Essay: Red Lips

by Lou Stoppard .

Advertisers may tell us to wear make-up because we are ‘worth it’, but what is ‘it’? Are we ‘worth’ the male gaze? Should we be striving to be ‘worth’ the sexual attention a red lip will garner? Is this what lipstick is – a visible green light for male advances?

Red lips are the trump card of the make-up box. A vision of erotic possibility; the symbol of kisses, breath, and bite. 

Recognising the sensuality of plump lips, Cleopatra is said to have engineered a special lip-stain made from crushed beetles. Thousands of years later, the sales of less natural lipstick continue to soar. 

The fashion world pays lip service to the painted pout season after season. From the heavily lined lips of the late nineties to cartoon surrealist red mouths reminiscent of sex-shop blow-up dolls at Alexander McQueen’s Autumn/Winter 2009 show, the strong mouth is fashion’s greatest beauty fetish. Red lips are fashion code for deviance and desire.

Fashion photography has heightened the appeal. Just as hard-core pornography fetishises the 'cum-shot', editorial photographers obsessively idolise open red lips, so suggestive, so full of seductive promise. As with much in fashion – bags, heels, budgets – bigger is better. The larger the lips, the greater the sex appeal. It's no coincidence that some of today’s most prolific models – Lara Stone, Georgia Jagger, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley – are notable for their fleshy pouts. While breasts and bottoms might be over-the-top, lips are the comfortable sex symbol. Rude, but not quite pornographic. 

Lip fetishism is common. Unlike the dark connotations of S&M, an admiration for the female mouth is seen as natural and normal. Scientists have rationalised this as innate to the male subconscious. Lips, they argue, conjure up connotations of the labia. The female mouth becomes a symbol of fertility, a visible poster for the potentialities of women’s other hidden organs. Fashion’s lip-love is part and parcel of its general fetishisation of the female form. The accentuating of a woman’s mouth flaunts her sexual prowess, without need for further fabric, cut or colour. Who needs a hip-hugging Galaxy dress or a bumster when you’ve got the perfect rouge tint? 

Lipstick arrived in mainstream culture in the twenties and thirties. The disruptive interwar period – a time of new freedom and vast cultural change – saw the mass commercialisation of affordable make-up on an unprecedented scale. No longer the preserve of sex workers or elite society, lipstick had been liberated. Unnerved by its popularity, one contemporary news reporter bemoaned that the fashion for painted faces made it impossible to distinguish between ‘normal woman’ and those on the fringes of society; the actresses, chorus girls and prostitutes. 

Today, make-up retains connotations of mischief. Icons from Marilyn Monroe to Madonna use lipstick as an aid to cultivate their sexual status. The made-up face has become an emblem of feminine eroticism. Women who eschew make-up entirely can be marginalised – seen, ironically, as rejecting their 'natural' femininity. Advertisers may tell us to wear make-up because we are 'worth it', but what is 'it'? Are we 'worth’ the male gaze? Should we be striving to be ‘worth’ the sexual attention a red lip will garner? Is this what lipstick is – a visible green light for male advances? 

Women who sport red lipstick daily say it has become their armour – a habitual crutch. But as with the high heel or the corset, fashion has fetishised an item that does not enhance or aid women’s abilities or talents, but rather hinders our stability and strength. The small waist, crushed elevated foot and red lips that transcend street, catwalk and sex shop are one and the same – a seemingly subtle, yet strangely obvious, sandwich board for overt sexual appeal. By applying red lipstick, we turn the attention away from what our lips can say about us, to what our lips can do for others.