How Red Lipstick Became A Symbol Of Female Power

A history of the classic color.

Victoria Warnken/TZR; Getty Images

Take a quick scroll through social media, a flip through your favorite magazine, or a glance at the red carpet. You’re guaranteed to be met with a swarm of buzzy beauty trends, all itching to make TikTok’s For Your Page or become the next viral hashtag. With the ever-changing looks and routines in the beauty world, it’s difficult to ignore one fact: no other beauty product has stood the test of time quite like red lipstick. Sure, highlighters had their moment, as did contour powders and brow pomade. But red lipstick just hits different.

While some people reserve a red lipstick for a special ensemble or event, others consider it a makeup bag staple. In any case, a swipe of the shade boasts a bold presence, commands attention, and conveys power and strength. It’s a sought-after color that has a rich background, taking on various forms throughout history as women from centuries past went through great lengths to create their perfect shade — from the clay and pigments used to create red powder in the Qin Dynasty to crushed bugs in ancient Egypt. Now, you can find red lipstick in bullets, pots, and two-in-one rouges, available in a variety of hues — from scarlets to maroons and everything in-between.

Ahead, discover what the classic lipstick color has come to symbolize throughout different time periods and where it stands today.

Red Lipstick In Ancient Civilizations

The idea of red lipstick is a fairly modern innovation, and the first metal tube of lipstick was created in 1915 with the Industrial Revolution, notes Sterling Jones, a beauty-focused art historian. But when you dig deep into the earliest origins of red lip products, you’ll find remnants of it during the Mesopotamian period. “Its origins in the Middle East were red lip stains and balms created by grinding gems into a powder and then applying it on the lips,” Sterling tells TZR. In ancient Egypt, Cleopatra’s iconic red lips were created with crushed ants, carmine, and beeswax, says Sterling, adding that given her royal stature, she (and other religious figures) would use makeup and other beauty products to complete religious ceremonies, embody Gods and Goddesses, and protect against spirits.

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra in the 1934 film. Moviestore/Shutterstock

But red lipstick wasn’t always well-received. “Before its re-introduction into Westernized society, the influence of the Catholic Church discouraged and banned beauty products that were originally associated with pagan-centered societies,” says Sterling. “For the Catholic Church, red lipstick was seen as a symbol of deception from women, a sign of the worship of the devil and an association with witches.” To take things further, red lipstick, when worn by women, was considered an act of deception towards men, notes Sterling.

Still, much to the Church’s dismay, the Elizabethan era saw Queen Elizabeth I donning red-stained lips using a tinting mixture consisting of “cochineal, for its red color, combined with the binders gum arabic and egg white, along with sap from the inside of fig branches for slip,” journalist and author Rachel Felder writes in her book, Red Lipstick: Ode to a Beauty Icon. The queen was known for her distinct look: an extremely pale face with red adorning her lips.

Queen Elizabeth I with her red lipstick. Universal History Archive/UIG/Shutterstock

By the time of the Victorian era in the 1800s, red lipstick still held a stark contrast to what it symbolized for the royals in ancient Egypt. It was firmly frowned upon, signaling prostitution, low-class stature, even acting (acting was not viewed as a field of quality during this era, says Sterling). This sign of rebellion was perhaps a foreshadowing of the power the color would symbolize in time periods to come.

Red Lipstick In The Suffrage Movement

In more modern history, red lipstick was used in the American Women’s Suffrage Movement as a way to empower women and shock men, says Sterling. Prior to this revolutionary era when women were protesting for the right to vote, red lipstick was still connected to prostitutes and actresses. To add to the shock value, women involved in the Suffrage Movement were majority white, upper-class women who were not supposed to associate with something as ill-associated as red lipstick,” says Sterling. “However, these women chose to wear it as a symbol of rebellion.”

Women’s suffrage parade in New York City in 1912.Library of Congress/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

This definitely sent the message, and red became synonymous with strength, confidence, boldness, and femininity, Felder writes in her book. “It also represented a break with convention and, in many ways, a sea change in terms of the social attitudes toward and perception of women who wore it,” Felder writes, who adds that in 1912, at a march for the cause on Fifth Avenue, makeup entrepreneur (and now eponymous beauty line) Elizabeth Arden and her team handed out red lipstick to the marchers. “As it does for women today, red lipstick expressed conviction, confidence, and vigor.”

Red Lipstick Today

Later in the 20th century, Sterling notes that Hollywood began to pull the influence of red lipstick in roles with more seductive qualities in their characters. “Marilyn Monroe was a good example of this, playing characters on screen with an orange-red lip that showed up dark red on movie cameras,” she says.

Marilyn Monroe wearing her signature red lip.Sunset Boulevard/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

In the following decades, red lipstick has remained a modern day classic. In the ‘80s and ‘90s singers Sade and the late Selena Quintanilla were rarely seen without a crimson lip. In the 2010s, celebrities like Taylor Swift and Rihana have made the color their signature shade while others have relied on the color for album covers, red carpet appearances, and magazine spreads. Rihanna even teamed up with MAC in 2013 to create “RiRi Woo,” a play on the brand’s wildly popular Ruby Woo red lipstick.

Rihanna’s matte red lip at the 2013 Grammy Awards. Jeff Vespa/WireImage/Getty Images

More than any other lipstick shade, red is a powerhouse color of self-expression. “Sensual, glamorous, and sophisticated, it’s a bold communicator, telegraphing self-assurance and strength — and, in some contexts, defiance — without uttering a word,” Felder writes. And with today’s sea of shades, formulas, and accessibility like never before, the color continues to live strong.