Lipsticks have been around for a very long time and have always been a part of cultural, fashion and social statements.

It all began roughly 5000 years ago, when male and female rulers of the Sumer civilization in Mesopotamia - in today’s southern Iraq - pasted dust from pulverized semi-precious stones on their lips and around the eyes to decorate their faces with, and did this with great enthusiasm. Making use of various existing trade routes across the continent, they obtained turquoise from where Persia used to be, jade from central Asia and China, and spinel and the greatly prized lapis lazuli from northern Afghanistan, some 3200 kilometres (2000 miles) away. Privileged women could not do without their paints, which were stored in small seashell containers, and demanded that they be buried with them for reuse in the afterlife.

The culture of colouring lips eventually reached the burgeoning Egyptian kingdom (circa 2700 BC - 30 BC), where it continued to be worn to show social status rather than gender. Both men and women boldly applied make-up as part of their daily routine. As with all cosmetics at the time, lip colours were raw. A typical make-up kit would consist of a wooden box for storing pigments, brass pots for mixing scented lip colours, egg whites for facials, crushed ant eggs for eyeliner, and razors for removing body hair. Kohl, made from ground lead sulfide and mixed with water or animal fat to create a paste, was used around the eyes, which had the most cultural importance and therefore demanded the most attention. Lips were coloured with red ochre just like that or mixed with olive oil or beeswax for a more lasting finish. Paints with more shimmering effects were made from an iridescent substance found in fish scales. Cosmetics were applied with the aid of ivory and sticks of wet wood.

During the empire’s heyday and following years of slow decline, the painting of lips increased in importance and sophistication, unhindered by any form of regulation. The most sought after colours ranged from orange to magenta, purple and blue-black. Red, especially deep carmine, became fashionable with Egypt’s elite, including the iconic Queen Cleopatra (69 BC - 30 BC). The primary dye was made from dried and crushed bodies of female cochineal insects living off thorny cacti. Another rich red-brown lip paint was made from a mercuric purple dye extracted from seaweed - sometimes with a pinch of iodine or a small amount of foul reeking bromine added to it - making it a potentially poisonous concoction its users were unfortunately unaware of. Usage, more than often, resulted in serious illness, and even death, for both the women wearing it and the men kissing them.  

As Egyptian influence waned, Greek culture rose, spread and prospered. The Greeks had a tumultuous relationship with cosmetics. Most well-off women shunned all forms of facial make-up although they did rely on elaborate fake hair do’s and dyes for appearances. Lip paint became largely the domain of prostitutes. They often managed to make it from blended berries, flowers, gums, wine and other extraordinary additives such as grease from sheep’s wool (lanolin), human saliva, and pooh from the ferocious Nile crocodile. Under Greek law, the first of its kind with regard to the use of cosmetics, prostitutes, who appeared in public either on the wrong hours or without their trademark lip paint and make-up, could be punished for improperly posing as ladies. In the end, mainly due to influences from the neighbouring Minoans on Crete and other islands in the Aegean Sea, lip paint did manage to seep into classical Greece’s mainstream culture, causing a string of revivals. The use of lip paint leapt directly from prostitutes - and foreigners - to the upper classes. Colour for the newly acceptable and socially exclusive lip paint came from vegetable substances such as mulberries and seaweed, from the roots of certain alkanet-like plants, and from the considerably less safe mineral vermilion. Greek art began depicting women handing one another cosmetics articles.

Attitudes towards cosmetics evolved with the expansion of the Roman empire. Initially used for ritual purposes only in ancient Rome, affluent women later had specially designated, skilfully trained female make-up slaves, called ‘cosmatae’. They would adorn their mistresses with ‘cultus’, the Latin word encompassing make-up, perfume and jewellery. Cosmetics were applied in private, usually in a chamber where men were not permitted. Cosmatae also had to keep their mistress’s lips perfectly painted at all times. Women were particularly fond of red and purple, which consisted of ochre, iron ore or lead, and the same poisonous seaweed the Greeks and Egyptians had used before them. Working women did not use cosmetics that much because applying them was a time-consuming affair and they may not even have had the proper slaves to assist them.   

When the western part of the Roman empire started to crumble round 450 AD, Europe descended into the Dark Ages, from which not too many records of everyday life exist. Most information from this five-hundred year period comes from the writings of clergymen, who objected to the use of cosmetics by women. They favoured a rather plainer and more sober existence although some lip painting did occur throughout some countries during this period. The general belief was that women, who wore make-up, were seen as incarnations of the devil because alterations to a given face challenged the Almighty and all his workmanship. Applying a lily or rose tint remained permissible though, based on these colour’s association with purity. Rose lip paint was commonly made from animal fat and mashed red plant roots - not very exciting.

As perceptions of beauty underwent several changes, lip paint started to regain some of its lustre in sixteenth century Elizabethan England. The idea of pure feminine beauty was a woman with a pale skin - a sign of wealth and nobility -, bright eyes, fair hair, red cheeks and bright red lips. To counter, an alabaster complexion was required by noblemen. Lip paints were still homemade, consisting of a blend of beeswax or Arabic gum, red dyes from flowers, madder from plant roots, vermilion and fig milk. Make-up was reserved for upper class women and -  Shakespearean - actors only. But it did not take long before the obvious use of cosmetics was once again linked to marginalized groups such as lower class women and prostitutes. This trend was to last for a while.   

By the end of the nineteenth century, lip colouring became commercially successful. The Industrial Revolution and its consequent mass production of lipsticks in metal containers, similar to the ones still used today, helped bring them back into fashion. With the ease of manufacturing, low prices, influences of art and literature, the rise of photography and popularization by many famous film actresses, lipsticks finally became commonly used in the second decade of the twentieth century. By then, innovators managed to create the swivel-up tube and chemists came up with exciting new recipes to meet the demand.

The feminine look of the 1920’s, the Roaring Twenties, was characterized by lips painted dark red in the form of a Cupid’s bow, kohl-rimmed eyes, and bright cheeks brushed with a bright red blush. Different products were developed demonstrating the decade’s preoccupation with shaping and accentuating the mouth. Metal lip tracers, for instance, came in various sizes to satisfy the wishes of the wearer, and were made to ensure a flawless lipstick application. Different fruity tastes of lipstick became available, with cherry as an absolute favourite. The introduction of the mirrored lipstick container enabled women to check their lips when and wherever they wanted.   

By the 1930’s, lipstick was considered a symbol of adult sensuality. Wearing lipstick represented womanhood for teenage girls, yet adults regarded it as an act of rebellion. Many Americans, especially immigrants, did not accept young girls using cosmetics. A survey indicated that, before the decade was over, more than half of the teenage girls had some form of disagreement with their parents on the issue. Despite the increased use of cosmetics during the following years, they remained associated with prostitution. Teenagers were strongly discouraged from using them in favour of a more natural look for fear that they would be mistaken for being promiscuous. American lipstick production and consumption managed to flourish even further during and after the second World War. 90% of American women wore lipstick, and by the 1950’s, that figure had risen to 98%. Nearly 100% of all American college girls were wearing lipstick then.

The cult of wearing lipstick has come a long way since. Nowadays, lipsticks are still viewed as one of the most important fashion items among women. In terms of safety, all certified toxins have long been banned as ingredients. Lipsticks have improved considerably, with more colours, shades and special effects than ever before. They are likely to experience an increased global acceptance for the years to come in spite of feminist unrest about its trivialization of women, conservationists’ calls for not wasting resources on unnecessary consumer goods, and religious groups’ continued dislike for lipstick’s materialist and sexual connotations.    

Jon Eiselin.