If there’s one thing almost every makeup lover has in their arsenal, it’s red lipstick.
Throughout history, the bright shade has symbolized everything from bravery and strength, to resilience, feminism and even power. Over the years, the shade worn by the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Gwen Stefani, Taylor Swift and even Rosie the Riveter has become a classic, thought to inspire confidence in those who wear it.
As Poppy King, founder of Lipstick Queen, once said, “That is the magic of lipstick.”
That same “magic,” though, wasn’t always seen as a good thing, especially when it came to lipstick, and cosmetics in general.
In fact, in the early days of Christianity and the eventual rise of the Church of England, the simple act of wearing lipstick was seen as being both sinful and deceitful ― and could even be punishable by law.
“With the rise of Christianity, you get people like St. Jerome saying any attempt to change the way a woman looks is an act against God. God has given you your face, that’s the face you should stick with. Any attempt to change it at all to emphasize or to conceal ― it’s sinful,” Madeleine Marsh, author of Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Day, told HuffPost.
Marsh also referenced a letter by St. Cyprian in which he condemned the wearing of any cosmetics, or what he thought “falsified” one’s appearance. St. Cyprian was the bishop of Carthage and was said to be an important figure in the development of Christian thought in the third century.
“All women in general should be warned that the work of God and His creature and image should in no way be falsified by employing yellow coloring or black powder or rouge, or, finally, any cosmetic at all that spoils the natural features,” St. Cyprian wrote, adding, “They are laying hands on God when they strive to remake what He has made, and to transform it, not knowing that everything that comes into existence is the work of God; that whatever is changed, is the work of the devil.”
Applying makeup, St. Cyprian said, was “an assault upon the divine work, a violation of the truth.”
Fast forward to the 1400s and 1500s, and the era of the early Church of England, during which the church remained “actively against the idea of women wearing makeup,” said Rachel Weingarten, beauty historian and author of Hello Gorgeous! Beauty Products in America, ’40s-’60s.
“You could divorce your wife if she wore makeup. It was actually seen as a sin, because there was the idea that she wasn’t what she seemed to be,” Weingarten said.
In the late 1700s, England even passed a law stating that any woman who used cosmetics, false hair or even high-heeled shoes to “impose upon, seduce or betray into matrimony any of his Majesty’s male subjects […] shall incur the penalty of the law now enforced against witchcraft and like misdemeanors and that the marriage upon conviction shall stand null and void.”
“That’s one of the most extreme responses ever to makeup,” Marsh noted.
On top of that, many of the ingredients people were using as makeup were quite dangerous, which resulted in a number of deaths. As Marsh noted, the severe reaction to cosmetics, then, was partly in response to that. (Surely people dying unexpectedly or mysteriously because of cosmetics didn’t help with the witchcraft idea, either.)
“But equally, it was the idea that men didn’t want to be deceived,” Marsh said.
And despite how much we think society has evolved, this attitude remains prevalent today. According to a YouGov survey from this year, 63 percent of men think women wear makeup “to trick people into thinking they’re attractive.”
Society’s attitude toward red lipstick shifted quite drastically in the World War II era, and it became seen as a symbol of bravery, patriotism and resilience. Women were at home taking on jobs previously filled by men, as they were on the battleground.
“When you look at the wartime period, pin-up girls and whatnot, they’ve all got bright red lipstick on,” Marsh explained. “It was a time for strength and women, whether they were boiler-suited big girls or whatever, they had to be strong, and lipstick was a part of that.”
Women were also experiencing feelings of freedom and independence during this time, after they had gotten a taste of life outside the home while their husbands were away.
Weingarten echoed Marsh’s statement, noting that makeup ― lipstick in particular ― experienced a sort of renaissance during the WWII period.
“There were many reasons that was said to be the case; first of all, to keep the spirits up, to show that while the war raged on, it [presented] the idea that life was normal,” Weingarten said. “Hitler was said to despise red lipstick in particular, so it was seen as a sign of rebellion, an FU to everything he stood for. It was also considered incredibly patriotic; it was a symbol of the red, white and blue.”
She added, “So, anyone who’s ever dismissed the idea of beauty and makeup as being frivolous, doesn’t realize the cultural and sociological impact.”