A Brief BD History: Lipstick


First comes fruit-scented chapstick, then comes lip gloss, then comes color-tinted lip gloss and, finally, lipstick. As young girls, we watched in awe as the female figures in our lives swiped lipstick gracefully across their lips with a steady hand, covering every crease and crevice of their mouths. We couldn’t believe the sophistication and heightened sense of self a small container of color could produce and could hardly wait to get our hands on a tube of our own.

Blue-red, orange-red, true red. Satin, matte, sheer. Creamy, hydrating, oily. Lipstick is one of the most important style-defining beauty products women use to express themselves, and there’s no shortage of shades and brands to discover and play with. But did you know lipstick has been through the ringer over the past, oh, thousands of years? Today, we’re giving you a brief history on the small but mighty tubes of expression that sit in our vanity drawers, purses, and pockets, acting like a close companion wherever we go.

Let’s start at the beginning. Lipstick—or some form of it—has been around for over 5,000 years. In ancient times, both Sumerian men and women would crush materials together to formulate paste to spread on their lips, eyelids, and cheeks. Innovative, right? Well, the materials used thousands of years ago were pretty questionable—bugs, fucus plants, ochre, sheep sweat, human saliva, white lead, crushed red rocks, gemstones, and iron ore were all used at one point or another to create early versions of lipstick, many of which contained naturally poisonous materials. Alas, “beauty is pain” so the men and women donning this early version of lipstick were willing to put up with some not-so-stellar health side effects all in the name of looking good within their communities. It wasn’t until the late 1930s when the United States passed the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics act lipstick was required by law to not include poisonous substances.

Lipstick also has a surprisingly up and down political background. In ancient Greece, lip paint was used mainly by sex workers and eventually became a requirement for them to wear so the public could distinguish them from “proper ladies.” However, once the Roman empire broke onto the scene, lipstick was once again seen as chic, and wealthy women went back to wearing it to show off their social standing. This highly pigmented rollercoaster would continue to move up and down throughout the centuries. In the High Middle Ages, women who wore any makeup were deemed to have a pact with the devil. Queen Elizabeth I altered the lipstick landscape for a brief moment in time during her reign in the 1600s when her pale skin and red lip look became so popular, that only noble ladies and actors on stage were permitted to wear lipstick. But then, in the 1700s, British Parliament passed law that restricted women from altering their appearance in any way, making it possible to try a woman for witchcraft if she broke the law.

In 1884, the French perfume company Guerlain was the first to produce lipstick commercially and things took off from there. At the start of the 20th century, American suffragettes pulled a power move, using lipstick as a symbol of female freedom and, ever since, we’ve been loud and proud when it comes to boasting bold colors on our lips.

Some fun lipstick facts:

The term “Cupid’s bow” regarding lipstick was inspired by and named after actress, Clara Bow.

During the 1920s (or “flapper” era), women could apply lipstick in public during lunch but never at dinner.

It’s estimated that a woman who loves lipstick will spend an average of $1,780 on lipstick in her lifetime. Whereas lipstick was hard to come by for so many years, today the options are endless. No matter what shade you’re looking for, you’re bound to find it in countless formulas and finishes. And while it’s still seen as a symbol of femininity and beauty, it’s also become one of our best tools for self-expression and empowerment. So, whether you prefer a classic red matte, a deep, satin plum, or the perfect barely-there nude, wear it loud and wear it proud!

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