It’s consistently popular now, but red lipstick has had a tumultuous history, going in and out of fashion for hundreds of years. Historic accounts vary, but its earliest use is regularly attributed to ancient Sumerians in 3,500 BC southern Mesopotamia, who crushed semi-precious stones into powder to then apply.
In ancient China, beeswax balm containing scented oils was used to protect the lips and women in the ancient Indus Valley civilisation were thought to have applied pieces of ochre with bevelled ends.
In the Egyptian empire, where it signified social status rather than gender, Cleopatra famously daubed her pout with a red liquid some historians believe was made from crushed beetles and ants.
Later attitudes toward cosmetics were considerably more controversial. Queen Elizabeth I is pictured in portraits daubed in red lips, but church leaders of the time apparently disapproved. Queen Victoria herself denounced makeup as being “impolite” yet its development happened anyway.
In 1912 suffragettes marched down New York’s 5th Avenue demanding the right to vote. Having recently established her beauty salon on the strip, Elizabeth Arden joined them, handing out red lipstick as a symbol of solidarity at a time when wearing red lips bordered on scandalous.
These days wearing red is less of a statement but still has the ability to convey meaning, says celebrity makeup artist Noni Smith.
How to choose the best red for you
“Red is the colour of love, seduction and power, which is why it’s such a popular, classic colour. Red lips can change your mood and are the easiest way to dress up your look in one simple step.”
When considering how to wear it, she says there are tips that make choosing a shade easier, but also suggests just taking a punt and having some fun with it.
“Don’t take the red rules too seriously! It’s a fun and glamorous colour to experiment and play with,” says Smith.
Seeking a red lipstick that suits is about considering your skin tone. Skin is naturally translucent with subtle colour variations just beneath the surface. These are referred to as ‘undertones’. Those with warmer undertones tend to suit wearing gold jewellery and have hints of yellow, peach or gold under their skin. Those with cooler undertones tend to suit wearing silver jewellery and have hints of pink or blue tones under their skin.
Smith says those with warmer undertones may be best suited with more orange-red lipsticks – those with cooler undertones, reds with a cooler or blue undertone – and some can wear both well.
L-R: MAC Retro Matte Lipstick in Ruby Woo, Elizabeth Arden Beautiful Lipstick in Red Door Red; Sephora Cream Lip Stain in 01 Always Red; Fenty Beauty Stunna Lip Paint Longwear Fluid Lip Color in Uncensored; Dior Rouge Dior Forever Lipstick in 999
Occasionally brands nail a ‘unicorn’, or a shade that universally suits all skin tones. The right red will make skin look clear and luminous and is spectacularly flattering, holding all the attention in the centre of your face.
Five popular options said to offer a ‘universal’ hue that suits most people:
- M.A.C’s Ruby Woo, a matte finish lipstick that has been a bestseller for more than 20 years.
- Elizabeth Arden Beautiful Lipstick in Red Door Red is a slightly blue-based red with a soft shine.
- Sephora’s Cream Lip Stain In Always red is an affordable, soft, creamy-feel liquid lipstick that stays vibrant all day.
- Fenty Beauty’s Stunna Lip Paint Longwear Fluid Lip Color in Uncensored, perfect for a bold, defined lip.
- Rouge Dior Forever Lipstick in 999 is a classic Dior hue that has become iconic for the way it works for everyone. It’s now available in several formulas for every texture preference including this brand new long-wear formula.
How to apply
Before beginning, makeup sure your lips are hydrated and flake-free. It might need you need to apply a moisturising lip balm half an hour or so before you want to apply your lipstick.
“For those new to reds, start lightly by pressing [a classic cream lipstick] into lips with a finger and blotting to achieve a muted stain effect.”
For the more experienced, she suggests using a lip liner as close in shade to your lipstick as possible first.
“Liners are a good idea to get your shape right first and also give longevity to the lipstick when used over the whole lip first,” says Smith.
“They also are good under glossy reds. Don’t take the gloss to the edge of the lip, the liner will prevent the colour ‘bleeding’ into fine lip lines [around the perimeter of your mouth].”
Considering the texture of the lip product and the rest of your look also helps.
“Red lips can be worn two ways with equally stunning results. You can make it the focus by pairing it with a very natural eye with a wash of a warm taupe or gold tone eyeshadow … or you can go for full-on glamour by doing a smoky or winged eye and a strong red lip. The texture depends on the makeup vibe. Glossy reds are more 1970s and ’80s, whereas the matte reds have a classic old Hollywood and ’90s vibe.”
Cream and matte lipsticks are reliably in fashion year in, year out, but recently dewy balm textures, high-shine glosses and lip oils in a variety of red hues are also popular. Combining the two by adding a dab of gloss in the center of your lips on top of a traditional cream or matte lipstick gives dimension and creates the illusion of a fuller pout.
For an easy, summer options, Smith loves Clarins new Lip Comfort Oils in either Cherry or Strawberry. “They keep the lips feeling nourished and looking so hydrated and glossy.”
Three steps to red lip perfection
Remove any dry skin with an exfoliating scrub and nourish with a lip balm or treatment.
2. Time to line
For added definition and longevity, use a lip liner pre lipstick. It can strengthen a lip line that softens with age, and filling in the surface of lips will help give lipstick something to hold onto.
3. Fill in
Apply the lipstick straight from the bullet or wand, but if you’re after a perfect shape and even colour, use a lip brush to build up colour and create an even edge.