The Origins of Red Lipstick in The History of Makeup

Sometimes it feels like red lipstick is timeless, with no beginning or ending. You might be surprised to find out that is almost true. Red lipstick dates back farther than most people can even imagine.

The story begins over 5,000 years ago

The first known red lipsticks were made by crushing gemstones and wearing them on the lips in Mesopotamia over 5,000 years ago. Later, lipsticks would be made from red algae and fish scales. The first molded lipsticks resembling what we use today were invented by Abu Al-Qasim Al-Zahrawi during the Islamic Golden Age.

It is truly amazing and almost impossible to believe that the makeup we wear today is based on traditions from thousands of years ago. Over these millennia, the available shades of lipstick to choose from have expanded to a seemingly infinite number -- and there are just as many shades of red alone to choose from.


Woman wearing a yellow polka dot dress and red lipstick holding a compact powder

Image Credit on IG


The legacy of the color red

Red has many cultural connotations that have made it a popular (and sometimes controversial) color over the years. But, no matter the decade, red lipstick has stood the test of time, becoming truly iconic.

And from the beginning of red lipstick, the one common thread among every shade of red is that red makes a bold statement for whoever chooses to wear it -- for people of all ages, all classes, and all cultures across the globe.

While stained lips were signs of aristocracy in places like Egypt, other countries around the world saw it as the sign of the prostitute. In Greece, prostitutes were expected to use lip colors and obvious makeup in public or else they would be punished because it implied that they were deceitfully posing as ladies.


Gabriela Hernandez from Bésame Cosmetics wearing Bésame Red Lipstick


This association would continue into England in the 1700s, where in 1770 a law ruled a marriage could be annulled if a woman wore lipstick before her wedding day. Lipstick continued to be associated with prostitutes and even actors, regardless of the fact that Queen Elizabeth I was known for wearing bright red lips with a powdered white complexion.

By the 1920s it was finally accepted and fashionable for a Londoner to wear her lipstick, almost 40 years after its commercial debut by Guerlain.

Dark Red was the color of choice in the 1920s. Women wore red as a symbol of their newfound independence. Actress Clara Bow inspired the "cupid's bow" worn at the time. Women had the freedom to now apply their lipstick in public.


Marilyn Monroe Wearing a Red Dress and Red Lipstick


Red lipstick today

Today, red lipstick is synonymous with fashion, glamour, beauty, sexuality, rebellion, winter, luxury, wealth… and so much more. The list is nearly as endless as the shades.

The legacy of red lipstick continues to influence fashion and cosmetics today, with limitless possibilities and potential for color combinations and bold statements.

From classic reds inspired by the courageous women we think of when we think of the beginning of modern makeup trends to the dark and sultry tones of later decades, there are limitless options to choose from.

But, beyond the power of choice is the power of expression. Every era of red lipstick -- whether it was lauded or shunned by society at the time -- brought us closer to the freedom of expression we enjoy today and built a historic legacy for something as simple as adding color to your lips.

Over the years, red lipstick has given icons like Marilyn Monroe her distinctive look or added beauty and elegance to beloved characters such as the extensive ensemble of Disney princesses. Everywhere we look, shades of red lipstick have added color, courage, and charisma to the global stage -- from fashion magazines to the silver screen.


Woman wearing red lipstick and red nail polish


So, next time you carefully apply your favorite shade of red to your lips as you head out for a glamorous night on the town, feel empowered by the fact that you are participating in a powerful story that began thousands of years ago... and will continue for thousands of years to come.

And if you are not sure what's the perfect red lipstick shade for you, try Gabriela's shadefinder and you might be surprised at how something as simple as lipstick can change the way you feel.

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