What is it about red lipstick?

From Elizabeth Taylor to Cleopatra, women who wear it make history. Was I ready to be one of them?

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Larissa Zimberoff
January 29, 2012 1:00AM (UTC)

Mom used to tell me to “put a little lipstick on” before I left the house. "You need a little color,” she'd say. To this day, I notice when I look a bit pale. An outfit never seems complete without the shine of lipstick. I’ve mostly stuck to safe colors, never quite sure my face should call so much attention to itself. But as I moved from my hometown in California to the big city of New York -- a new career and a new coast -- I was ready for a lip color that matched my life change. This meant only one thing: red.

My search for the perfect shade of red took me to a SoHo store on Spring Street. The boutique was far from welcoming: a cavernous black-walled room with a black floor, black leather chairs, and spotlights that shined from high above. It was far more theatrical than I've ever thought of myself.


“Hi, welcome to MAC,” an assistant greeted me, as I began to glide carefully around the shiny, foreign objects.

Wandering around this highly specialized world of make-believe, I began to question my desire to cover up my lips in something significantly darker. My thin lips, I should add. Because really, no matter how hard I try, they’re still slashes of chopsticks instead of a big Angelina Jolie pout. Recently, at a birthday party, a few of us clambered into a bedroom to put on some lipstick before heading to a bar. There, on the dresser, sat a tube of MAC Red. In one aha moment, we all put it on. Three girls of all colors, shapes and sizes. Kissing out our lips, we looked in the mirror, looked at each other and walked out the door.

It was dizzying to think what such a simple product contained. The main components of lipstick are wax (from bees, cacti, palm and roses), fat (from sheep and mink), man-made fatlike products (compounds that provide a more consistent feel), mineral waxes (from coal and petroleum), as well as a number of other unlisted solvents, solids and synthetic products. Looking into the ingredients I use every single day made me less inclined to investigate further. Was I willing to give up my search? Or even to stop wearing lipstick?

As I moved around the store, I kept my gaze low to avoid eye contact with the black-outfitted strangers. But I couldn't find what I needed. “I’m looking for a lipstick," I said. "MAC Red?” Even forming the words felt odd. I wasn’t sure what had come over me. Why the sudden need to wear such an extreme color. Was it a way to reinvent myself? I wasn’t about to cut my long hair short or lose 20 pounds. Did I need some dramatic physical change to feel like there had been one inside? Was I trying to convince myself that I was moving forward?

When I read about why women wear lipstick I see words like: sexuality, rebellion, deception, arousal. I see a dangerous woman in a black and white movie. She’s running from the law, doing bad things, sleeping with criminal men. Of course, she's dressed impeccably. Tailored shirt hugging her curves. Tucked, belted and cinched. Her hourglass bod is the perfect backdrop for a deep, dark, perfectly red red. Was I like those women? Did I have what it took to wear red -- or would the red wear me?

Lipstick traveled a roundabout journey before inserting itself into my makeup routine. It was documented as far back as 3,000 B.C., when Mesopotamian women tinted their lips with a mixture made of red clay, rust, henna, seaweed and iodine, among other things. As time went by, women would continue to get creative with lip color. Cleopatra mixed crushed ants and carmine with beeswax. Lip color was once so important that well-heeled ancient Egyptians were tucked away in their tombs with jars of crimson lip color to ensure an elegant look in the afterlife.


Brian, the assistant, walked me over to the lipsticks and we looked for the right shade of red. We started looking at the names on the bottom of the tubes: Russian Red, Cockney, Lady Bug and Ruby Roo. But no MAC Red. He gave me Russian Red and nudged me over to the mirror. The first thing I noticed was that I couldn't see myself. The mirror was too far away for my eyes.

