Yes, You Can Rock Red Lipstick

There's no denying the seductive power of a scarlet smooch.

red lipstick

A pale and rather nondescript girl named Shoshanna sits down in front of a big round mirror. Bowie’s Cat People blares in the background. Shoshanna takes out an eyeliner pencil and lines her upper lash line. Next, she slashes blush onto her cheeks like war paint. And then it happens. She picks up a bright-red lipstick, rolls the color out of its tube and begins to fill in her lips. Instantly, she metamorphoses into a dramatic, full-lipped warrior.

I’ll never forget that scene from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, nor will I forget the saturated red of the actress Mélanie Laurent’s lips beneath her black veil. It’s a cinematic image that’s indelibly fixed in my mind. And ladies, it was that very image that made me run out and buy my very first red lipstick. Since then, life, as they say, has never been the same.

I’m convinced that red lipstick carries in it some kind of magic. Nothing else can get you from dowdy to glam in a trice. Red lipstick is wonderful for those days when you need a little confidence and absolutely fantastic on days when you feel super confident. It’s great for those dreary drab days when you feel like something the cat dragged in, and even lovelier on days when you feel like Marilyn Monroe. It makes you stand out in a group, so if you’re ever in a bar by yourself and wearing red lipstick, be prepared for some attention.

Red lipstick, of course, is not a new obsession. The ancient Sumerians would crush gemstones and use the powder to tint their lips. Japanese geisha girls reddened their lips, as did Cleopatra, who added a mixture of crushed beetles and carmine to beeswax to perfect her shade. In Egypt, high-ranking women were even buried with their pots of red lipstick. As we well know, afterlife without makeup is such a drag! And wouldn’t you know, Marilyn Manson is more like Queen Elizabeth than we thought. It was Queen Bess who started the stark-white-face and red-lip look. However, before the 19th century, it was only the upper class, the fallen women and actors who wore lipstick.

Many cochineal insects gave up their lives to provide lipstick makers in the 19th century with carmine dye, which was used to make red lipstick. The dye was mixed with deer tallow and beeswax to produce the first commercial lipstick manufactured by Guerlain. It came in a pot and was applied with a brush. By 1915, lipstick began to be sold in tubes, albeit ones made of paper. Flappers and red lipstick became synonymous. By World War II, lipstick in metal containers as we know it became de rigueur.

As usual, it was the actresses who helped popularize red lipstick. The French stage and film actress Sarah Bernhardt often used carmine on her lips in public. Actress Clara Bow is credited with inspiring the Cupid’s bow. Marilyn Monroe was the definition of allure with her full red mouth. Her striking red pout even inspired Mac to create a lipstick in her honor. In recent years, red lipstick has become symbol of Hollywood Glam, with Gwen Stefani, Scarlett Johansson and Adele making it their signature statement.

red lipstick

Clara Bow’s signature lip became the popular way to paint a red pout.

red lipstick

Marilyn’s crimson lips were captured in many photos.

Before Shoshanna’s red lipsticked warrior, I had spent many a trip to the cosmetics department looking longingly at posters of gorgeous women in red lipstick, never daring to try any of those colors myself, because I was convinced that with my darker skin I could “never carry it off.” But now, after a little experimentation, I actually have a little wardrobe of red lipsticks.

So, how does one go about choosing the right lipstick and rock the red? Here are some pointers:

  • Know that there is a red lipstick out there for every skin tone, but a Google search may not be able to help much. You’ll need to drag with you to the cosmetic counter a guinea pig/opinion giver/morale boosting friend. However, in a pinch a friendly sales clerk will do.
  • You MUST try on the color. In the store. There is no substitute for that. A color can look dramatically different once applied, and you don’t want to waste good money on a tube of red you’ll never wear. (If you want to look younger, read these tips on choosing the most flattering makeup colors.)
  • Wear subtle eye makeup when trying on red lipstick, or for that matter when wearing the aforementioned red lipstick out to dinner later.
  • If you’ve got very fair skin, a very intense red may not work for you. Stay within the coral-red/orange-red or peach-red families.
  • If your skin is darker, you’ll be able to work with more shades, but an orangey red may provide too much contrast.
  • If you’re olive skinned, you can carry off reds that really pop—even fluorescent red.

Or you could do what I did. I decided that the color Shoshanna wore in that scene was Mac Russian Red and that was what I wanted. Sure, Mélanie Laurent is blonde and blue-eyed and I am, well, not…but I had my heart set on that red. And guess what? It looks divine! So go out and channel your inner Shoshanna or Marilyn (Monroe or Manson) and the right red shade will unleash your inner diva.

For cool ideas on how to organize your lipstick collection, and to see some of the most gorgeous lipstick cases, visit our Pinterest page. And please tell us why you like to wear red lipstick and what your favorite shades are!

red lipstick

So many shades of red, so little time.