Lipstick : a complete history

lipstick in 1919

Lipstick is made up of oils, waxes, emollients and pigment. It seems that both women and men have been staining their lips as long as there have been berries.

Even fish scales have been used for shimmer. Lipstick as a commercial product, in a tube, was launched in 1915. Let’s leap into the time machine and take a little look at lipstick’s messy story.


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Reclined Marilyn
Frank Ritter




Ancient civilisation

Lipstick has been in use since ancient times with all sorts of staining and sticky substances – anything you can think of really, that will be sticky or stainy. From the Sumerians to the Egyptians, right through to the Roman Empire women and men have used whatever they could find: berries; clay; red lead; henna; insects; plants; rust; minerals – you name it, they tried it. The stains could be mixed with resins and gums for extra stickiness and hold. Ancient cosmetics were a sign of status for men and women. They were also considered medicinal, rather than simply a beauty fix for women.

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Bust of Queen Nefertiti, …
Egyptian 18th Dynasty


Lipstick is universal. In ancient Japan, women were always in thick make-up and dark lipstick (tar and beeswax). In the Pacific Islands, women used molluscs that contained bright red dye and conditioning oils. Some ingredients are still in use in today’s brands.

However in the early Greek Empire lipstick was associated with prostitution. It even became law. Prostitutes were prosecuted for not wearing lipstick. The notion of solid lipsticks took shape in the 8-13th Centuries, during the Islamic Golden Age. 10th Century Arab physician Abulcasis was born in Al-Andalus (Moorish Spain) in 936 . Although he made some fundamental medical discoveries, he also invented the solid lipstick. It was amongst the array of medicated cosmetics he published in his medical dictionary Al-Tasrif. He had invented a stock for applying perfume which he would roll and press into a mould. The mould would set and could be applied to the body. He continued this method but with colour. The first ever lipstick was born.

In the 11th – 13th centuries, it was not uncommon for women to wear violet and orange shades of lip colour.

The growth of Christianity in the Middle Ages affected thoughts of lipstick. To wear red lip colour was to challenge God and his creative endeavours. It was linked to Satan. The pope issued a special directive banning cosmetics. However, natural pink colours were acceptable as symbols of innocence for women. That’s okay, then.




16th Century

In the 16th Century, cosmetics are fashionable once again. Queen Elizabeth I wears a crimson concoction on her lips. Another form of lipstick is invented: Colour pigments (eg cochineal) mixed with alabaster. It is rolled into a crayon shape and dried in the sun to harden.

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Portrait of Amy Robsart, …


Lipstick is still disapproved of by the church however. The church relates cosmetics to magick and witchcraft. This is mainly due to the popular belief that make-up would protect you from infections and disease thereby warding off death. This is exactly how ancient Egyptians viewed cosmetics. Even in modern times we wear lip balm as a protector for dry and chapped lips. In reality, many cosmetics in the 16th Century were toxic and may have contributed to many deaths.

In later centuries, lipstick continues as a sign of status based on which ingredients and colour pigments were used. For instance, the upper classes began to use safer animal fats in lip rouge and certain shades of red. Also men wore less cosmetics, or just kept it a secret.




17th Century

In 1656, Paris rosary-maker François Jaquin creates a simulated pearl essence from fish scales. This substance is known as crystalline guanine. Guanine is now used as a synthetic ingredient in modern cosmetics and products to create a pearly shimmer.

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Portrait of King Charles Ii
Sir Peter Lely


During the reign of Charles ll in England and Louis XIV in France, lips are rouged heavily by both genders. Inspiration is taken from theatre actors and how much make-up the king likes to wear. Carmine and grease are used to colour the lips of men and women alike. Even men sporting a moustache and beard wear lipstick.



18th Century

By the 18th Century lips return to a more natural colour in most of Europe (France being the exception). Wax, animal marrow and gold leaf is introduced to lip colour at this time. However lip rouge still has connections to witchcraft.



19th Century

In the Victorian era, makeup is associated with actresses, women of questionable morals, and prostitutes. Upper-class women wear hardly any makeup. Lipstick is largely prohibited in social circles so women use it in secret or find other methods to create healthy luscious lips. Red lips can be achieved by pinching, biting or rubbing with various items. Lip salves become a popular way of dressing the lips. Colour is sometimes applied to the salves secretly by women.

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Olympia, 1863-1865
Edouard Manet


Commercial lipstick was first produced in Paris in the 1880s by those in the perfume industry. By the late 1890s lipsticks are being sold and advertised in Europe and the USA. They are sold in pots on paper sheets or in paper tubes.

In fact lipstick becomes a symbol of the feminist rebellion at this time. Women are beginning to liberate themselves from being told what to do all the time. They are campaigning for equal rights and the vote. Forward-thinking women can see that the act of wearing lipstick is an act of defiance. A way to gain control of their own lives and bodies.

