When America was first born, women painted their lips; Martha Washington even had her own recipe for what she called “the finest lip salve in the world.” But, as Ilyse S. Carter writes in her new book, “The Red Menace: How Lipstick Changed the Face of American History” (Prometheus, out now), not everyone liked it.
Preachers railed against it. Legislatures tried to outlaw it. Lipstick was seen as vain, frivolous, un-American (inordinately French or — gasp! — “Oriental”) and even evil. In 1921, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, who had gotten alcohol banned in the US, decided to go after lipstick, too, but ultimately declared the flapper floozies who wore such face paint, “hopeless” and “not the sort we can educate.”
In the 1930s, that changed. Hollywood popularized lipstick, with starlets and their makeup artists divulging their favorite products and beauty tips to lifestyle magazines. Then the Great Depression hit. As more and more women had to enter the workforce to help their families, they needed to put their best face forward, and makeup — less expensive than, say, a new suit — became indispensable. In 1936, Good Housekeeping told women, “Beauty Is a Part of Your Job,” warning that “brains and a diploma, ambition and common sense” are pointless if presented in “shoddy packages.”
During World War II, lipstick acquired new shades of meaning. Axis leaders Hitler and Mussolini both condemned makeup. The Third Reich claimed that Aryans, in their natural beauty, didn’t need the stuff, particularly lipstick, associated with depraved Weimar Berlin, as well as the foreigners and Jews Hitler so despised. One Nazi official, Julius Streicher, threatened: “Women who wore lipstick had better not come here.”
The US, then, called in the “big guns.” Cosmetics maven Elizabeth Arden famously created free makeup kits for members of the American Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, complete with a lipstick that matched the red piping of their uniforms, so they could fight fascism in style. But Carter writes the defense department also asked Arden’s rival, the pint-sized Helena Rubinstein, for her advice too.
A Washington Post reporter at the time noted that the nearly 70-year-old Rubinstein was working with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps to develop “a program of good grooming that will fit present and future defense needs.” These included exercises for posture and quick makeup tips. As for lipstick, the reporter noted, “Mme. Rubinstein thinks a clear, vibrant red [lip] accents the various colored defense uniforms to best advantage.”
“Good grooming will be more important than ever,” Rubinstein predicted. “For a woman draws her courage, her hope, and her strength from her knowledge that she is attractive and well-groomed.”
Lawmakers — and cosmetics companies — took that to heart. Propaganda posters featured women like Rosie the Riveter in rosy-red lips. The government deemed lipstick too important to ration, as women needed it to maintain their femininity while working in the factories and on the front lines of the war effort. As one soldier told Vogue: “To look unattractive these days is downright morale breaking and should be considered treason!”
Meanwhile, nearly every American cosmetic brand introduced a new patriotic-themed lip color, from Rubinstein’s Regimental Red to Arden’s Victory Red, Tussy’s Fighting Red, Lentheric’s Rocket Red and more.
“It was who they were now, so much so that the word lipstick meant womanhood,” Carter writes.
After the Allies beat the Nazis, Americans continued to wield red lipstick as a blunt weapon — against the dour aesthetics of the Soviet Union, say, or against religious fundamentalism. It hasn’t always worked, but even after a global pandemic, red lipstick no longer seems like a trivial accent, but a way of life — as American as apple pie.
“It was sex appeal paired with national pride in a spectrum of scarlet shades that added new verve to the red, white, and blue,” Carter writes. “It was patriotism you could carry in your purse.”
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