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Monday, April 19, 2021

Prostitution, revolution, defiance and strength: Tracing the colourful symbolism of lipstick

This history of lipstick symbolism has had in its coffers everything from connotations of prostitution, witchcraft, sexuality, women’s defiance and strength.

Written by Nandini Rathi | New Delhi |
Updated: July 27, 2017 4:21:44 pm
Lipstick under my burkha, lipstick history, history of lipstick, lipstick and defiance Lipstick Under My Burkha is magnificently steeped in the deep-rooted, evocative symbolism of the most evergreen cosmetic in the world.

I never leave home without my Swiss Army knife and a tube of lipstick. As far as I am concerned those are the only two weapons a woman needs.” – Viene (cited in Read My Lips: A Cultural History of the Lipstick by Meg Ragas & Karen Kozlowski)

The above is a lot of power to ascribe to a stick comprising of oil, wax and colorants. Yet, ‘unruly’, brave women, lipstick and revolution have some history of being clubbed together. Wearing lipstick for women, like make-up as a whole, has long carried a versatile function of self-declaration — whether it be their status as adults, youthful spirit, sexual allure, political beliefs or, significantly, the right to self-definition. Even Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha, starring Ratna Pathak Shah, Konkona Sen Sharma, Aahna Kumra and Plabita Borthakur, is magnificently steeped in the evocative symbolism of the most evergreen cosmetic in the world. The lipstick is emblematic of their burning desires and ambitions, however unsettling they may be to those around them.

Just a trivial cosmetic, one would think. But the history of lipstick symbolism has had in its coffers everything from connotations of prostitution, witchcraft, sexuality, women’s defiance and strength. These varied meanings show why lipstick has stood out since the days of ancient civilizations, with intermittent but intense periods of celebration as well as forbidding controversy.

Lip colour: As old as time

Lipstick’s appropriately colourful history goes back to the earliest civilisations. Queen Schub-ad of ancient Ur (one of the four ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia), Circa 3,500 B.C., this queen used lip colorant made with a base of white lead and crushed red gems. From there, it went to the neighbouring Assyrians and the Egyptians. According to Madeline Marsh, the author of Compacts and Cosmetics, the earliest description of lipstick known to her is an ancient Egyptian papyrus, the contemporary equivalent of an erotic, girly magazine in which a naked lady calmly sat on a giant phallus, painting her lips. Cleopatra is known to have made her own red lip paint from crushed Carmine beetles and ants. Women of the Indus Valley Civilisation are also known to have painted their lips. 

Devilry and deceit

During the early Greek empire, painted lips had a strong connotation that a wearer was a prostitute. It was forbidden by law — the first lipstick regulation — for prostitutes to not wear their designated lip paint, lest they be mistaken as ladies. During the Middle Ages in Europe, religious criticism of the lipstick took widespread hold. For instance, in England, the Church declared that ‘a woman who wore make-up’ was ‘an incarnation of Satan’ because such alteration of her given face challenged ‘God and his workmanship’.

“Pictures of devils putting lipstick on women appeared often, and women frequently had to address their lipstick use at confession,” Sally Pointer, the author of The Artifice of Beauty: A History and Practical Guide to Perfumes and Cosmetics, writes. Yet, queen Elizabeth I, the British monarch, gave no fire and brimstone to the Church’s decrees and was a patron of lipstick.

Monarch patrons of lip rouge: Cleopatra, Elizabeth I (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Lipstick in the 20th century

More than any other meaning, Marsh believes that red lipstick has long been symbolic of women’s strength. In the early 1900s, red lipstick was meant for bold, ‘new’ women only. One of the early, modern manifestations of lipstick was in 1912 in New York when the Suffragettes — the American women fighting for women’s right to vote — took to the streets and as part of their show of defiance, they all wore bright red lipstick. This was not a coincidence. “Lipstick’s long proscription by social, religious and legal male authority made it a ready symbol for female rebellion,” writes Sarah Schaffer in her paper Read Our Lips: The History of Lipstick Regulation in Western Seats of Power. In a couple of decades from then, the cosmetic had gone mainstream in the US and Western Europe. Yet lipstick retains some of that daring flavour of revolution. 

Hitler was a hater

When the World War II broke out, women in Britain and later in the US were encouraged and applauded for wearing bright red lips to boost the morale of the country and the soldiers. It became a symbol of resilient femininity in face of danger. Additionally, Adolf Hitler detested lipstick — finding it utterly un-Aryan, which according to him was a ‘pure, unscrubbed face’. He did not allow women around him to wear it, since he claimed it was made up of ‘animal fat from the sewers’. That was all the more reason for England to promote and encourage women to wear lipsticks as almost a patriotic duty. Even nurses and red cross volunteer women wore lipstick during this time as standard protocol. Fittingly, they were contemporarily marketed with names like ‘Fighting red’, ‘Patriot red’ and ‘Grenadier red’.

The colour of Allied patriotism

victory red, elizabeth arden, red lipstick, world war Elizabeth Arden introduced the ‘Victory Red’ shade in 1941. It was described: “Like all expressions of glamour, a classic red lip elevates the morale of the woman wearing the lipstick, as well as all who see her”. Courtesy:

In the US, Elizabeth Arden was commissioned by the Marine Corps to create shades like ‘Victory Red’ and ‘Montezuma Red’ in the 1940s to encourage girls to wear red and feel proud. These fiery shades were literally part of putting on a brave face and came to be associated with patriotism.

lipstick during world war, england, patriotism, lipstick Lipstick use as patriotic duty in Britain during World War II.

‘Rosie the riveter’, the American cultural icon of World War II, represented the women who worked in shipyards and factories, while the men were fighting the war. A butch-style woman with prize-winning biceps, Rosie also wears red nail varnish and red lipstick.  

American Cultural Icon on World War II, Rosie the riveter, wears red lipstick. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hardships and the luxury of lipstick

According to Debra Merskin, professor of media studies at University of Oregon, lipstick sales in the US have always shared an inverse relationship with economic downturns and calamities. In other words, when the going gets tough, women buy more lipstick to keep marching astride. It is a recorded fact during the Great Depression as well as in the aftermath of 9/11 in 2001. Lipstick is also the most shoplifted cosmetic.

A red lipstick is not just a red pigment on the skin. It is steeped in various connotations from sexuality to power to rebellion. Hence to the wearer and the the viewer, it can always mean more. In Lipstick Under My Burkha, Pathak’s character reads an erotica called ‘Lipstick Waale Sapne’ with a central character, ‘Rosie,’ to rethink desire and sexuality which are taboo for a middle aged widow — quickly matronised in a conservative society. The other characters too are negotiating their right to self-definition, while taking risks and charting unknown territory.

Lipstick Under My Burkha, Lipstick Under My Burkha collection, lipstick under my burkha day 2 collection, Lipstick Under My Burkha box office, Lipstick Under My Burkha box office collection, Konkona Sensharma, indian express [Konkona Sen Sharma in a still from Lipstick Under My Burkha]. According to Marsh, “[wearing lipstick] really comes down to how you feel about yourself, and that makes you attractive”. Or strong, defiant and courageous, in other cases.Wearing lipstick really comes down to how you feel about yourself, says Marsh and that feeling makes you attractive, or strong, defiant or courageous, in other cases. For lipstick lovers, it is about the power of presenting themselves in the strong and bold manner that they wish to be.

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