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Elizabeth Taylor, ‘Cleopatra’ (1963).

A Brief History of the Enduring Iconic Female Phenomenon of Red Lipstick


Red lipstick is a modern-day symbol of sex appeal and an attribute of femininity. Many modern women may be surprised by the fact that our recent generations are not the ones which invented this remarkable “must-have” item for most ladies. For at least 5000 years, red lips have been a tool for strong and attractive women.

‘Lipstick’ was dispensed in a different form in the past. Sometimes it was a powder mixed with water or oil to form a paste, or it could just be a compacted paint. It is unknown which civilization started the striking fashion of lush red lips. Maybe the innovators belonged to a culture that has been long forgotten. But no matter who started the trend, it is certain that since ancient times women have searched for methods to enhance their appearance.

Corinthian pyxis with a red make-up powder. Found in a tomb from the 5th c. BC.

Corinthian pyxis with a red make-up powder. Found in a tomb from the 5th c. BC. (Public Domain)

Back in those times, men were also interested in makeup and face paint, perhaps for other reasons than attracting a mate. Ancient archaeological sites have uncovered palettes of cosmetics revealing precious information about the methods of beauty care and the earliest perfumes. That there were early ideas of beauty is not too surprising, but the popularity of coloring lips red for many millennia is intriguing.

Ancient Sex Appeal Shown in Tombs

Can you believe that in ancient Mesopotamia women liked to use lipstick? The first examples of using the color red in make-up are dated back 5000 years ago. Indeed, five thousand years ago not only were women using make-up, but men were too. Sumerians are known as the ones who invented lipstick made out of crushed gemstones mixed with white lead. Of course, it didn't look like a lipstick we are used to using today.

The primary source of knowledge about ancient cosmetics comes from tombs and remnants of old paintings, sculptures, etc.

Hindu Goddess Laksmi with unnaturally red lips.

Hindu Goddess Laksmi with unnaturally red lips. (Public Domain)

In the Indus Valley, the oldest evidence of red color use is dated back to 3000 BC, when people used crushed semi-precious stones to decorate their lips and eyes. Mystical Asian beauty was based on red lips and remarkable facial decoration with gorgeous stones. Elegant Chinese women created the fashion of reddening lips in Asia.

A lid for a canopic container in the shape of Tutankhamun's head. This 14th century BC object was found in the young pharaoh's intact KV62 tomb from the 18th Dynasty of Egypt's New Kingdom.

A lid for a canopic container in the shape of Tutankhamun's head. This 14th century BC object was found in the young pharaoh's intact KV62 tomb from the 18th Dynasty of Egypt's New Kingdom. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Also, ancient Egyptian women loved to have red lips. Looking at the representations of ancient Egyptian women, we can still see that their lips were often dyed red in color. Look at the famous bust of Nefertiti; her lips became an iconic example for female beauty. Ancient Egyptians used the dye taken from seaweed with a bit of bromine mannite and iodine. Sources claim that the famous Cleopatra VII made her lipstick from crushed carmine beetles and ants.

Nefertiti with red lips. Bust in Neues Museum, Berlin.

Nefertiti with red lips. Bust in Neues Museum, Berlin. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Furthermore, red lipstick was also known in the Americas. Mayan women used paint to color their lips. The oldest evidence of this comes from the 13th-century book ''The Grolier Codex''.

It seems that red lips didn't have any ritual or religious meaning. Of course, some researchers try to find the significance of the color red, but there is no convincing evidence to theories about religious meanings for red lips.

Praying with Red Lips

With the growth of Christianity, we could expect the need for looking more modest and forgetting about the use of strong colors. However, the provocative image of red lips was so appealing, that the passion of reddening the lips stayed stronger than the fear of spending eternity in hell. According to a Harvard study:

''Not until the start of the Middle Ages, actually, did religious criticism of lipstick finally gain widespread hold in some countries, most notably England. In England, “a woman who wore make-up was seen as an incarnation of Satan,” because such alteration of her given face challenged God and his workmanship. While this interdiction against lipstick mostly took the form of social rather than legal sanctions, lip tattooing was outright outlawed. Even in England, however, the social proscriptions on lip coloring had their exceptions. Applying a lily or rose tint to one’s lips remained permissible based on those colors’ connotation with purity. Thus, many women would fashion rose lip rouge of sheep fat and mashed up red roots. Moreover, other countries never so fully accepted the idea that piety prohibited lipstick. During the 1200’s AD in present-day Italy, lipstick remained an important tool for social demarcation, with high society ladies wearing bright pink lip rouge and lower class women wearing earthy red lip rouge. Then, when the Crusades reintroduced Western Europe to the extensive Middle Eastern use of cosmetics, lipstick acquired a slightly wicked allure.''

Royal Influences

During the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I popularized the look of reddish lips in the courts, but she also created a new fashion –blackened lips. Her lipstick was composed of beeswax and plant-derived red dyes. Conservative Queen Victoria banished red lipstick as something used by prostitutes, but apart from the supporters of the British queen, nobody took this seriously.

Portrait of Elizabeth I commemorating the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588).

Portrait of Elizabeth I commemorating the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588). (Public Domain)

With time, men generally stopped using lipstick. It is possible that the last ones in history who applied this cosmetic on their lips were French nobles before the French Revolution. The first real lipstick, in our understanding of this word, was released in France in 1884.

A Testimony to Red Lips

In the 20th century, red lipstick became a symbol of independence and it still is a symbol of self-confidence, femininity, and sex appeal. Moreover, in many cultures, it is believed that when a girl starts to use red lipstick, she becomes a woman. Red lipstick is like a code, a symbol of power carried in women's hands. It's a totem, amulet, ticket to the mystical circle of female strength that makes beauty more visible - and it attracts like a magnet.

Marilyn Monroe in 1952 with iconic red lips.

Marilyn Monroe in 1952 with iconic red lips. (Public Domain)

Top Image: Elizabeth Taylor, ‘Cleopatra’ (1963). Source: CC BY NC 2.0

By Natalia Klimczak


Reading Our Lips: The History of Lipstick Regulation in Western Seats of Power by Sarah Schaffer, available at:

A Complete History Of Lipstick, available at:

The history of lipstick, available at:

History of Lipstick, available at:

The History Of Red Lipstick, From Ancient Egypt To Taylor Swift & Everything In Between, available at:

Fashion History Lesson: Red Lipstick Has A Tumultuous Past By Sara Idacavage, available at:



Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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