Lipstick: From Witches to Bitches


Historicizing Lipstick: From Ancient Civilization to Modern Feminism lipstick


From humble beginnings in Egypt and Mesopotamia, lipstick has become a symbol for women of nearly every social class throughout history. When lipstick first became popular it belonged to royalty, but that quickly changed once it spread to Europe. Red lipstick no longer meant what it did to Cleopatra.

Instead, supposed witches, prostitutes, and “those darn femnazis” have all adopted red lipstick as an icon of their lives. If one follows the influence of red lipstick on certain populations, the value of women in that time period can be determined. Perhaps the most significant role red lipstick played in history can be seen in medieval England. According to Sarah Schaffer’s article, “women who wore facial makeup were seen as incarnations of Satan” and through the 1300’s those who made, sold, and wore lipstick could be hanged or burned at the stake as sorcerers and witches. These superstitious ideals continued for centuries. For example, in the 1500’s, lipstick was banned by the English parliament, who claimed women could use it to seduce men into marriage. During this time, the women who were feared most were witches. Ladies were supposed to be kind and innocent, waiting on their husbands and following a strict moral code. Instead, witches represented a powerful, dominant woman who went against the church. . So when a woman went out wearing attention-catching shades of red, she could be accused of witchcraft by way of seduction.

queenThere were some exceptions to this way of thinking, however. During Queen Elizabeth The First’s (seen to the left) reign, court ladies were permitted to wear bright shades freely, but common women were more cautious as they still carried the belief that lipstick offered magical powers. For instance, near the Queen’s death, she applied nearly half an inch of red lipstick nightly to help with her failing health. So even when lipstick was allowed, people still harbored a fear of it’s mystical abilities. The antiquated idea that lipstick was the paint of the devil fell away during Charles the Second’s reign, when both women and men were free to wear lipstick as often as they liked, and the shade of red could be used to determine one’s social class. The ingredients used would reflect in the vividness of the color, and one could make accurate guesses of the finances of the household based on the quality of the paste made. Yet lipstick’s cosmetic prowess would collapse again when the hatred and fear of lipstick returned in the 17th and 18th centuries as England tried to distance themselves from the French ideals of beauty, and the power of the church returned in full force.dita

When women wearing red lipstick weren’t associated with witches, they were assumed to be prostitutes. The idea of a red-lipped seductress is nothing new. The first prostitutes who donned their cherry red salves were the ones of ancient Greece, who used many cosmetic tips from the collapsing Egyptian empire to make themselves more alluring. Luckily for these ladies, prostitutes were not seen as much less than a normal woman except when it came to marriage. But it didn’t stop there. Red lipstick meshed with the red-light districts all across the globe. For instance, according to Kristen Ghodsee’s article, in post-communist Bulgaria women relied heavily on cosmetics to make themselves “more beautiful”, in hopes of being purchased by higher-class men as prostitutes or even wives. Much like how ladies of England were expected to look and act sweetly, Bulgarian young women were taught to hold the same standards. But for lower class girls, make-up helped them achieve their cultural standard of ultimate beauty as a way to seem more appealing to more wealthy men, almost in the same way the old English were afraid of their women adopting. Madeline March, a feminist author, is quoted in this PRI broadcast describing how women in the late 20th century who wore bright reds were associated with prostitutes, spurred by pop culture. And, the book “Reframing Prostitution” explains that modern views of a prostitute include lipstick, heavy eye makeup, and revealing clothing, particularly in movies and television. We certainly see this in our own culture today, in all levels of sex work. Prostitution, pornography, and nude modeling all take advantage of the power behind red lipstick. Modern day sex symbols like Dita von Tesse and Beth Ditto (seen above and left respectively) are rarely seen with nude lips, and von Teese’s lingerie line features many red pieces.

To understand the reason behind this connection, we can look to Rachel Perls’ website, Hue. She explains that the color red is historically associated with prostitutes and unfaithful women. Think, The Scarlett Letter. In France, the color red’s tie to sex was biblical, “inspired by the red cord in the window of Rahab the harlot in the Book of Joshua” and in the 15th century many women across Europe who were known prostitutes wore a red ribbon somewhere on their clothing. Much like prisoners are associated with orange jumpsuits, red accessories became a way to set apart regular members of society from those who were considered lower in status,such as prostitutes. In media we can see this in both television and music. For example, the Police’s song, Roxanne, highlights multiple red images, such as her red dress. The song is famously about a prostitute with which the band’s singer, Sting, was romantically involved.

Now where does that leave us today?Madeline March and T.J Raphael, the producer of the previously stated PRI broadcast, give us the answer: Red lipstick now symbolizes third wave feminism. Just look at a modern day song that serves a much different purpose than that of the Police’s. Rihanna’s song aptly titled, Red Lipstick, is sexy in every sense of the word. But in contrast to previously in history, in this situation, it is the woman who is in charge of the situation. She is documenting her own sexual experience, and is proud of it. She is confident in her sexual prowess and beauty, and has no shame in regards to discussing it with the world.

This trend began particularly after the World Wars. When World War Two ended, it became impossible to not associate red lipstick with female strength. Images like Rosie the Riveter and girls with victory rolls in their hair and rouge on their lips permanently assigned cosmetics to powerful women. American women also found pride in their lipstick, with colors like “Patriot Red,” especially knowing that Hitler despised the idea of red lipstick almost as much as the old Englishmen did. Suffragettes often wore red lipstick as well while marching in New York, adding to the newfound positivity of it. However in the 1970’s, the image changed. March states “lipstick fell out of vogue for a time during the 1970s, when the modern feminist movement was growing and cosmetics were seen as tools of patriarchal oppression”.

Today, thelady feminist movement has reclaimed red lipstick. In fact, many refer to third wave feminism simply as “Lipstick Feminism”, or even “Stiletto Feminism”, according to Teal Swan. She explains that rather than viewing makeup as a way to be oppressed by a male-dominated society in which we have to look good, it can be used when we want to look good. “By fully owning our sexuality and attractiveness, we can embrace womanhood and empower ourselves further.” By reclaiming sexuality, it no longer becomes limiting, but rather a gateway to finding the confidence all women should feel about themselves, such as in Rihanna’s song. While women have been struggling for thousands of years to achieve social equality, red lipstick served as a symbolic lightning rod, sharing the hatred those in power had towards the average female citizen. In the medieval era, it was the witches. Women associated with power and freedom, who went against religious normalities and were not desperate for marriage or suitable mothers became known for red lipstick. In the twentieth century, during the time of civilian revolt, men in power looked down most on the free-loving, anti-authority girls. Women associated with sex work were despised, especially those who were unashamed of sex and vulgarity. Red lipstick stepped in then too, as the official mascot of seduction and counter culture. And today, even though the social gap is getting smaller, there is still a need for feminist ideology. It doesn’t take long to get a general idea of what today’s opinion of feminism is, and red lipstick is here for us modern feminists as well, to serve as our war paint,just as it has since the first major civilizations.cute

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About Jessie

I'm just a college student stuck in the deep south with very few plans for the future. I like to talk about new wave feminism, guns, classic cars, fish, how outrageously gay I am, and really bad jokes. I don't get out much unless its a GoodWill run or I'm out of mac and cheese. Sometimes I do cute date things with my partner, other times I just stare wistfully at all the cute snakes I'll never own.

Posted on November 24, 2014, in Big Bites and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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