The evolution of lipstick

Evolution of lipstick

"Pour yourself a drink, put on some lipstick, and pull yourself together”


- Elizabeth Taylor

Sometimes one cannot help but ask themselves the question ‘what is it about a lipstick that makes me feel better instantly?’. Well, this is a question that has baffled many a thinker, but deep down every makeup fanatic knows the answer, lipstick is war paint! No matter how gray the skies may be at the moment, a dash of that delicious red can perk up spirits instantly, and has been doing so for millennia!

The first evidenced use of colour to enhance appearance was uncovered by archeologists in modern day Iraq, and is estimated to be 5000 years old. Queen Puabi of the Sumerian city of Ur was a flamboyant figure that wore a lot of jewellery and enjoyed dressing up. But what she stands out for in a crowded period of queens is the use of the first lip colour. She used a mix of powdered rocks, lead and crushed bugs, the last of which is used in some cosmetics to this day! (More on that later). The trend started by Queen Puabi spread to her kingdom and then crossed borders into neighbouring civilisations, once again proving that the quest for beauty transcends borders, as well as cultural and economic barriers. This proves beyond doubt that when it comes to beauty, the players change but the game remains the same!

And then came Cleopatra. Her image has been captured in many formats with smoky eyes and deep coloured lips.

Red lipstick cleopatra 

She made it the norm for women, and men, in ancient Egypt to use appearance enhancement through the use of makeup products. It is common knowledge that the Egyptians had deep knowledge of cosmetics and this expertise was available not just in life, but employed in advanced embalming techniques for the dead as well. Of course, with the rooted belief in the afterlife it was necessary for the upper echelons of society to look good even in their graves and they were entombed with pots and small shells containing lip colour and other makeup products. This love for lipstick has been well documented in wall paintings and statues of the period across the Middle East where brightly coloured lips were the norm.

It is important to note here that lipstick has been a genderless product for most of its existence.

Lipstick has played a big role in structuring society as well. Ancient Greeks designated that only prostitutes could use any lip colour, to the point that a prostitute would be punished if she was seen without makeup on lest she be mistaken for a ‘respectable’ lady! The lip colour of the time was made with a variety of ingredients that included wine residue, rose petals, fruit extracts, human saliva, sheep sweat and crocodile droppings (yes, you read that last one right!).

Ancient red make-up powder

The Romans had a clear set of unwritten rules regarding the appropriate colour for each class within society. It was men in the military ranks that used it to signal their social rankings.

In Europe during the Middle-Ages lipstick clashed with the church and clergymen successfully associated red lips as the mark of Satan himself. It was considered sinful to wear makeup and women were forced to confess of their wicked ways if they were ever seen wearing any. However, it was also a time when trading relationships were being established across the civilised world and the mysticism of cosmetics from the Middle East, where makeup was commonplace, won the fight against religion. The patriarchy was smashed by courageous women who wanted to enhance their looks, and would not allow anything to get in the way. Art was flourishing during this period and fashionable nobles in Italy wanted to be in with the trends. They popularised genderless lipstick again with women loving pinks and men preferring the deeper hues. Have you ever looked at Renaissance art and wondered if the men’s lips look gorgeous? Well, now you have the answer.

High society could not get enough of the lipstick magic and Queen Elizabeth I was a known devotee of the rouge. She had her own personalised shades and is said to be the first person to ever use a lip pencil. She believed in the magic to the extent to have thought it could ward off illness and the ‘evil eye’. This love trickled down to her court and then to the common people, with everyone racing to outdo each other to look their best. What else but lipstick could possibly complete the look when powdered wigs, lace collars, painted nails and exotic colourful silks were all the rage? This love affair with the lipstick ended with Queen Victoria who believed makeup to be ‘dishonest’ and imposed a statewide ban on the use of any and all makeup. It did not stop women from creating their homemade recipes and sharing it amongst themselves in secret.

And then came the cinema! Makeup from the stage and screen used by popular stars of the time made its way to the streets in little time. With the glamour and glitz of Hollywood at the forefront, resistance to lipstick was futile and soon enough women everywhere wanted a piece of the action.  

Max factor Vintage Ad Lipsticks
This is when the great Max Factor was experimenting with makeup on screen and creating looks for women everywhere. He revolutionized the industry and made it mainstream. He started referring to his products as ‘makeup’ from ‘to make up’ ones’ face. Until then only the word 'cosmetics' was used and 'makeup' was considered vulgar, to be used only by people in theatre and not by polite society. He was also one of the first people to offer lipstick in the collapsible tubes that we are familiar with even now. This new form of packaging was a game-changer as suddenly something that could not be easily transported and felt unhygienic became the go-to makeup product that lived in young women’s purses everywhere.

This was followed by the birth of the feminism movement and the humble lipstick became the most powerful symbol of femininity. It was endorsed by dominant voices in the suffragette movement of the early 20th century. Women across the USA and England started using especially distinct shades of red lipstick with the express intent of appalling the patriarchy. This intimate relationship between the emancipation efforts and lipstick has given it a gender, a symbol that lives to this day and will continue to live into the future.

The latter half of the 20th century has seen lipstick become the ever-present go-to makeup product for billions of women across the world. It has evolved over the last 5000 years and the use of animal products has seen a decline in the last few decades. However, there are still products out there that contain animal products and by-products, not for a lack of choice but a lack of concern. It is still the symbol of femininity and now represents the breaking of the glass ceiling in all walks.

While the global pandemic of 2020 has been a dampener with masks hiding the lips and any color on it, we know the lipstick will come back, better and stronger than ever, and sooner than anyone thinks! For lipstick is not just a swatch of color on your face, it's an emotion.

In fact, think about the last thing you do before switching on that camera on your video calls. Apply a bright shade of lipstick? Lipsticks are replacing high heels.

We at GoPlay Cosmetics believe the next big movement in lipsticks will be personalisation. The form of the collapsible tube has not changed in over a century and that limits the shade of lipstick to the one contained in the tube. We see it as an ‘it is what it is’ option and every single shade has to be purchased individually for a lack of choice. The GoPlay LIPSKIT, breaks this form constraint and focuses on the function of your personal color. Yes, just like Queen Puabi and Cleopatra did with their little pots of liquid lip colors. Except, they had servants spending hours creating the right color and texture for them. With GoPlay, you get your own little pots of goodness, customized by you instantly, without harming animals and while being sustainable. That's evolution.

GoPlay LIPSKIT - the future of lipstick


Img Credits: 

First Image: Elizabeth Taylor, ‘Cleopatra’ (1963). Source: CC BY NC 2.0

Second Image: Corinthian pyxis with a red make-up powder. Found in a tomb from the 5th c. BC.(Public Domain)

Third Image: Max Fax Ad from May, 1947 Seventeen / "A new rainbow of Lipstick Reds"

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