Read My Lips: A Cultural History Of Lipstick

Etelka Lehoczky reviews 'Read My Lips' by Meg Cohen Ragas and Karen Kozlowski.

Published October 28, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

| The pleasures of "Read My Lips: A Cultural History of Lipstick" start on the outside. This book has no dust jacket to slither and crumple until it's discarded on the night stand, baring the prosaic truths of cardboard, cloth and glue to the bedside lamp's probing glow. Instead, "Read My Lips'" velvety matte binding is itself decorated with images and script. Very nearly square in its dimensions, it fits easily in the hand. Opening it is like opening a compact, and reading it is like peering into one. In the spirit of the affordable yet potent luxury item with which it's concerned, every element of the book's content and design is an invitation to narcissism. With its sparse text and plentiful photos, it resembles the women's magazines where both authors once worked.

The comparison holds up in the text itself, which consists of trivia, anecdotes and even a quiz. The latter is taken from a 1952 ad for Revlon's Fire and Ice -- still one of the company's best-selling shades -- and allows the reader to determine whether she's "made for Fire and Ice" via questions like "Does gypsy music make you sad?" and "Do sables excite you, even on other women?" If you find such questions less than compelling, you'll be equally nonplused by the history related in the first two of the book's five chapters. Who cares that women preferred brights to pales in 1952, that cremes are more popular than glosses or mattes? Such facts are denied the context and analysis necessary to make them interesting. The closest the authors come are such statements as, "The '80s ushered in the era of excess, and nothing -- not even lipstick -- was spared." That sort of history is what gives cultural studies a bad name.

The authors are on firmer ground in Chapter 4, "A Girl's Best Friend." Here they're free to rhapsodize about lipstick's mystical power "to transform, to seduce, to transcend." Dissenting opinions are included only cursorily, but somehow they stand out -- like writer Paul Gallico's 1952 article mourning "the billions and trillions of kisses that never happened because of that confounded red paste that women have been taught to smear upon their lips." The authors would respond that lipstick has little to do with the desires of men. It's more armor than invitation, a deliberate subordination of phallic power (the little tube) to the looming female lips and tongue. And as Veronique Vienne writes in the introduction, it empowers women to make their voices heard: "I may never have known the pleasure of wrapping my lips around substantial thoughts if it hadn't been for the buttery, vanilla-scented kiss of a glorious Guerlain lipstick." Indulgent, sensuous and ultimately insubstantial, "Read My Lips" is a fitting tribute to this force.

By Etelka Lehoczky

Etelka Lehoczky is a freelance writer living in Chicago.

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