Red lipstick: a fashion statement or a political one?
For hundreds of years, red lipstick has been worn by women as a means of expressing themselves, with different shades used to express different meanings ranging from confidence, courage, strength, sensuality, and rebellion.
The first representation of red lipstick dates back to ancient Egyptian times, but even then it was not socially acceptable and most women who wore it were seen as prostitutes, or as being associated with “mysterious, frightening femininity.” As a model, fashion designer, and American vedette Dita Von Teese famously said,
Heels and red lipstick will put the god into people.
History and Symbolic Power
In the early 1900s, several American suffragettes like Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Elizabeth Cady Stanton began to publicly wear bright red lipstick with the primary purpose of shocking men who condemned the fashion statement for being ‘sinful,’ ‘impolite,’ ‘heretical,’ and ‘sexually amoral.’ American author and female activist wrote,
“There could not be a more perfect symbol of suffragettes than red lipstick, because it’s not just powerful, it’s female.”
Even Elizabeth Arden, a prominent figure in the fashion community, aligned herself with the cause and handed out tubes of bright red lipstick to protesting women.
Later in the 1900s, lipsticks and most other kinds of makeup fell out of fashion as women of the modern feminist movement began to perceive it as a tool of patriarchal oppression. Author Madeleine Marsh, however, argued that,
“…you think of Rosie the Riveter — there she is, this big butch lady in her overalls with arms like prize-winning hams, yet she’s got hennaed hair, red nail varnish, and bright red lipstick… you can be a lipstick feminist quite happily.”
Marsh, along with many others, was of the opinion that bold cosmetic products like red lipstick had immense symbolic value and had become an important part of the fight against the enemy. In this case, red lipstick had become a symbol of dedication to the ideals women wanted to be associated with their gender, rather than the ones that had been imposed on it by the patriarchal societies they lived in.
Red lipstick as a weapon and uniform
During the Second World War, women had started to replace men in the workforce and had become a more prominent part of the public sphere. This bolstered their pride and independence, and subsequently, the popularity of red lipstick grew as an expression of their confidence.
While cosmetics were not exactly at the forefront of production in this environment, the lipsticks that were being manufactured and distributed were given names like ‘Fighting Red!’ ‘Grenadier Red!’ and ‘Patriot Red!’ and encouraged women to “look your best to do your best.”
In Allied countries, adorning red lipstick had come to be known as an act of patriotism and as opposition to fascism. When increasing taxes made lipsticks unaffordable for many women, they turned to beet juice to stain their lips instead. In the US, women entering the forces were required to wear red lipstick and it became even more linked to a sense of resilient and strong female self-esteem. Since the brightly painted lip had come to embody defiance in women, it was not surprising that Adolf Hitler himself was famously against it.
Hitler’s rejection of lipsticks
In 1930s Germany, the Nazi party under Hitler had decreed that the following characteristics would define the ideal German woman: wholesome, clean, and fresh-faced. As we know all too well, Hitler was inspired by Aryan ideals and believed that a ‘pure, un-scrubbed face’ was characteristic of those ideals.
As a vegetarian, Hitler also claimed that his hatred for the product stemmed from the fact that it was made from animal waste. While he told his people that the women in Berlin must be the best-dressed in all of Europe, he gave them little to no opportunities to do so; they were discouraged from using things like fur and perfume, and from chasing after the latest fashion trends. Additionally, during his rule, the production of cosmetics decreased drastically before it stopped entirely because it was considered to be a non-essential commodity.
Despite what Hitler claimed his reasons were for hating red lipstick, one can assume that it may have had to do with what the product symbolically represented. In Allied countries, wearing red lipstick had come to represent strength in femininity, along with opposition to fascism. Therefore, it is highly likely that he would not have been supportive or tolerant of a symbol that stood against his very own ideals.
Once Allied countries noticed how vehemently against Hitler was of the product, they became even keener on encouraging their women to use it. At this point, Elizabeth Arden herself was directed (by the American government) to create a regulation lip and nail color for women in the US army. This came to be known as “Montezuma Red.”
Today, a ‘red lip’ remains a powerful symbol of protest and a way for women to express themselves and challenge what is societally expected of them. It has become representative of strength in societies that attempt to strip women of their strength. The ideals that Hitler wanted to perpetuate among German women were no different than other repressive gender-based norms and rules that aim to make and keep women submissive by taking away their rights over their own bodies.