I often notice old ladies on the street. I see their shoes, comfortable and thick-soled. They’re waiting for the bus or walking down the street, clutching at pocketbooks that hide ancient tubes of lipstick along with the last bits of their prime. They never leave the house without a stroke of bright pink across their lips. Lips that can tell stories but that no longer contain the hue of youth. A few weeks ago I saw the play "Relatively Speaking" on Broadway. Marlo Thomas plays a woman who finds out her husband has just died in a skiing accident. Don’t worry, it’s funny. She was phenomenal in the show, but what I noticed more than her acting? Her shiny, medically assisted, pillow-shaped lips. Lips so large they looked like rafts floating in a pool. Marlo Thomas is 74 years old. Maybe it's similar, this vanity we have to look better, to be someone different. It’s not like I can see my lipstick, or Marlo Thomas can see her rafts. Is altering my appearance for me, or is it for the eye of the other?

As I pushed and pulled on the heavy base of the leather chair, struggling to get closer, Brian found the MAC Red I was looking for. “Here it is,” he said. After I gently dotted the pigment onto my lips, I looked in the mirror. This cavern has bad lighting. I looked for another mirror. The wise assistant finally gave me a hand-held mirror. Looking at myself, as if for the first time, I saw my thin lips, my pale face, dark brown hair and I wondered, is this red really for me?

“It’s too pink on you,” Brian said.


“Yeah, you’re right." Why was I so quickly agreeing with this stranger? “Anything else I should try?”

Wiping off my MAC Red with a handful of tissues I could still see traces of the color. Easy to remove it was not. I tried wiping at it with my hand, like a kid who’d just finished a glass of punch. Brian watched me with amused pity as I started to apply the Russian Red with the same hesitancy. “Can I help?” he asked, and quickly took over. No more gentle dotting. He went in with full pressure, gliding the color deep and dark over my lips. Handing me back the mirror I looked at myself. Then I looked up at him. Did I look better? Whose opinion did I trust? The mirror or Brian?

Red-lipsticked women are women who make history: Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, Lucile Ball, Paloma Picasso and Isabella Rosselini to name just a few. Stage actresses began the trend, wearing red lipstick so they could be seen from the back of the theater. In black-and-white movies they wore red lipstick because, in the absence of color, it was the quickest way to convey a deep, dark lip. Lips that meant business.


“No, that’s not it either," Brian said. "Try the MAC Red on again, but this time Really Put It On." He put his hand on hip, eyebrow raised. A hint of a gauntlet thrown.

“OK,” I said, following up with another tissue attack, leaving my mouth pink and raw. Pressing the lipstick firmly on, I tried to apply it with the confidence of Red. Unafraid, like the bull running in San Fermin. I could do this. Starting with my bottom lip, the easier target, I moved from one corner to the next with relative ease. Moving to my top lip, I faltered. Afraid to get red outside my lip line I moved like a blind person seeing their lips for the first time. In the mirror I saw the skin around my lips, lightly freckled, a sprinkling of light hair. I noticed how my upper lip was made mostly of angles. Isosceles triangles maybe, but nary a curve. I hoped the red would impart some contour to the sharp angles.

I put the lipstick down and looked up at Brian.


“Better. Much better,” he said.

In the late '80s, the artist Marilyn Minter created a series of glossy paintings featuring sexualized women. The one I have in my head is of a bold red-lipped woman. She’s holding a pearl necklace in her slightly opened mouth. We don’t see her eyes, just the voluminous pearls tumbling from that red mouth. Minter has said about her work, “Women should make images for their own pleasure.” I think Marilyn would be happy to see me wearing this red. I certainly derive a bit of pleasure from it. Mine alone.

It was 5 p.m. when I left the store. My lips were the color of a Geisha’s. I had a tube of MAC Red tucked into my purse, and as I walked through SoHo I felt different – like I had presence. My lips were no longer invisible dashes. The red outlined a new shape: The two peaks at the top, the curve at the bottom. I was standing up just a little straighter as I walked back home, eyes gazing directly in front of me, saying, "Yeah, go ahead, look at me."

Larissa Zimberoff

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