Simply Red

04th September 2019

Since the time of Cleopatra,  women have been using crimson colouring to give their mouths a little extra oomph. Red lipstick, it seems, never goes out of style – but what exactly does it signify? 

Words by Hannah Betts

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“ON A BAD DAY, THERE’S ALWAYS LIPSTICK,” noted no less an icon than Audrey Hepburn. And even the most slavish natural-look devotee will understand what she meant. Hepburn wasn’t talking about the guileless pink she applies post jail-release in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but a humdinging rocket-red of the sort one turns to for serious kapow.

Red lips shout stardom, in the same way that for the ancients they spelled divinity, given that statues of the gods were replete with cherry-red mouths. No Hollywood legend has been without her scarlet smile, be it Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor; just as pop stars Madonna, Rihanna and Taylor Swift crave a carmine pout today. Red is the signal for stop, behold and bow down – as much a demand for submission as it is a provocation.

For red is not merely a primary colour, but nature’s primal hue; the shade against which all others feel a bit… meh. “Red is the colour of life, of blood,” declared Coco Chanel – no mean red-lip sporter herself – getting to the heart of its elemental appeal. It is the first colour specified by name in almost all primitive cultures, and the shade most deployed in their art. In ancient Hebrew, “Adam” means both “alive” and “red”, while prehistoric man daubed with blood anything he sought to summon to life.

For many women, and still more for their male admirers, red lipstick is make-up. Certainly its potently plush tone is associated with fertility – the ultimate incitement to the red-blooded male

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Accordingly, when we refer to red lips as “retro”, we’re actually talking millennia. Red is the cosmetic arsenal’s most ancient shade, in evidence as long ago as we have evidence of man. Back in the 3rd century BC, the Sumerian city of Ur’s Queen Shubad favoured ground red rock; Cleopatra relied on henna and carmine; while Poppaea, wife of the Roman Emperor Nero, experimented with ochre and iron ore. One of the most poignant relics left by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD is an ivory-handled mirror which would have been clutched by a fashionable beauty while she ruddied her pout.

This long and potent legacy means that, for many women, and still more for their male admirers, red lipstick is make-up. Certainly its potently plush tone is associated with fertility – the ultimate incitement to the red-blooded male and the chief symbol of the tricks the female of the species has up her sleeve. However, today’s cultural critics tend to smile at such naivety. Instead – inspired by gender theorist Judith Butler – they view the painted face as an act of theatre, performance, play.

Either way, the scarlet mouth presents an exquisite contradiction: an emblem of perfection begging to be besmirched; hallmark of a siren who cannot kiss or consume. Red-lips woman may harbour beguiling shades of the gutter; however, her immaculate moue renders her a class act, sufficiently leisured to keep her maquillage pristine. Her mouth demands that we pay attention to what she’s saying, while providing the ultimate distraction by means of subtext.

Red, of course, also means war: something incendiary, a red rag to a bull. Magenta, lest we forget, is a shade that takes its name from the blood-soaked soil of an Italian battlefield. Merely laying eyes on the colour is said to increase the metabolic rate. When subjects in a study measuring grip were shown a red light, their strength improved by almost a fifth. Red steels a girl for action, supplies her with her armour. Hence the red mouth’s popularity when Britain was last at war: a mark that its womanhood would be red in tooth and claw as they took over the working world and kept home fires burning bright.

I came out of the womb waving red lipstick

Come the 1980s, red lips returned as women re-staged their assault on the workplace. These new power players brandished their bullets, wielding their lips like the cosmetic equivalent of so many flame-coloured Ferraris. No superwoman nor supermodel sallied forth sans scarlet lip. As Rose McGowan, the #MeToo heroine who later took on Harvey Weinstein, would declare: “I came out of the womb waving red lipstick.”

Make-up mythology has it that there is a red for every woman. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Lacquer or letterbox reds such as MAC’s Red Rock can look fabulous on milky blondes, honey-hued brunettes or raven-tressed beauties. However, if one’s complexion is pink-toned, then a bluish hue such as MAC’s Ruby Woo will be just the thing, while tawnyorange types should veer toward foxy corals such as Dolce & Gabbana’s Devil. Chanel, of course, is the home of the scarlet pout, inspired by its creator’s lifelong fixation. It even boasts a sheer option for ingenues desirous of dipping a toe: Les Beiges Healthy Glow Lip Balm in Deep.

My personal obsession is a berry, specifically, Charlotte Tilbury’s Matte Revolution in Glastonberry. The company describes this shade as a “muted purple”; however, it reads red to its perpetual stream of admirers. When I hold its bullet to my lips, I am transformed into my best and most ball-breaking self – beneficiary of a retro ritual that remains forever new.

This article was taken from the Autumn 2019 edition of the Goodwood Magazine.

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