Continued use of lipstick by actresses on and off the stage eventually leads to lipstick becoming popular by the end of the century.




Early 20th Century

By the turn of the century cosmetics are seen as modern and emancipating for women. Fashion magazines are growing in popularity with a steady steam of adverts and features on looking good and being fashionable. Men are quite happy that women are more interested in fashion than the politics of the day or getting the vote. The Gibson Girl look promotes subtle natural lips.

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Gibson Girls, 1903
Charles Dana Gibson


Women use a mixture of carmine dye (basically ground up insects) that is applied with a brush. It can be made more pliable using waxes and oils. Synthetic replicas of carmine are also mixed and applied at home.

In 1914, the first cosmetics for use in cinema were produced. Lighter than theatre make-up, the cosmetics were the first step towards a commercial, modern industry.

During World War I, women are more present in the workplace and gaining in confidence and independence. They can do anything that men can do and do it whilst wearing lipstick and impossible hairdos. They are buying more cosmetics with their new-found incomes.

In 1915 Maurice Levy launches the first metal push-up lipstick container and the modern lipstick evolves. It is portable, ready-made and affordable for ordinary women. A lip salve is also invented which causes a reactive effect to make lips redden. Flavoured commercial lipsticks also became popular.





The first swivel-up lipstick is patented in 1923 in the USA by James Bruce Mason Jr. This is the modern lipstick that we know today. The industry blossoms.

Packaging and branding becomes the selling point for a lipstick. Brands such as Tangee and Max Factor sell women the dream of looking like their favourite silent movie star.

It’s the jazz baby era and dark lips are the cat’s pajamas. Emulating the popularity of the silent era movie stars, lips are dark and have a shape. Movie stars are filmed in monochrome: red lipstick shows up as dark. Therefore dark lips on film would signal that the actress was wearing lipstick – sounds complicated but it makes perfect sense for this era. Strangely enough, the first movie stars had to wear yellow lips to appear as if red with some of the early film stocks. Dark lips and dark eyes on a pale face is the look being projected onto the screen to suggest a woman is made-up. It defines the young, modern look and far removed from the Gibson Girl ideal.

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Vogue Cover – November 1925
Eduardo Garcia Benito


Plums, aubergines, cherries, dark reds and browns are the colours of the 1920s. Lipstick is inexpensive and mass-produced. Every modern woman owns a selection of lipsticks. Portable lipstick with a mirror also becomes popular. Women are creating a lip shape rather than just rouging their lips. They need to be able to see what they are doing on the move. Magazines encourage women to wear more make-up to compete for jobs in the workplace.

Helena Rubinstein invents the Cupid’s Bow lipstick that claims the must-have lip shape for the decade is achievable. Women even use stencils to create a perfect lip shape.





Jazzy extravagance is gone. Prohibition has ended. Women have the vote and go out to work. Being naughty and decadent is no longer in fashion (it’s frowned upon, in fact).

This decade is all about elegance. Ruby red lips and matt. Lipstick is still mass-produced and popular. It is cheap to make and cheap to buy. For women suffering in the economic depression, lipstick is something affordable that feels like a bit of luxury. Women often say, even today, that a touch of lipstick can make you feel like a million dollars.

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Coty Make-Up: Lipstick an…


Max Factor releases the first commercial lip gloss, originally only worn by film stars. It becomes very popular. It’s a symbol of the glamour of Hollywood and the golden age of cinema. Movie stars are the new gods and have to be emulated. In 1930 Eve Arden claims that women who wear lipstick are more likely to get a job. This motto helps to make her range popular, of course.

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Vogue Cover – July 1939
Horst P. Horst



It’s red all the way for lips. During World War II everything is in short supply or rationed. Due to rationing, cosmetics are in short supply. This results in simple make-up looks and lots of creativity with hairstyles. The metal lipstick tube is replaced with plastic or paper.

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WWII: Rosie The Riveter


Lipstick is still being produced (it is relatively cheap to make) and boosts women’s morale during the war years. You can’t have a new dress every month but you can look glamorous with a new lipstick. Max Factor produces the first smudge-proof lipstick.





The look of red lips/cat eyes is very popular and the acceptable ‘face’ of respectable lipstick-wearing. However, teenage girls are looking to find their own youthful lip colours that are more girly, youthful and innocent. Mildly flirty rather than sexy. So here we have the division of looks for the single female between teenage/fresh and womanly/sensual.

There is also a greater choice of colours. Peaches and cherry are popular lip shades. The heavily made-up look of the 1950s ensures that the taste for red lipstick would endure right through this decade. Film stars were made up in strong lip colour for major impact when filming in glorious technicolor. As well as the typical bright red lips, movie stars would wear colours that flattered their hair colour and complexion.

