The Story of Lipstick

Queen Victoria thought lipstick was for the commoner, but in ancient Roman times lip colours were worn only by the upper class…

The kiss of death…

The phrase ‘the kiss of death’ was coined in ancient Egyptian times, when women would use a mixture of plant dye, iodine and bromine mannite to create a red colour for their lips – completely unaware that the toxic combination caused serious illness and even death when ingested. Cleopatra escaped this unpleasant fate because her lipstick was made from crushed carmine beetles mixed with ant’s eggs, with fish scales added for a nice shimmer. By the 16th century, when Elizabeth I introduced the stark trend of a chalk white face with blood-red lipstick, beeswax and crushed flowers such as roses or geraniums were the main ingredients for a spot of lippy.

The anti-lipstick brigade

In 1653, pastor Thomas Hall declared that the painting of faces was the Devil’s work. His view was finally endorsed in 1770 when the English parliament passed a law against the wearing of lipstick, stating that a woman who seduced a man into marriage by means of make-up could be tried as a witch. Queen Victoria publicly declared make-up to be vulgar, adding that it was only worn by actors and prostitutes. By the Second World War attitudes had undergone a complete reversal, and in the UK women who were engaged in war work were supplied with lipsticks to keep their spirits high.

Is that a beetle on your lips?

In the 19th century, lipstick was coloured by using carmine dye extracted from cochineal beetles that can be found on cactus plants in Central America and Mexico. The carminic acid was extracted from the insect’s body and eggs, and mixed with aluminium or calcium salts to create the paste. It was applied with a brush, and to put it on in public was nothing short of scandalous – which is why the notorious actress Sarah Bernhardt made a habit of it. The first commercial lipstick was introduced by Parsian perfumers in 1884. It was made from deer tallow, beeswax and castor oil, and was wrapped in silk paper. Other manufacturers began launching their lip colours, some packaged in paper tubes and others sold in small pots, and in 1915 the cylinder metal container was invented by Maurice Levy. The first swivel-up tube was patented in 1923 by James Bruce Mason Jnr.

Only for loose women

The ‘cupid’s bow’ was inspired by the lips of actress Clara Bow, at a time when flappers chose a dark red lipstick to symbolise their independence. During the 1920s it was considered acceptable to apply lipstick in public, but never at dinner. By the 1930s make-up queen Elizabeth Arden had introduced a range of shades, and lipstick began to represent adult sexuality; it’s documented that the wearing of it caused arguments between more than 50% of teenage girls and their parents during this era. By the mid-1940s the ‘natural’ look was being touted, with girls being warned via books and magazines that they could easily ruin their chances of a career and popularity if they wore cosmetics. Few people believed this, and by the time Marliyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor burst onto the scene with their lusciously dark lips, two-thirds of teenage girls were wearing lipstick.

Nice girls wear pink

In the late 1950s and 1960s, pastel, pink and peach lipsticks were introduced. These were perfect for girls whose parents disapproved of red lipstick, and the paler colours became a trend, along with white lipstick. In a complete turnaround, a view was put forward in which women who did not wear lipstick were suspected of being either mentally unstable or lesbians.

This article is courtesy of Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure & Profit magazine. A year’s subscription (that’s four issues: spring, summer, autumn and winter) is $48. To subscribe visit

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