Siren Song: Red Lipstick Then and Now

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Red. It's the colour of power, the colour of confidence, and, in the case of red lipstick, the colour of seduction. From the earliest days of history, women have been compelled to enhance what nature has given them. Vanity, it has been said, is as old as humanity.

While it isn't possible to pinpoint the very first time someone added lip colour, we do know that the women of Mesopotamia crushed precious stones and used the dust to colour their lips. Early Egyptian women used a concoction of seaweed, iodine, and bromine mannite. This was a rather poisonous price to pay for beauty and many women became very ill or even died as a result.

Cleopatra, temptress extraordinaire, preferred a safer blend of crushed carmine beetles and ants for her signature red lips. She probably added a pinch of fish scales now and then for that shimmery opalescent effect. Everybody was doing it. Well, not everybody. Makeup was for royalty and the well to do. The commoners had to make do without.

Fast-forward a few centuries to the days of Queen Elizabeth I. Here we find a more palatable shade of red adorning Elizabethan lips. Most lipstick in Europe was made from beeswax and used plant-based dyes for colour. Portraits of the Virgin Queen are plentiful and many feature her vibrant red lips.

Lip colour continued its rise in popularity until darker days banished its use in polite society. It's difficult to imagine lipstick being not only illegal, but also grounds for being tried as witch. Woe to she who seduced a man into marriage with the trickery of makeup, for it surely must be the devil's work!

Even so, lipstick was still used in the theatre, where performers were considered by the establishment to be the lowest of the low anyway. That meant it was still out there, still visible, still tempting to the common (wo)man. It was inevitable that the compulsion to enhance and adorn would rise again.

Enter the twentieth century.

With the men off at war, women had little choice but to move into the workforce. Once tasted, the feeling of independence that earning money inspired caused a cultural shift that could not be undone. The men returned, not to the demur and modest women-folk they'd left behind but to a new breed.

These women showed their legs and drank whiskey and smoked cigarettes. They painted their lips into little red cupid bows and danced the night away. It was a boom time for manufacturers of beautiful lipsticks and many of the lipstick cases of the time are artworks in their own right. It was a simple, portable luxury item that these "new women" felt they had earned. The influence of film and a general sense of worldliness combined to make fashion and makeup hugely popular and the trend continues today.

Today's red lipstick has come a long way from the poisonous pout of long ago. Modern lipstick may be made of lanolin, cocoa butter, olive oil or other emollients. The red colour may come from chemical dyes or more natural ingredients. Many lipsticks contain sunscreen and vitamins to help keep lips healthy as well as beautiful.

Red is the colour of confidence, as one glance at women who prefer red lips demonstrates: Madonna, Scarlett Johansson, Nicole Kidman; nothing mousy there. Red - it's the colour of arousal, sensuality, and has been creating a bloom on the lips of the bold and the beautiful since practically the beginning of time. Almost every woman owns one... or should.

Chelsi Woolz takes pride in her appearance and favours a natural skincare and beauty regime but is rather fond of red lipstick when the occasion allows. She loves to share information about beauty products that she discovers when researching her freelance stories.

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