The History Of Lipstick, The Royal Cosmetic That's Been Around For Thousands Of Year

Lipstick has been linked with royalty and the devil. It's been called a sign of female emancipation and female oppression. Lipstick history dates back thousands of years, to ancient lipstick made from crushed gemstones and lead. In ancient Greece, harlots legally had to wear lipstick, while 18th century Britain declared lipstick a sign of witchcraft. And the origin of red lipstick, still a trendy look today, involves some downright disgusting ingredients. 

The history of red lipstick starts with royalty like Cleopatra and Queen Elizabeth I. Royals created their own lipstick from fatal ingredients like white lead. While Queen Elizabeth might have harmed herself with lead lipstick, today's makeup isn't always completely safe. A 2007 cosmetics test revealed one in three red lipsticks contained hazardous levels of lead. 

Flappers wore lipstick to shock men, while 1940s Americans painted their lips red to fight Hitler. English noblemen once wore lipstick to distinguish themselves from commoners, while Martha Washington mixed up homemade lip rouge from revolting ingredients. And throughout its history, lipstick has triggered strong reactions. 

  • Queen Elizabeth Caked On A Half-Inch Of Lip Rouge To Protect Her Health

    Queen Elizabeth Caked On A Half-Inch Of Lip Rouge To Protect Her Health
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Queen Elizabeth I coated her lips in a half-inch of lip paint. The Virgin Queen believed the lipstick had healing powers and would ward off fatality. Ironically, Elizabeth's lipstick included harmful ingredients like white lead, which slowly poisoned her.

    The queen's signature crimson color included other ingredients like egg whites and fig milk. And many scholars credit Queen Elizabeth with the invention of the lip pencil. The queen's lip pencil was made from a blend of alabaster and dye which was dried in the sun before lining the lips. 

  • Suffragettes Declared Lipstick A Sign Of Women’s Emancipation

    Suffragettes Declared Lipstick A Sign Of Women’s Emancipation
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In the early 20th century, lipstick was associated with rebellion. Famous suffragettes declared lipstick a sign of female emancipation. In the 1912 New York Suffragette Rally, women appeared with red lips to signal their independence. The trend caught on, partly because it shocked men to see women applying lipstick in public. 

    In the 1920s, flappers donned scarlet lips to shock their elders. One commentator in 1923 wrote, "Probably the lip-stick has aroused sharper critical rage than any other whimsicality of women. It can appear to have seized the feminine imagination more violently than any other specific device of fashion."

    A new generation gap appeared, with young women flocking to buy newly invented tubes of lipstick while their mothers shunned the practice.

  • During WWII, Lipstick Became A Sign Of Patriotism

    During WWII, Lipstick Became A Sign Of Patriotism
    Photo: J. Howard Miller / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Bright red lipstick roared back into fashion during WWII for a surprising reason. Hitler reportedly hated red lipstick, so American women painted their lips to tell off Hitler's supporters. 

    Women flooded the factories and the battlefields in the 1940s, wearing red lipstick as a sign of patriotism and bravery. The Marines created a mandatory lipstick for female Marines called Montezuma Red.  The red color represented the American flag and came to symbolize strength. 

    Marketing practices also changed in the 1940s. New makeup brands catered to different types of women. Marketing executives revealed that Maybelline was for “not too intelligent girls,” Revlon “for tarts,” and Cover Girl “for the nice girls.”

  • Christian Saints Warned That Lipstick Was The Work Of The Devil

    Christian Saints Warned That Lipstick Was The Work Of The Devil
    Photo: Hans Memling / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Early Christian writers declared lipstick sinful. St. Jerome said wearing lipstick was an act against God because it changed women's appearance. 

    Similarly, St. Cyprian condemned women for wearing any cosmetics. “All women in general should be warned that the work of God and His creature and image should in no way be falsified by employing yellow coloring or black powder or rouge, or, finally, any cosmetic at all that spoils the natural features," the saint explained. “They are laying hands on God when they strive to remake what He has made, and to transform it, not knowing that everything that comes into existence is the work of God; that whatever is changed, is the work of the devil.”