A Brief History of: Lipstick


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“Hand me my purse, darling.  A girl can’t read that sort of thing without her lipstick.”

– Holly Golightly, Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Since the dawn of civilization (narrated by Morgan Freeman for greater effect), humankind has found ways to distinguish themselves from one another visually.  Clothes, footwear, jewelry and cosmetics have all been used in one way or another, to signal anything from social class to gender.

Naturally, through the rise and fall of civilizations, many things come and go; however, some things seem to withstand the test of time.

In 1988, Stephen Hawking published a landmark volume in science entitled, A Brief History of Time.  In 244 pages, Hawking explored such profound questions as: how did the universe begin? Does time always flow forward?  What will happen when it all ends?

I am not Stephen Hawking, nor will I be exploring such profound questions; however, it did spark an idea and I have decided to steal borrow Hawking’s catchy name for a new series on the blog. Over the coming months, I will explore the history of various fashion and beauty items that, while popular today, are rooted in a rich history.

As you have likely gathered from the title, the first item I will explore is lipstick.  Surprisingly, this cosmetic reaches back to 3000 BCE (and possibly beyond), yet remains one of the most popular beauty products on the market today.

With that said, I give you a brief history of lipstick:

Ancient History

Historical record suggests that Ancient Sumerian men and women were possibly the first to invent and wear lipstick.  According to literature, they would crush gemstones and use them to decorate their faces, mainly their lips, between 3000 and 1000 BCE (Before Chanel Common Era).

Interestingly, ancient Egyptians like Cleopatra (not Liz Taylor, but the real pharaoh), also used lipstick between 2000 BCE and 100 CE.  However, it wasn’t for aesthetic value, but rather a means to identify social status.  Those amazing Egyptians would extract dye from fucus-algin (seaweed), mix that with iodine and add in a little bromine mannite for good measure (a derivative of polyalcohol mannitol found in plants).

Unfortunately, this combination often resulted in serious illness, so they left that seaweed behind and began to use insects to create a stain for the lips.  The ancient Egyptians would crush carmine beetles to produce a red effect and if you think beauty brands like Becca and Hourglass were the inventors of highlight, think again.  These savvy Egyptians would add a pearlescence to their lips by extracting a substance found in fish scales.

Modern History

Fast forward to the middle of the 16th century, where we find lip colouring banned by the Christian church.  At this time, lip colouring was associated with satanic rituals and thus, reserved for the lowest class of people (notice how lipstick evolved from being associated with the highest class in ancient Egypt, to identifying the lowest class several centuries later).

Mind you, by the time Queen Elizabeth I reigned, red lips were back in fashion.  No longer made from beetles, the formula  consisted of beeswax and red plants, and was again worn by women of a higher social standing.

In the 18th century, lipstick fell out of taste (see a pattern here) again amongst the upper eshelant and found its place in the mid-to-low class.  This rise and fall continued throughout most of the 19th century until French perfumers began producing lipstick commercially.

In 1884, the French cosmetic company Guerlain is said to have produced the first commercial lipstick product made from deer tallow, castor oil and beeswax.  This formula was sold covered in silk paper and applied with a brush.

By the early 20th century, women began to accept lipstick as part of their daily attire and by 1921, it would appear lipstick was in widespread use.  In 1930, Elizabeth Arden introduced a wider spectrum of shades, which in turn, inspired other companies to do the same; however, red would reign supreme in the 1950s, popularized by icons like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor.

By the end of the century, a rainbow of colours would rise and fall in popularity, with every colour, including black, being on trend at some point or another.

Lipstick in Film

As mentioned above, lipstick has been used for different reasons at different times in history; however, during the latter half of the 20th century to present, lipstick has been predominantly associated with femininity and sexuality.  This is evidenced by the part lipstick has played in film.

One of my favourite references to lipstick has got to be the scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where Miss Golightly (played by the talented Miss Hepburn) is forced to read a difficult letter and states, “a girl can’t read that sort of thing without her lipstick”.  While that expression seems somewhat silly, it also illustrates that lipstick is a sort of armour for women, a source of protection and strength.

For more iconic lipstick movie moments, click here.

The Power of Lipstick 

Since the age of 23, activist Zainab Salbi has fought for women’s rights.  During the Bosnian War, Zainab learned of the horrific assaults on women throughout this conflict.

A short time later, Zainab entered Sarajevo, and visited shelters for women.  She would regularly ask the women what they wanted her to bring back for them, like vitamins or food.  One day, a woman asked for lipstick and Zainab was shocked!

The woman went on to note that the simplest thing a woman can do everyday to feel beautiful is to put on lipstick and that’s how she was resisting the war.  She went on to say that, “[she] wanted the sniper, before he shoots [her], to know he is killing a beautiful woman.”

I found it fascinating that an item like lipstick, which much of the world sees as a simple commodity, could be used to protest war.  Such power.

To see this and more of Zainab’s story, click here.

From Pharaohs to celebrities, lipstick has certainly had a rich history.  Representing class, gender, femininity, strength and resistance, this little tube has meant many things to many people throughout the ages, and I’m sure will continue to do so for  years to come.


On April 23, I reached 1000 subscribers on Instagram and each month, more and more readers are visiting the blog.  This is such a personal milestone for me and I am overwhelmed by the encouragement and support I have received.  To thank my followers and readers, I am hosting the first (of many, I hope) PLG Giveaway!

In one of my first blog posts, entitled Lovely Moments, I offered five simple ways to create a lovely moment.  In the spirit of helping someone create a few lovely moments of their own, I have put together a “Lovely Moments Package” for one lucky individual, which includes:

The giveaway is open internationally and will run for one week, beginning May 1, 2016, ending May 8, 2016 (Eastern-Standard Time).

To enter, you must be 18 years of age (or have parental consent), follow Pearls, Lace & Grace on Instagram and complete the necessary questions via the link below.  One winner will be randomly selected by Rafflecopter.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thank you again for your support and good luck!


1 Comment

  1. That’s a well researched post! The history of cosmetics is fascinating, isn’t it. Do you have a particular author or authors on the subject who you like to reference? And sorry, I didn’t realise you were on Instagram until now. Good luck to everyone entering for the chance to win that gorgeous prize package!

    Ali x

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