Q: A male co-worker recently asked me about the history of lipstick. I had no answer, but figured you would.
C. Stoltz, of Belleville
A: “Lipstick on your collar told a tale on you! Lipstick on your collar said you were untrue!”
Older rock ‘n’ rollers will remember when Connie Francis took that little ditty about her wayward lover to No. 5 in 1959. But it’s actually a lament women all over the world could have sung for the last 4,000 years — and possibly far longer.
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While there is no hard evidence, historians say it’s likely that lipstick, like humans themselves, evolved from prehistoric times when they started to smear fruit and plant juices on their faces for religious ceremonies — and perhaps just to make themselves more attractive to that Neanderthal next door. I was reminded of this recently in Australia when an Aborginal guide took us for a hike in the Daintree Rainforest and demonstrated some of the natural substances that her people used on their skin.
Eventually, however, people began concentrating those brilliant colors on their lips for a more come-hither kisser. Perhaps as early as 2500 B.C. — and certainly by 1000 B.C. — Sumerian men and women in southern Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq) were possibly the first to invent and wear lipstick, according to research Sarah Schaffer did a few years ago at Harvard. They are thought to have crushed gemstones and used them to decorate their faces, mainly on the lips and around the eyes.
But they were hardly the only ones. Artifacts show that reddening the lips was already being practiced by the Chinese about 5,000 years ago, often using a material called vermilion that was added to mineral wax and animal fat. Some, however, used a type of rouge, which reportedly came with wonderful fragrances and tasty flavors. According to research by Yona Williams, people in the Indus Valley (modern-day Pakistan-India) were applying red-tinted lipstick to enhance their lips thousands of years ago.
Not to be outdone, the Egyptians also adopted this fashion craze although at first many may have paid for it with their health. According to records, many mixed a red dye extracted from seaweed with iodine and bromine mannite, which can be highly toxic. Fortunately by the time Cleo and Marc Antony became a hot item, they had come up with a safer lipstick made from the red color extracted from crushed carmine beetles and ants.
Perhaps the most fascinating piece of history comes from Greece, according to the 1998 book “Lipstick” by Jessica Pallingston. Women possessed little power in ancient Greece, and were also discouraged from wearing lipstick in public — with the exception of prostitutes, who were allowed to flaunt scarlet lip paint (although it was often made from red dye, sheep sweat and crocodile excrement). Unfortunately, this also led to the first known law related to lipstick, which dictated that prostitutes could be punished for improperly posing as ladies if they appeared in public without their designated lip paint.
By comparison, ancient Rome was rather mundane as both genders throughout the empire used it as a means to distinguish social class and rank. Not only that, lipstick also served to protect lips against the sun and wind long before the concept of SPF came into vogue. Then, about 1000 A.D., came one of the most important moments in lipstick history. During the Islamic Golden Age, famed physician and chemist Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi perfected a formula for solid lipsticks, and these perfumed sticks are the basis for today’s cosmetics.
With all of these centuries of history behind it, you might think that lipstick would have cemented its place in a woman’s cosmetics bag forever more. Yet for the next 1,500 years lipstick often would have to fight for its very survival in some places. During the Middle Ages, for example, various religious groups condemned makeup for “challenging God and his workmanship.” At the same time, it continued to be used in class warfare as the Italian upper crust wore bright pink in the 1200s while lower classes sported earthy red tones.
In the 1500s, English pastors denounced lip painting as “the devil’s work,” but it didn’t stop Queen Elizabeth I from using a mix of cochineal, gum Arabic, egg white and fig milk to produce crimson lips that became the rage of Elizabethan style. In 1770, Britain passed a law that condemned lipstick on the basis that “women found guilty of seducing men into matrimony by cosmetic means could be tried for witchcraft.” And apparently some American colonies allowed men to have marriages annulled if their wives had worn lip color during their courtship, thus tricking them into the marriage bed.
It wasn’t until the late 1800s that lipstick started coming out of the closet again. It was then that famed actress Sarah Berhardt shocked her fans by daring to apply lipstick in public. Then, in 1912, suffragettes marched down the streets of New York proudly wearing their bright red lipstick. After centuries of being controlled by male-dominated religion, red lipstick became a symbol of female rebellion.
Its use has exploded ever since in a nearly infinite variety of colors and formulas. In 1915, American Maurice Levy fashioned the first lipstick in a sliding metal tube. With Hollywood starting to set fashion trends, women wanted the pouty look of Clara Bow and Mae Murray, “the girl with the bee-stung lips.” During World War II, women were encouraged to wear Victory Red and were told that keeping up their beauty was part of their civic duty. By the 1970s, men were following the lead of glam-rocker David Bowie and applying the gloss as well.
Now, women may leave home without their AmEx card, but probably not without their lipstick. According to various studies and surveys, the average woman will use 9 pounds of lipstick in her lifetime and nearly half say they own more than 20 at any given time. It’s enough to make Revlon and L’oreal lick their lips. For much more, try lipstickhistory.com.
What percentage of women swear that lipstick has helped them avoid a traffic ticket?
Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: Some cities are named for people (Collinsville). Some names reflect a major industry (Granite City). And some simply sound nice (Belleville, Fairview Heights). But Yonkers, N.Y.? Where did that come from? Well, there is a perfectly reasonable explanation. The city is built on ground that was once part of a 24,000-acre land grant. In July 1645, that grant was purchased by Adriaen van der Donck, who is regarded by some as the first lawyer in the Dutch colony of New Netherland. Locally, van der Donck was known to his friends as “Jonkheer,” which is Old Dutch for young (jonk) lord or gentlemen (heer) — i.e., esquire. Eventually the word and the city name became anglicized as Yonkers.