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Vogue Cover – January 1950
Erwin  Blumenfeld


The war of the brands goes into overdrive for commercial lipstick. Companies compete to improve the chemical formula of the lipstick itself to come up with some amazing claims. There are ad campaigns for lipstick everywhere as the brands compete to win hearts and purses.





Modern art is popular and influences fashion in a big way. Opaque colours become popular on lips as do bold unconventional choices of colour. White lipsticks, pale, frosted or unusual colours became fashionable with the young who wanted to achieve an arty look without being overtly sexual.

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Nicole de la Marge in a Peter Shepher…
John French



Bold colour gives way to sheer shimmer. Gloss, gloss and, oh yes another layer of gloss to go with the layers of hair and layers of make-up. Pearl essence is added to almost anything. Lip gloss epitomises the young, hedonistic disco look. Flavoured lip gloss corners the market of young girls. Colourless with lickable flavours.

Older women go for a more natural gloss but again without much colour. A more natural look is popular amongst ordinary women as the trend for looking healthy and fit takes hold. Farrah Fawcett’s beach glow with natural, glossy lips becomes fashionably feminine.

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Vogue Cover – March 1974
Francesco Scavullo


Punks rebel against the idea of make-up enhancing your looks naturally. Unnatural colours such as white, black and purple become the uniform. They give birth to a trend for tribal looks that transcend the commercial Western view of beauty. This use of dark colours is inspired by horror B-movies and TV.





Stark colour to blast away the decade of gloss. Power dressing creates power lips and a strong red colour became fashionable again. Pastels and a range of shades and colours give women and teenagers the opportunity to buy every colour and match a look, a mood or an outfit.

Dark and black lips continue with the goth culture of removing colour to give a 19th century romantic poet look of unhealthy pale face and colourless lips and eyes.





Back to nature as things get pared down again. The excesses of the 80s gives way to a recession and the era of grunge and simple, unfussy fashions. Women also want to look fit and healthy. Environmental concerns grow and people look for alternatives to chemically-laden products. Neutral, earth-tone lip colours are fashionable to match the mood. A healthy glow and sleek, straight, shiny hair is the ideal. Classic red lips are still popular alongside neutral, darker tones. Glossy is out and matt, lined lips are in fashion.

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L’Officiel, December 1996…
Francesco Scavullo


Tattooed lips are a new alternative as cosmetic surgery is more common among movie and pop stars. The ‘trout pout’ is a lip look popularised by stars getting botox injected into their lips. This swollen lip effect is also achieved without surgery. Spicy glosses that stimulate blood flow and lining the lips outside the natural shape to make them look larger becomes the fashion.

Lip liner is very popular and women are encouraged to line their lips in a different shade to their lipstick. This creates a very different and decade-defining look.

Lipstick has come a long way. But has it changed that much? Not really. We are still using bizarre ingredients to colour and enhance. We are also still willing to go to extremes for fashion. It is quite normal these days for women to get lip plumping cosmetic surgery. Ironically, in the 21st Century we are also increasingly looking back in time and using ancient homemade concoctions to naturally stain our lips without harm to us or the environment. This is certain proof that lipstick will be around for a few centuries yet.

6 Comments on “Lipstick : a complete history

  1. Hi, your website is amazing!
    I was trying to find the make of a lipstick my late mother wore all through my childhood. I think it was called the queen of hearts but when I google it, it comes out as a new brand and not the one my mum use to buy from.
    The tube was a push-up plastic one with a gold pattern on a off white background if I remember rightly. I would be delighted if you could let me know which make it was – just for my own interest really.
    Thank you for your most informative history of the lipstic and well done for all your hard research.
    I hope to hear from you
    Kind Regards,
    Christina Dickerson

    • Thank you Christina, I really appreciate your comment and it has given me a boost. It’s very enlightening to research the stories behind the things we take for granted today, don’t you think? Although it can take a while to try and cover everything, I find it fascinating and always hope that others will too. About the lipstick, I haven’t heard of this brand but I’ll do my best to find out. I think a trip to the library might help us here. I’ll get back to you on that if I find something.

  2. Hi I was just wondering how much lipstick was in the 1920’s for my history project

    • Hi Amy, it was in the 1920s that lipsticks became truly commercial with plenty of choices and lipsticks would have cost no more than 50 cents or so in American money. However not all women felt the need to buy lipstick and not all women could afford to either. Plenty of women were still using their own homemade methods of staining the lips.

  3. Really interesting info. I used to use a Max Factor pale pink frosted lipstick in a gold case during the late 60s early 70s. Any idea of the name of the shade as it’s driving me mad trying to remember it,.

    • Thanks for your comment. Perhaps you might get and answer from Max Factor. Here is a link to their contact form.

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