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Lip smackin’ glam: The power of lipstick

Elizabeth Taylor once advised a depressed friend, “Pour a stiff drink, put on some lipstick and pull yourself together.” I got to wondering if lipstick really has that kind of power. And, if so, why doesn’t every therapist’s office have a Revlon vending machine outside its door?

Fellers, bear with us girls as we’re about to explore the world of lipstick, that tiny tube of wonder that is so near and dear to our hearts.  Along with the bra and heels, it was, after all, one of our titanic rites of passage. I ask you, what girl did not count the days until her mom OK’d her using a dab of lipstick? It was full throttle ahead after that!

As far back as history goes, ancient civilizations used makeup as a status symbol for not only women, but also for men. The Sumerians were credited with being its earliest users procuring lip stains from natural products such as fruits, henna, clay, rust and insects. The more elitist Mesopotamian women refined this by using ground up precious jewels which not only added color to the lips, but also a shimmer.

And then came the Egyptians who really kicked lipstick use into high gear. Striking shades of purple and black became common, deriving intense carmine dyes from crushed cochineal insects. (If truth be told, this is still used today although Cover Girl covers up this fact … probably the very reason they call themselves Cover Girl!)

In their makeup zeal, the Egyptians sometimes went overboard using harmful substances like lead and a mixture of bromine mannite which resulted in serious illness and even death. I could see that being one way an ill fated love tryst could carry out their suicide pact. With only one smack, the kiss of death would do in both the kisser and the kissee.

Long ago Japanese women wore lipstick derived from tar and beeswax. They also covered their faces with a thick white makeup that went all the way around and down the back of the neck. This area was considered the sexiest visual part of the woman’s body. Note the courtesans in ancient woodblock prints and you will see the collar of the kimono extended half way down the back revealing this anatomical turn-on.

Ironically, the bust — those two fleshy cushions so very coveted in the West — was bound flat in Japan. Go figure! In the olden days you would never have seen a Japanese woman wearing a turtleneck sweater which would have hidden the back of her neck, any more than you would have seen Jane Mansfield wearing a deep cut blouse backwards.

It’s interesting to note that only in the Greek Empire was lipstick associated with prostitution. There, by law, a woman of the night was required to have dark lips so she could be identified as such. This gives me pause to wonder how they could see the lips in the dark, but then I guess Greeks had especially keen night vision.

In 9 AD, an Arabian scientist was experimenting with perfume that could be pressed into a mold when he hit upon the idea of doing the same thing with lip color. Voila! The first solid stick of lipstick.

Of course religion had to get into the act. (Doesn’t it always!!) The Christians and their puritanical beliefs condemned the use of all makeup including lipstick. Red lips, they contended, were associated with Satan worship. Any woman seen wearing colored lips was immediately suspected of being a sorcerer or witch. The women were not deterred, however. They wore lip salves instead, secretly adding color to the mixture. If that didn’t work then pinching, biting or rubbing the lips added an appealing blush.

In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth popularized white skin and red lips, but only for the nobility, not the masses. Actors were also allowed to wear it, and naturally the prostitutes joined in on the fun. Finally in 1884, a French perfume company named Guerlain made the first commercial lipstick. It was concocted from deer tallow, beeswax and castor oil, and it was wrapped in silk paper. (If they’d asked me, I could have given them all kinds of deer tallow right from my backyard!)

Lipstick in a cylindrical container made its first appearance in 1915. The inventor was Maurice Levy. Within five years the tube became a permanent part of every Western woman’s toilette. Then a few years later, James Bruce Mason, Jr. perfected it even more when he designed the swivel-up tube.

Lipstick, you must realize, was not all about female vanity. Down through history it played a more meaningful role. In the 1920s it became a symbol of feminism with women demanding more rights — primarily the right to vote.

About this same time, a French chemist, Paul Baudercroux, invented a kiss-proof lipstick. It was very short lived, however, as women found it near impossible to remove. This was also the time when Chanel, Elizabeth Arden and Estee Lauder began selling lipsticks.

The Depression of the 1930s did not deter the use of lipstick. Indeed, a survey taken at that time showed that 50 percent of teenage girls fought with their parents over using it. (So, what’s new?) Surprisingly, this dispiriting period was all about elegance and matte finishes. A new guy on the makeup block was Max Factor who joined the gang with lip glosses. They quickly became a huge hit because up until then only Hollywood actresses wore them … and who didn’t want to look like a Hollywood actress? Despite the depression of the Depression, lipstick was still affordable to the masses, deep plum and burgundy being the preferred shades.

World War II required women to take over the laborious jobs that the men had previously held. All materials were scarce, so the metal lipstick tubes were replaced with plastic and paper. Ironically, women were actually encouraged to wear the reddest of reds as it boosted morale during this grim time.

By the 1950s, Hollywood’s more glamorous icons were setting makeup trends all over the world. Women everywhere wanted to look like the stars. Bold red lips were especially popularized by Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Estee Lauder’s “Envious” was one of the most popular shades. By then, 60 percent of teenage girls (after fighting even harder with their parents!) were wearing lipstick. Even Queen Elizabeth got into the lipstick act when she had Clarin’s create a unique shade for her coronation. It was called “The Balmoral,” and matched her coronation robe. You go, Lizzy!

Also during this era, Hazel Bishop successfully marketed a kiss-proof lipstick. Before long, Revlon got on board with a whole range of smudge proof lipsticks. (Clandestine kissing, I’m thinking, was on the rise as it could no longer be detected.)

In 1973, Bonnie Bell introduced flavored lipsticks called “Lip Smackers.” The younger crowd loved them. Maybelline’s wild and wonderful “Orange Danger” became one of the iconic shades of the era. What a gal that Mabelline was!

It was all about shimmer and gloss in the 1980s. Bold red lips returned, and matching one’s lip color with one’s outfit came into vogue. Additionally hot pink lips were the rage with the dance party group, while purply-black Goth lips were popular with the alternative subcultures.

Grunge and simple makeup reigned in the 1990s when people became more conscious of the environment. Chemical free, natural formulas arrived on the scene. Tattooed lips and semi-permanent lip color were becoming popular. But nothing screams of the 90s more than darker lip liners filled in with a lighter lipstick. Brands such as Mac and Urban Decay made their entrance. (Urban Decay? And you put that on your lips??)

Presently in the 2000s, there is a mind-blowing array of lipsticks. The average woman spends more than $3,500 on lipstick in her lifetime. (Just think of the money she could save if she’d simply stick with that pinching, biting and rubbing of her lips!) From nudes to pink to whacky options such as yellow and green, lipsticks are truly a symbol of self-expression.

That wee tube lying at the bottom of your purse has had a long journey from ground up stones and dead insects to the super advanced formulas of today. But, despite the changes, one thing that has always remained a constant is the ability of lipstick to color us girls happy!