One Stick of Glory – History of Lipstick

By On May 14, 2012 In Beauty

© Kate Moss for Dior

Lips have always been considered the most sensual part of the face. Consciously or not, women throughout the ages have embellished them by decorating and enhancing them with color. Lipstick like no other makeup item stands for symbol of sex, power and rebellion.

Around 4000 BC, Ancient Mesopotamian women were possibly the first to make and wear lip color. This earliest make up consisted of crushed jewels. Ancient Egyptians made their own concoction consisting of extracted dye from seaweed, a bit of iodine and highly toxic bromine mannite to produce lip color. This toxic cosmetic, in some cases, literally was to die for. Cleopatra enhanced her lips with a more organic treatment – crushed carmine beetles and ants. For a touch of glitter, when the occasion called for it, fish scales added the sparkle. Proper lipstick, in stick form, was invented by Arabs during the Islamic Golden Age of the 10th century. These first iterations were perfumed sticks rolled and pressed into special molds. Coloring lips remained popular until the Medieval ages, when, like anything good, lipstick was banned by the church for being a ‘tool of Satan’.

Ancient Egypt

Lip coloring reappeared in 16th century England when Queen Elizabeth I, an early trendsetter, popularized the look of blackened lips to compliment the pale, powdered face. Those lipsticks were made from ‘human friendly’ materials – beeswax and plant dyes. Unfortunately when conservative Queen Victoria took the throne, and makeup was banished to lowly prostitutes. Things got so prudish; in 1770 a British law stated that a marriage should be annulled if the woman wore cosmetics before her wedding day. And so, throughout the 19th century, use of lipstick was quite unladylike.

Queen Elizabeth I

Fortunately lipstick was saved by the arts. It was still quite acceptable for actresses to use it when performing on stage and the idea caught on with fashionable women. French perfumer Guerlain invented the first readily available commercial lipstick and packaged it in silk paper. Prior to that lipstick was sold in paper tubes, tinted papers, or in small pots – hardly methods of elegance. Lipstick worn in silent films continued to increase its popularity, and hand in had with technology, lipstick began to take off. In 1915 came another milestone in lipstick history, when Maurice Levy invented cylinder metal containers. By the 1920’s every fashionable American woman had come to consider lipstick acceptable, though an article in the New York Times advised on the need to apply it cautiously.

Lipstick Advertisement form 1930

During the World War II, with metal being rationed, lipstick tubes were replaced by plastic and paper. With essential ingredients petroleum and castor oil need for the war efforts, lipstick itself became scarce. The war did allow women to work in scientific research and, as a result, Hazel Bishop created No-Smear lipstick-the first long lasting product of its kind. After the war, arts and technology were again the driving forces in bringing lipstick to the mainstream. In the 1950s, Hollywood stars and the color films they could now be seen in popularized lipstick – Seductress Marylin in her vivid red color, and Audrey wearing a more subdued pink. Production and manufacturing were on the upswing. New products, formulas and application techniques continued to innovate the industry. In the 1970s, just as colors were becoming more expressive, lipstick, like most make-up products, got hit with feminist backlash. This rejection of femininity ultimately helped diffuse attitudes about lipstick. The lines about who could where what became blurred and the 80’s saw men experimenting with lip color.

Marilyn in Red Lipstick

By the 1990’s the beauty industry had become a billion dollar business and an integral part in fashion. Lip colors became a seasonal trend, and as models became celebrities, women became inspired. Lipstick officially had become an essential part of everyday life. Today, lipstick and the entire make-up industry for that matter, continue to evolve at a rapid pace with a new trend, formula, and color delivered to the consumer every season. In 2007, a study by US consumer group Campaign For Safe Cosmetics, found 60 percent of lipsticks tested contained trace amounts of lead. It’s not quite on the same level as Egyptian toxicity, but it was enough for women to switch to lip gloss for daily use.

Lately the tide seems to be turning back into lipstick’s favor, and its popularity has resurfaced. The reasons aren’t entirely clear. Perhaps the tumultuous economy, as it has throughout history, has pushed sexiness out into the street. Shorter skirts have always been a sign of rough economic times, so why not the reddest of red lip color? If history is our guide, we can assume a few things. A combination of science and technology will likely be behind the next lipstick push. And lipstick will never die. Lead-free formulas and renewed Hollywood acceptance are the likely way back to the top for lipstick, but over 6,000 years of history doesn’t lie. The sexiness, the expressiveness, and the femininity lipstick offers, is just too much for women to resist.

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