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The many faces of the not-so-humble lipstick

Originally published in Mint.

Shilpa Madan

Despised, embraces, a sign of class, a marker of morality, the lipstick always punches above its weight 

"I never leave home without my Swiss Army knife and a tube of lipstick. As far as I'm concerned, they're the only two weapons a women needs." 

—Vienne, in Read My Lips: A Cultural History of Lipstick

Only the naïve would underestimate the power of this bite-sized tube of wax, known to cast a spell on both the wearer and the audience. Mired in controversy throughout its 5,000-year-old history, no other cosmetic product comes close in capturing the collective imagination of the masses. Transcending the boundaries of culture, context and time, the not-so-humble lipstick is a true icon of feminine allure and mystique. Its irresistible temptation makes it the most shoplifted product of all times—testimony to the fact that good things indeed come in small packages.

Since its invention by the Sumerians, this tiny colour stick held sacred by many has been eschewed, despised and embraced. Wearing lipstick has been a sign of social class, marker of femininity, (lack of) morality and even a signal of political beliefs.

Most women have fond childhood memories of reaching into their mother’s vanity to pick up a lipstick and smearing it all over their faces. Along with draping a make-believe saree, putting on mom’s lipstick is a rite of passage for Indian girls.

Not surprisingly, the allure is unyielding and unforgettable. While 29 July may have been anointed as “Lipstick Day", true devotees celebrate lipstick all day, every day. In recognition of that spirit, here are some intriguing facts and fascinating trivia about this transformational magic wand.

War paint

Before the 1920s, nice girls did not wear lipstick. Early experimental research corroborates these stereotypes, with male raters perceiving girls wearing lipstick to be more frivolous and less conscientious.

However, World War II changed that. Lipsticks were deemed to be a wartime necessity—indispensable for keeping morale high. Britain even had lipsticks fitted with emergency flashlights in case of a blackout.

When Helena Rubinstein, the spunky Polish immigrant and beauty magnate, asked US president Theodore Roosevelt how she could contribute to the war effort, he wrote back saying that the lipstick she sells is vital for women’s well-being during trying times and her duties as a patriotic American were long fulfilled.

Not always ‘exclusively’ female

While men adorning their lips were a common sight in the 18th century, the French revolution marked the end of the romance. As Jessica Pallingston notes in her delightful book, Lipstick, wearing make-up was a marker of colluding with the aristocracy—and led to immediate punishment. No wonder then that men quickly let go of their love for myriad lip hues and shades.

When the going gets tough, the tough buy lipstick

Research shows that even though general consumer spending declines in recessionary times, women’s spending on beauty products increases. The underlying psychological reason goes back to attracting resourceful men—supposedly in short supply during economic downturns.

Almost a decade before this research was conducted, Leonard Lauder, the chairman of beauty conglomerate Estée Lauder, had coined the term “Leading Lipstick Indicator" to refer to the phenomenon that women spend on small luxuries (instead of big ones) such as lipstick when the times are tough.

Ravishing Red 

In a fascinating experiment in France, waitresses were made to wear different-coloured lipsticks (red, pink, brown and none) during the course of a week as they went about their duties at a restaurant. Not only were male patrons more likely to tip when the waitress wore lipstick (despite a mandatory service charge of 12%), the quantum of tip was also significantly higher. Not surprisingly, female customers were unmoved by this tactic.

In a testimony to the allure of the red colour, this effect was found to exist only for red lipstick but not for any of the other shades.

Speaking to the “easy-going" stereotype, research even shows that women wearing red lipstick are more likely to be solicited at a bar. Apart from lipstick, red-coloured shirts have been found to increase the possibility of female hitchhikers getting a ride from male drivers.

Lolita or hot mama?

Make-up brand Kat Von D launched “Underage Red" last year while LVMH group’s irreverent brand Benefit once sold a ton of “Ms Under Stud". Not surprisingly, content analysis of more than 1,700 lipsticks spanning more than 50 brands by sociologist Debra Merskin revealed that, along with food and beverages, sex and romance are the most commonly recurring themes in lipstick nomenclature.

What is surprising, however, is that many of them refer to foods such as Double Chocolate Truffle and Raspberry Souffle that are considered super sinful or taboo by today’s weight-conscious women—such naming leverages the principles of synthesia, the ability to activate multiple senses (in this case, the palate in addition to the eyes and ears), thus creating a more intense sensorial experience.

You may or may not wear it yourself, but one thing is for certain: There is no ignoring the women (and men) who do. In the words of Diane von Furstenberg, “Lipstick is to the face what punctuation is to a sentence." Neglect it at your own peril.

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