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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.

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What Will She Do in a Skirt?

In honor of women’s history month I’d like to take a moment to appreciate women who have done difficult athletic activities while in a skirt in the late 19th century and early 1900s, besides the fact that these were also taking place before much physical activity was encouraged for women.

While, in some cases, a very wide skirt may be advantageous, in others layers, length, or decoration would have been more likely to cause her to stumble, especially considering that these garments were not designed specifically for athletic wear and were modified versions of regular day wear. Many women would likely have worn some form of pants or bloomers under her skirts, but these were not usually visible and her garments still appeared to be traditionally feminine with a full length skirt over top.


1. Hiking Alongside Male Counterparts

1900, National Archives of Estonia [No restrictions]
The length of the skirt in 1900 was still deemed necessary to cover the ankles, so while the width of the skirt would likely not have inhibited movement, the length would likely have made inclines a little difficult. To be fair, however, it probably wasn’t much easier in a suit.

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