Red lipstick is classic. Still, it’s important to acknowledge its complex relationship with the BIPOC community. Many women of color, myself included, were taught wearing red lipstick was not a symbol of refined femininity for us. Growing up, I associated red lipstick with glamorous white celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and Taylor Swift. For years, I thought the color could only look flattering against pale skin. As I grew older, I realized red lipstick looks stylish on anyone and people of color have been wearing the hue as a tool of expression for centuries.
Red Lipstick as a Symbol of Elegance
In Ancient Mesopotamia, Sumerians invented lipstick by crushing gemstones to create red-tinted powder to varying levels of success. Cosmetologist Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi invented the molded lipstick in the Islamic Golden Age.
In Ancient Egypt, lipstick emphasized social status and sophistication. Cleopatra used crushed bugs and carmine to concoct a signature red lipstick. Likewise, in China 5000 years ago, vermilion, animal fat, and mineral wax were some of the ingredients used to make tinted lipstick to indicate power.
Red Lipstick as a Symbol of Defiance
The history we have with the color red is tangled as it has also symbolized defiance. In 2018, Nicaraguan men and women denounced the imprisonment of anti-government protesters and Daniel Ortega’s authoritarianism by wearing the signature red lipstick of activist Marlen Chow. More recently, in December 2019, thousands of Chilean women marched in red scarves and lipstick as they condemned sexual violence.
Fashion historian Shelby Ivey Christie notes many Black women wear red lipstick as a way to redirect the narrative after years of hypersexualization and caricatures. Similarly, Keka Araújo, freelance journalist and weekend editor for Black Enterprise, writes "Red lipstick is an act of resistance when worn by Black women." Bottom line: red lipstick loudly conveys our thoughts regarding oppressive systems and leadership.
Red Lipstick as a Symbol of the Duality of Femininity
It was restricting to think only the likes of Taylor Swift or Audrey Hepburn could pull red lipstick off. Now when I apply it, it feels emboldening. I partly owe this change to learning about women like Kumander Liwayway, a Filipina beauty queen. She joined a guerilla movement to fight against the Japanese occupation of the Philippines.
After joining the revolution at 22, Remedios Gomez Paraiso was dubbed "Kumander Liwayway" (liwayway means dawn). She famously dueled those who called her expertise into question due to her battle look, which included perfume, polished nails, and an iconic red lip.
Kumander Liwayway is just one example of a woman who understood the duality of her identity and used lipstick to highlight the nuance. She proved there is a ferocity in beauty and vice-versa. Frida Kahlo's ruby lips and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's red lip are other prominent examples of women of color leading with a distinct style.
As a queer Filipina woman, I am constantly renegotiating what femininity and beauty look like for me as it can feel as though I am challenging the colonial standard simply by existing. Through the pandemic, red lipstick has been my way to brandish femininity. I may not be a warrior like Remedios, but I have my own battles to brave. With a red lip, I feel confident to face them.
When we swipe on red lipstick, we should never worry about it being "too much." Like us, red lipstick can signify so much. It can exude boldness and allure in equal measure. Knowing what I do now, red lipstick is not reserved for white feminism or Hollywood glamour. It has always been tethered to people of color. I embrace the space it takes on my lips just as I embrace the space I take up.
Schaffer S. Reading our lips: the history of lipstick regulation in western seats of power.
Schaffer S. Reading our lips: the history of lipstick regulation in western seats of power. Published online 2006.
Lanzona VA. Capturing the Huk Amazons: representing women warriors in the Philippines, 1940s–1950s. South East Asia Research. 2009;17(2):133-174.