A History of Red Lipstick: From Suffragettes to Coco Chanel

Email a Friend
From the suffragettes until present day, red lipstick has always been a symbol.
From and

Click on the audio player above to hear the full interview.

Red lipstick is as en vogue as ever this summer. But did you know that behind that color is a rich history steeped in identity, self-expression, and liberation?

According to Madeleine Marsh, author of "Compacts and Cosmetics," red lipstick "is in fact more than anything else about female strength."

Since the dawn of time, women have decorated themselves. Marsh found the first representation of lipstick on an ancient Egyptian papyrus, but red lipstick wasn't always socially acceptable. During the early 20th century, women who wore red lipstick were seen as prostitutes.

Modern-day makeup really gained popularity after World War I. When the United States invented the metal push-up lipstick tube, cosmetics became more portable and mainstream than ever.

"The first and most famous manifestation of red lipstick was in fact in New York when the suffragettes took to the streets, banded together, and as part of their defiance and fight for the vote, they all wore bright red lipstick," explains Marsh.

It's no surprise that lipstick continued to gain popularity after that period, and the accessory came to represent strength during World War II.

"Cosmetics were certainly hard to come across because we were making more important things, but the lipstick that was being made was given names like 'Fighting Red!' 'Patriot Red!' 'Grenadier Red!' And ladies were encouraged to look your best to do your best," says Marsh. "On one hand lipstick is always being portrayed as about sexuality, but that strong vain and the power of women and the power of presenting yourself in a strong way is always there, too."

According to Marsh, lipstick fell out of vogue for a time during the 1970s when the modern feminist movement began to take off. Cosmetics were seen as tools of patriarchal oppression.

"But if you think of Rosie the Riveter—there she is, this big butch lady in her overalls with arms like prize winning hams, yet she's got hennaed hair, red nail varnish, and bright red lipstick," she says. "You can be a lipstick feminist quite happily."

But not everyone liked red lipstick. French fashion designer Coco Chanel found it along with red nail polish vulgar, complaining that house guests left stains on her glassware and table linens.

While some might say that cosmetics and lipstick are trivial, Marsh says the symbolism of these products runs deep.

"It's about much more than that because it shows us what we expect women to be at particular periods," says Marsh. "During the war, having your lipstick on was part of your fight against the enemy."

Adolf Hitler also hated the trend and said that it was made from "animal fat rescued from sewage." 

"The Aryan ideal was a pure, un-scrubbed face," says Marsh. "Visitors to Hitler's country retreat, lady visitors were actually given a little list of things they must not do: Avoid excessive cosmetics, avoid red lipstick, and on no account ever are they to color their nails."

Red lipstick is a part of history, but Marsh says don't count on men, now or then, to pay much attention.

"I think men don't really notice a lot of the time," she says. "It really comes down to how you feel about yourself, and that makes you attractive."