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the lips have it

what is it about red lips? spicy vermilion, bold crimson or deep, mysterious blood reds, they have all held a fascination for both men and women for hundreds of years. even in the twenty-first century, with thousands of colours available for women (and adventurous men) to pick from, reds from across the spectrum remain a statement. in fact, many women still shy away from them out of fear of looking shocking. and, given the reactions that some receive, maybe they have reason.

guerlain rouge g in rouge sensuel
the association of red with audacity, energy, even danger is an ancient one. the greeks and romans identified their god of war with the planet mars- the red planet. of course, red is also the colour of blood, linking it to the force of life as well. and of course, if you are a christian, or are raised in any area where the culture is predominantly coloured by christianity, red is also the colour of apples, the sweet forbidden fruit, the seed of all temptation.

there is also the fact that red lips are actually completely unnatural. if we were trying simply to emphasise the mouth's natural beauty, there are a whole range of hues that would be appropriate, depending on skintone, from light pinks to rich browns to plummy shades, but never red. in fact, the origins of using red tint on the lips actually came from the fact that it was unnatural. in the middle ages, european aristocracy distinguished themselves from the rough folk who toiled in the fields by cultivating a pale complexion and eventually, to further add to this distinction, women began to tint their lips red. of course, this did not look natural, but that was its charm: those who looked natural were those who had to spend their lives working outside. an unnatural appearance was the privilege of those who had their choice of when and how to interact with the natural world.

chanel rouge lacque in dragon
of course, as time went on, cosmetics became more widely available and rouged cheeks and bright lips became the hallmarks of low women, while those of breeding were encouraged to be demure, to avoid appearing to seek attention. thus was another dimension added to the history of red lips: the woman who wore them was held in contempt, but at the same time inspired fear, being both independent (in the case of higher class mistresses, at least) and sexual.

by the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the cultural ideal of feminine beauty had shifted. in europe and north america, the church frowned on the use of cosmetics and the fresh-faced "gibson girl" became the new icon. at the same time, a new class of women, also independent and often sexualised, became known for their dark red lips- entertainers.

the reason for the use of red lipstick in the theatre and early cinema was practical rather than political- red lips showed well under theatre lights and a dark lip colour was necessary to make lips more visible on film. of course, along with the screen ingenues, who were generally lit so that their heavy makeup was less obvious, a new woman was introduced to the popular imaginary: the vamp. emobodied best by a midwestern girl born theodosia goodman, the vamp was the polar opposite of the gibson girl. her eyes were ringed with kohl, rather than proper restrictive clothing, she wore robes that flowed as freely as her dark spirit. and her lips were dark, as dark as blood. the term "vamp" was obviously coined from vampire (another popular icon of the late nineteenth century), the damned creature who fed off the blood of innocents. the cinematic vamp, by contrast, drained life from formerly upstanding men by sucking the spirit from them, the allegory reflected in those deadly blood-stained lips.

this is who your mother warned you about

this was a naive time of absolute good and evil, distinguished visually as well as morally, but that came crashing to an end with the first world war. in the wake of such unbelievable carnage, past standards seemed at best quaint, at worst psychotically mislead. and with the crash landing of colonial values came a general questioning of all that had been parceled with them. (as a side note, i've always thought that the first world war was actually far more interesting and more important than the second. i encourage people to read up.)

not the girl next door
with the 1920s, the flapper arrived. she was youthful, independent, a bit wild, brimming with energy, utterly modern. she was a vivacious combination of the ingenue and the vamp- feminine but able to keep up with (or lead) the boys. her hair was cropped short and her lithe figure was frequently clothed only in a small sheath. and she wore makeup. her eyes and lips were darkened. in this case, her dark lips were a symbol of that other kind of danger- rebellion. these were the daughters who refused to do as their mothers had done, who insisted on experience more and staking a place for themselves in the world.

mac kissable lip colour in love peck
in the last century, both the position of women and the cosmetics industry have advanced beyond what the women of the early twentieth century would have dreamed possible, and yet, when we see a red mouth, there is still something in us that feels that ruffle of excitement, that faint thrill that the wearer is bold, daring, sexy and possibly just a little dangerous. for all our advancements, it is still a challenge, smiling beguilingly at us with bold lips.

for a scintillating read about icons of femininity from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, i recommend bram dijkstra's evil sisters.

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