How lips became one of fashion’s most powerful motifs

Jessica Bumpus
Photo credit: Rosdiana Ciaravolo - Getty Images

From Harper's BAZAAR

Immediately recognisable today as one of the motifs belonging to Markus Lupfer, the lippy-toothy grin most notably seen on the designer’s knitwear is the result of some rather brilliant sign-off confusion. “Why is it ‘xx’? It should be a kiss! That’s why I started it,” recalls Lupfer of a symbol that has become a perennial fashion emblem – and something which he has continued to explore ever since.

Because while we kiss with them, talk with them, pout with them and pull faces with them; if we’re anxious we bite them and, if we want, even fill them, we also have a penchant for wearing them: lips.

Going beyond the month of February and Valentine’s Day as simply a seasonal design, lips have a far-reaching – and surprising – history in fashion (beyond the beauty industry), which has seen a veritable list of designers embrace their sexual and sensual, surrealist, ironic and Pop Art connotations.

“It’s interesting how many designers have used lips as a print – lips themselves – in various colours mimicking cosmetics advertising, but also lipstick prints which are surreal in themselves because they represent the absence of actual lips and just the trace of a woman’s mouth,” says Dr Rebecca Arnold, senior lecturer in history of dress and textiles at the Courtauld Institute.

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From Elsa Schiaparelli’s collaborations with Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau to Yves Saint Laurent’s scandalous Libération/Quarante haute couture spring/summer 71 collection; there was Tom Ford’s interpretation of the kissable symbol for shoes and bags at YSL circa spring/summer 03 and Hedi Slimane’s take on it for the renamed Saint Laurent in spring/summer 14.

There were Prada’s prim lip prints for spring/summer 00 and later spring/summer 12; and Sonia Rykiel’s enduring use of the lip for a little seductive joie de vivre. Meanwhile Claire Waight Keller romanced us with them for her debut at Givenchy in 2017; they’ve long been a Diane von Furstenberg favourite; and Zandra Rhodes reprised her 1960s designs for a collaboration with Valentino for SS17. And, if you’re still looking for a suitably-themed Valentine’s present, Celine has some lovely little lip-strewn leather goods in store now.

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“Lips are such an iconic symbol and always used in fashion and the arts and I think there’s something really sensual and sculptural about them,” says David Hodgson, now the creative director at Lulu Guinness which, known for its iconic plump lip clutch, celebrates 15 years of it this year.

“On the face of it, it’s pretty, cute and a little bit kitsch, but actually the brand is about so much more – sensuality and a bit subversive. She [Lulu Guinness] was very inspired by surrealist painters. Salvador Dali was a really big inspiration and the Mae West sofa [he did] is something she really loved,” he explains of the origins. “She ummed and ahhed about whether the lips should be open or closed. The original one has slightly evolved.”

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Notably, it’s incredible the impact the movement of the lip can have depending on how it’s used and, accordingly, what mood it can convey and how it's perceived. Teeth showing, tongue showing, both, neither can mean erotic, glamourous, seductive, social, rock ‘n’ roll, cool, comical, positive, negative. Going forward, Hodgson has plans to reinstall a more subversive and intellectual approach at Lulu Guinness.

“All these designers come to it from a very different and individual point of view,” points out Oriole Cullen, curator of modern textiles and fashion at the Victoria & Albert Museum. “Lulu Guinness [the person] is famous for her own red lips” – as Mick Jagger is for his lips and tongue, which became the logo for the Rolling Stones.

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As lip pin-ups go, there are plenty more besides the designers that have championed them (though as per above, they really do champion them). Madonna, Lara Stone, Louise Brooks, even the Jessica Rabbits and Betty Boops of this world, as well as Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian.

“Lips are a central focal point for women. Vamped up or played down, there are so many ways to change an identity based on just the lip,” confirms the award-winning make-up artist Lan Nguyen-Grealis.

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Linking it back to surrealism, Arnold explains: “Surrealism is key to the use of lips as a symbol of femininity and eroticism. The way artists such as Dali fragmented the body - focusing on legs, eyes, lips etc - drew attention, intentionally or not to the ways fashion ‘puts together a woman’.”

Which is perhaps not all that dissimilar to our fascination today with lip kits and fillers and 10 years or so ago, with Botox - all related to the idea of invention or reinvention. And equally applicable to fashion.

For the designer Holly Fulton, a self-confessed red lip wearer, it’s the tongue-in-cheek nature of the motif that appeals. She rendered it Pop Art-style for her autumn/winter 2011 collection, inspired by the romance between Coco Chanel and the Duke of Westminster.

“I enjoy fashion and for me it feels natural for fun to play an element in that. Collaging diverse elements from different eras and genres and the re-appropriation of images has always creatively motivated me, allowing me to capture aspects of femininity mixed with the graphicism I love.”

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But lips don’t only resonate from a designer point of view; they’re a hit with the customer too.

“Sex always sells, intrigues and attracts, substantiated by the fact that our lip print pieces were our best-sellers ever across accessories and womenswear collections,” points out Fulton. And just as they’re intrinsically related to creating confidence in the beauty world, painting one’s lips red to feel strong, she says they possess a similar empowering effect when worn as part of a wardrobe.

Likely it’s one that wasn’t felt, however, back in the medieval age. Among medieval symbolism, it’s been thought that lips on dress supposedly represented someone who was a gossip or tattle-tale as is apparently depicted in Edward Burne Jones and William Morris’ tapestries of the Chaucer-translated poem, 'The Romance of the Rose'. It’s an idea that would make sense – the verb “to gossip” originates from the middle ages and it was during this time the rather horrendous Scold’s Bridle came into use as a form of punishment for gossiping or quarrelling women. Just not very romantic, though.

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