The Red Lip Controversy: A Glimpse of Lipstick History

Pushup tube lipstick. ca. 1920, French, Etsy

The controversy of red lips at the turn of the century is an interesting one. In the late 1800s and very early 1900s, Western women who took to making up their faces were considered to be of loose morals, either someone whose profession involved the stage or a prostitute. According to Mimi Mathews, author of A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty, “Queen Victoria herself denounced make-up as being ‘impolite,’” and this continued the established Victorian belief that makeup was a low form of trickery and/or sinister vanity.[1] The Manet painting below of the courtesan Nana caused an uproar at the time of its reveal. Not only is she in her underclothes within her boudoir, she is unabashedly applying makeup.

Édouard Manet, 1877, oil painting, Public Domain


These associations with makeup began to change in the 20th century, albeit slowly. Prior to this time, lip color was applied by brush and would have been difficult to apply outside of the home. Due to the negative connotations with its use, if applied at all, it was done privately in the home and in natural colors that would not draw attention. Certainly not a bright red lip color! It was also not mass produced, so for the few brave enough to wear lip coloring or a lip salve, they would have concocted something at home (or their maid) and applied it as a paint. In the mid-1800s, they would have boiled suet (cow or sheep fat from the loin and kidney area) and lard with alkanet chips, and later in the 1890s, recipes using oil of almonds, wax, spermaceti, and alkanet root were used.[2] Varied recipes existed and changed throughout the years, but were always some combination of wax, oil, and color.

This ad for the 1918 film, Painted Lips, says it all. Universal Film Manufacturing Company, Public Domain

However, new technology around the turn of the century made it easier to procure and apply lip color. By the 20th century, Bourjois and Guerlain, French cosmetic companies, provided a lip product in glass jars or tubes.[3] Many sources agree that Guerlain was the first to produce lip color, made from deer tallow, castor oil, and beeswax, as a stick in 1884, covered in silk paper contained in a paper tube.[4] Many believe the Guerlain’s introduction of the lipstick was the first time lip coloring was considered to be an acceptable purchase by polite society as the company catered to the aristocratic classes.[5]

Mention of the sophisticated Parfumerie Guerlain in 1897. Rijksmuseum, CC0

Following this, in 1915, Maurice Levy invented lipstick with a lever that would push the stick up through a 2 inch, protective, metal tube for the Scovil Manufacturing Company. This American company was the first to mass produce lipsticks in a metal tube.

Metal lipstick tube with pushup lever. ca. 1900, Worth Point

Thus, lipstick was now easily portable and applicable for the masses who dared – and more and more women were beginning to dare! In 1923, another American, James Bruce Mason Jr., patented the swivel-up tube, and thus the modern form of lipstick.

The famous actress, Sarah Bernhardt appears to have lip coloring applied here. 1882, Photograph by W & D Downey, London, Public Domain

Stage actress Sarah Bernhardt was noted for not only wearing but *gasp* applying lipstick in public! While not uncommon for an actress to wear face paint or makeup, to openly use such a thing in public was scandalous. However, this also gave more momentum to the popularity of its use. Bernhardt was one of the most famous actresses at the turn of the century, and actresses themselves were now becoming models of adoration as motion pictures swept the nation.

A Suffragette parade in 1912, New York City, Public Domain

And of course, all of this information brings us to the suffragettes who took to wearing lipstick as well, and in doing so, it became a symbol of women’s emancipation. As noted in Lipstick: A Celebration of the World’s Favorite Cosmetic, “In a form of inverse feminism, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and other notable feminists marched at the front of a 1912 NYC Suffragette rally, all wearing panted lips as a badge of emancipation.”[6]  The noticeable lip color now was now utilized as a marker for rebellion.

It’s difficult to tell with the black and white coloring, but it appears this suffragette’s lips are painted red here. Mabel Capper Bow Street arrest, 1912, Johnny Cyprus, Public Domain

The shock value paid off for the suffragettes, and ultimately, the sight of so many women wearing lipstick contributed to its desensitization and widespread use by the general population by the 1920s. An act that once denoted immoral character was now a sign of chic. Manufacturers responded to this change as well by experimenting with engraved tube designs, lipstick cases that could supply matches or a mirror, and new formulas of the lipstick itself.

A stylish woman applying lipstick. Journal des Dames et des Modes, Costumes Parisiens, 1913, No. 117 Veste de velours, Rijksmuseum, CC0

This brief blog post focuses on lipstick at the turn of the century, but its origins date back thousands of years.

If you’re interested in reading about the origins and some of the original materials used to obtain a bright red, check out this article by Smithsonian Magazine or this Harvard Law School Paper.  Or you can listen to this podcast with some interesting information about red lips that with a focus on the later use, post-WWI, by WNYC Studios. You can also read Lipstick: A Celebration of the World’s Favorite Cosmetic.


-Danielle Morrin

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like these other posts: Accessories of Suffrage: Political Brooches and Unifying Colors and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty, Book Review.

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[1] Mimi Matthews, A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty, South Yorkshire, England: Pen and Sword Books Ltd, 2018, ebpub reader, 173.

[2] Mimi Matthews, A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty, South Yorkshire, England: Pen and Sword Books Ltd, 2018, ebpub reader, p177.

[3] Madeleine Marsh, Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from the Victorian Times to the Present Day, South Yorkshire, England: Pen and Sword Books Ltd, 2009, 113.

[4] Poppy King, The A to Z of Lipstick, United States: Atria Books.

[5] Jessica Pallingston, Lipstick: A Celebration of the World’s Favorite Cosmetic, New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1999, 14-15.

[6] Jessica Pallingston, Lipstick: A Celebration of the World’s Favorite Cosmetic, New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1999, 15.

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