Every woman has a beloved item or two in her wardrobe or makeup drawer that can always be counted on to deliver a reliable boost of empowering confidence: a dress with a fluid drape that’s especially flattering, for example, or a heady perfume that always attracts multiple compliments after it’s been daubed on the pulse points. The most popular of those accessories is comparatively inexpensive, and easy to acquire, and beloved worldwide for its unique combination of boldness, strength, and self-assured sexiness: red lipstick.
Red lipstick is powerful in the way no other makeup item or piece of clothing can be. It’s unavoidable and potent; it’s also simultaneously unquestionably, unabashedly feminine. That makes it unlike pretty much every other cosmetic or garment: it embodies strength and womanliness in equal measures.
Red lips are a classic but they’re always on trend as well. They’re at once classy and edgy, polished and elegant but unpretentious too. They work in a busy office—and are a truly womanly empowered accessory, unlike things like blazers and suits that are essentially feminized takes on menswear—and also on date night. With a myriad of different nuanced shades, textures, and finishes, there’s a red lipstick that’s a flattering, perfect fit for literally every woman.
Red lips and the strength they radiate has been loved by women been for centuries. Cleopatra reddened her lips, for example, with a deeply-pigmented colourant made from thousands of crushed beetles. (That colouring, called cochineal, is actually still used in a variety of consumer items today.). The cherry-toned hue also literally signified her power, since her subjects’ lips were a more rusty tone, tinted with colouring made from red ochre, which was far less expensive to produce. Queen Elizabeth I daubed her lips in red and felt the colour would ward off evil spirits. Queen Elizabeth II has acknowledged the power of red lips as well: she commissioned a custom shade of deep crimson to be produced for her coronation in 1953, blended to precisely match her ceremonial royal robe that was worn on that day.
Today, the potency of red lipstick certainly hasn’t waned. It’s still the signature accessory of a long and diverse list of powerful women: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amal Clooney, Rihanna, and Madonna, to name just a few. (Ocasio-Cortez is a stellar example of a woman whose red lips radiate a mixture of self-assurance, resolute femininity and confident beauty.). And it’s the colour you see most often on the lips of stylish real-life women out and about every day. For both celebrities and “civilians”, it looks polished even if you’re just wearing a t-shirt and jeans. With its implied confidence, it expressed boldness even if you’re really feeling tired or unsure; on stronger days, it’s the sword that intensifies and underlines every word the lips it covers utter.
Since it’s so forceful—the shade that’s not for wallflowers, if you will—some women feel that they can’t wear red lipstick. That’s truly incorrect. The trick to red lipstick’s power is to “own” wearing it—to find the one that’s right for you and know it’s the ultimate accentuator of feminine strength. For most women, that’s actually about finding a wardrobe of reds: the perfect choice for a big meeting in the winter probably isn’t the one you’d opt for a sunny summer weekend brunch with friends. Landing on a technique of application that’s right—using a lip brush versus swipes straight from the rub, and whether or not to use liner—can also help wearers feel in control of their crimson mouth.
There’s a famous quote from Elizabeth Taylor, an especially high profile red lipstick fan during the fifties and sixties, that reads, “Pour yourself a drink, put on some lipstick, and pull yourself together.” Certainly, lipstick is a finishing touch that can lift the spirits, but, when it’s in a rich shade of red, a simple swipe of crimson is extra-empowered, emboldened, and assured, even if it’s furtively hiding any latent insecurity underneath.
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Rachel Felder, Red Lipstick: An Ode to a Beauty Icon, published by Harper Design, £18.99 is out now.
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