Ever since Jenna Lyons has been on “The Real Housewives of New York,” I have found myself wearing red lipstick to work. But what about job interviews? What about work parties? I am in a sector that has a pretty casual, conservative approach to style. Is there any time red lipstick is not appropriate? — Sarah, New York
There are few cosmetics as charged with meaning as red lipstick, which over the centuries has been associated with female allure, sex, sin, glamour, power and politics. One of the first reported fans of red lipstick was Cleopatra, who was said to have painted her lips with red dye made from crushed carmine beetles. Scarlet women wore scarlet lipstick, but it was also a symbol of the suffragists, who wore it with their white dresses as they marched for the right to vote in the early 1900s.
All of which should give you a sense of the long history of red lipstick, how complicated its semiology is and why we all bring our own preconceptions about it to the table. Especially in a post-pandemic world, when memories of a year or more of wearing masks and never seeing one another’s mouths are still fresh in our minds.
Indeed, there is so much to say about red lipstick that it has inspired at least two books: “Red Lipstick: An Ode to a Beauty Icon” by Rachel Felder and “The Red Menace: How Lipstick Changed the Face of American History” by Ilise S. Carter.
“Red communicates strength and a specifically feminine type of strength,” said Ms. Felder, who said she has been wearing red lipstick since she was a teenager. It says: I am here. I am a woman. Deal with it. That can be both intimidating and unsettling to the viewer and alluring. Either way, it is impossible to ignore.
Which means that how you wear it, and in what context, matters.
To that end, I asked Jenna Lyons if there was any occasion when she would not wear red lipstick. She emailed back that it was less about the lipstick and more about “the overall look.” Wearing red lipstick with, she said, “a smoky eye” or “black nail polish” or “a sexy dress” sends a very different message than pairing a red lip with a more minimal face and outfit.
Think of it this way: Wearing red lipstick as part of getting dressed up for a holiday party puts you in one tradition — that of the silver screen. Wearing it with black nail polish and ripped tights speaks to another. Punks! Wearing it as part of your everyday look connects you more to the suffragists. It makes the lipstick choice less about the occasion than about identity.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told Vogue that she wears red lipstick every day because it gives her confidence and “oomph” and because, when she was first campaigning, it gave her an immediate visual signifier and a way of looking put together. My colleague Anya Strzemien, who wore red lipstick every day until the pandemic (including when she gave birth), said it reminded her of her mother and grandmother, red lipstick wearers both, and acted as “an antidepressant.”
The point being, when it comes to red lipstick, as when it comes to anything that is an interface between your self and the world, it shouldn’t make you feel self-conscious. It should make you feel more gloriously, totally, who you are. No matter where you are.