shop Lola

History lesson: lipstick, from ancient Mesopotamia to today

History lesson: lipstick, from ancient Mesopotamia to today

Angel. Ruby Woo. Naked Paris. Lady Danger. Nope, they’re not our burlesque dancer alter-egos. They’re all lipstick names. Just the breadth of clever names in your drugstore alone makes it clear that there’s a dizzying amount of lipstick options to choose from. But before there were drugstores and makeup counters filled with shelves of the stuff, there were the humble beginnings…

3500 BC: The women (and men) of ancient Mesopotamia are supposedly the first to invent and wear lipstick. They appreciate the finer things in life — and by the finer things, we mean that they smear their lips with what sounds like an epidermis-scraping mix of paste and crushed semi-precious rocks. Ancient Egyptians and the ancient Indus Valley civilization also use makeup, darkening their lips with red-tinted rouges made from everything from seaweed to clay to boiled dried insects.

1500s: It’s not all sunshine and vermin paste. Despite its early start, women who wear makeup in Europe in the Middle Ages run afoul of the Church. By the time it hits England in the 16th century, lip rouge has a decidedly “bad girl” reputation. Though they come in and out of favor with wealthy women (Queen Elizabeth I’s signature look was red lips paired with a chalky white complexion), bold lips quickly become more popular with prostitutes than with the upper class.

1700s: Lip color’s bad-girl reputation isn’t going anywhere. The British Parliament officially condemns lip color, decreeing that women would be tried for witchcraft if they seduce men into marriage using cosmetics.

1800s: Things don’t look up in the 19th century, either. Victorians, apparently immune to dark circles and undefined cheekbones, consider makeup impolite for everyone except actresses and prostitutes. Lipstick is the least respectable of all — so instead, ladies find other ways to boost lip color, from kissing rosy crepe paper to biting their own lips. Some fearless women even trade recipes on the DL and made lip rouge with their friends in underground secret societies.

Early 1900s: It’s not just prudish codes of conduct that keep women away from lip color. Carmine dye, the insect-derived cochineal extract that most lipstick was made from, doesn’t come cheap (nearly 70,000 insects go into each pound of cochineal, if anyone’s counting). Screen actresses aside, not many women can afford to paint their lips every day — not until a synthetic iteration is developed just before World War I, that is.

1915: Manufacturers waste no time making the most of the innovation, developing the metal dispenser in 1915 and a twist-up version in 1926. The tubes do away with storing lip color in tinted papers, compacts, and paper tubes, pioneering a new era in marketing: a package that advertises the product instead of just holding it. Women snap them up, and manufactures keep busy creating new cases and shades.

1920s: Demand is high: Lipsticked ladies find inspiration in Hollywood, smitten with the stylized faces of the likes of Joan Crawford and Lana Turner. It’s not long before lipstick becomes the emblem of the free-spirited 1920’s, as brazen flappers and rebellious teenagers take advantage of advances in synthetic dyes, painting their lips with the increasingly vivid hues screen starlets favored. Women even start mimicking the unique lip shapes of their favorite lipsticked actresses. Hollywood makeup artists Percy Westmore and Max Factor essentially create Clara Bow’s iconic cupid bow mouth, covering her lips in white makeup before stamping two lipsticked thumbprints on her upper lip and one on her lower lip.

1930s: In 1933 Vogue proclaims the act of putting on lipstick to be one of the most important gestures of the 20th century. Lipstick also becomes a symbol of sexuality, and it’s time to separate the women from the girls — or, rather, the Hussy from the Lady, two new lipstick shades introduced by cosmetics firm Volupte in 1938. The bold and lustrous Hussy was by far more popular (we could’ve told ‘em that), outselling the quiet Lady five to one.

1940s: Even war can’t keep women away from their lipsticks — when the United States enters World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, lipstick becomes harder to come by in America, with resources and raw materials put towards military goods instead. The metal cases women had come to love are replaced by plastic cases, and then paper. Castor oil, a key ingredient in lipstick, is also harder to come by. But there was not a bare lip to be found — though harder to get, lipstick also becomes an important part of the war effort, with governments deeming that makeup keeps up women’s morale. By 1948, 80-90% of American women wear lipstick.

1960s-1990s: More makeup brands joining the industry means more experimentation, and starting in the 1960s, classic reds give way to experimentation. As brands push the envelope, they quickly learn that if you build it, she will wear it. Namely, beige and peach shades during the hippie-inspired emphasis on natural beauty during the ‘60’s; the gleaming crimson of the disco days; the purple and black hues of the punk ‘80’s. In the ‘90s, popular shades range from understated “natural” to browns to dark matte colors, with options that contained vitamins, herbs, moisturizers, and UV protection gaining popularity.

Early 2000s: During the 2001 recession, Leonard Lauder, chairman of the board of Estee Lauder, coined “the lipstick index” to describe a trend that’s delighting the cosmetics industry while the rest of the country is rationing Cup O’ Noodles. Makeup is an affordable indulgence, so in hard times women actually buy more of it — lipstick in particular. We also start asking more of our lippies, like sunscreen, moisture, long-lasting wear, and transfer resistance.

2010s – Today: The lipstick index takes a decidedly luxury turn. Though mass-market makeup sales drop between between 2014-2015, premium beauty is up — and names like Gucci and Louboutin enter the lipstick game. Experimentation continues, with liquid lipstick, mattes, power reds, and rainbow hues taking a turn in the spotlight.

There you have it — the history of lipstick, in a nutshell. If you need us, we’ll be at a meeting of our secret lipstick society, trying to figure out how the hell those Victorian ladies managed to keep the stuff off their teeth.