Yahoo News UK)

I believe that red lipstick is a very strong statement in itself for it denotes that a person is going to do something bold. Even in history, we have seen whenever women go out for some protest or revolts they tend to wear red lipstick.

Animesh Mishra, a student in coversation with DU Beat

In the contemporary scenario, red lipstick has become a colour for the LGBTQIA+ community to liberate themselves from the shackles of oppression. When one watches the rainbow flags, and beautiful souls in pride parades, adorning bright red shades on their lips, one feels pure bliss! Not limited to just women, the sexiness of red is felt among other genders too. And red also happens to be the topmost colour in the pride flag!

The red colour is a microcosm of identities, beliefs, rituals, history, and stereotypes. The next time, you wear your favourite sexy shade, don’t forget to applaud the suffragette movement and the struggles of all people who had a tough time wearing it!

There’s a lot more to your red shade.

Feature Image Credits: Unsplash

Navneet Kaur