Northwest Writer

I consider myself a woman of scant makeup, yet two minutes’ digging in a drawer turned up these lipsticks: Alba TerraTints Lip Balm (Blaze), Neutrogena Lip Color 235 (Black Cherry Bloom), five tubes Garden Botanika Natural Color (Amethyst, Clove, Bayberry, Root, Platinum), Almay Pure Tints #14 (Wine), L’Oreal Color Endure Lipcolour (Berry Brulée), Revlon ColorStay Lipcolor #25 (Burgundy), two Garden Botanika lip pencils (Mulberry, Plumwood), and my current favorite, DHC Tricolor Palette with three little wells of gloss and its own brush. I even found an old tube of Fire and Ice, Revlon’s most famous red lipstick. Not sure when or why I bought it, red looks terrible on me, but it’s probably tied to some life-long faith in the glamour of red lips––lips that were ubiquitous in the ‘50s, when a few icons of womanhood were tattooed onto my temporal lobes. A lipstick like Fire and Ice, tucked away in an alligator handbag, might go with you on an assignation in a dark martini bar or a top-down drive to Malibu in a roadster or a flight to Odessa on a secret mission, meeting your contact on a back street, exchanging the microfilm and a few words of Russian, slipping away into the fog, all with perfect, crimson lips.

In 2004, body language experts Allan and Barbara Pease surveyed men about the physical traits they found most desirable in women. Seems we always want scientific data to confirm the obvious. First was a toned, athletic body; second was an attractive face, focused on the mouth and eyes. “A sensual mouth, which was favored above attractive eyes, is probably popular for men because a woman’s lips are thought by scientists to have evolved to mirror her genitals. Therefore full red lips are a signal of sexual arousal.” No self-respecting 21st century lipstick peddler is going to let a juicy finding like that slip by. An ad in a 2007 Glamour for Chanel Lèvres Scintillantes Glossimer (the word “lipstick” appears nowhere in the ad) shows a woman’s mouth filling the entire page. Her upper lip looks like a shiny pink stealth bomber, and her lower lip looks like a rosy boiled metallic bratwurst––so distended it casts a curved shadow on her white chin. In her mouth is a huge pearl on a gold chain. She pushes the pearl with her upper teeth into the deep, seductive cushion of her lower lip. The only ad copy: Audacious Sparkle. Arresting shine. Dangerously glamorous.

Lipstick promotions throw around words like dangerous, audacious, wicked, tart, shameless, nude, succulent, coy, tempting. Words that hit the urge-to-buy buttons in the bad-girl demographic. Naughty is nice. Wicked is wonderful. Danger is desirable. But not that long ago society did find lipstick dangerous. Makeup was “paint.” Paint was bad. Women who painted were evil. They were amoral hussies out to entrap poor, innocent, gullible men. To protect themselves against the threat of lipstick, men passed laws, such as the 1770 statute in Britain that condemned lip painting and said women who snared husbands with clever use of makeup would be tried for witchcraft. In 1915, Kansas made it a misdemeanor for “any woman under forty-four” to wear lipstick, powder, or rouge to create “a false impression.” Of course men still wanted beautiful women, with lips that were “dewy,” “rosy,” “red as a cherry,” “a fine ruby hue,” or “plump and redder than cochineal.” But lovely lips were supposed to occur naturally, through clean living, pure thoughts, and high morals. Ever resourceful, women tried for years to achieve lip enhancement with homemade mélanges of beets, mutton tallow, morning dew, cinnamon, alkanet root, gum camphor, hogs’ lard, raisins, eggplant, or the whale-oil wax called spermaceti.

How did we get from mutton tallow to Audacious Sparkle? Lipstick began its upward swivel from Satan-laced to commonplace about the time Sears Roebuck offered 50-cent lip rouge in their catalogue in 1897. Another catalogue, Watkins Timely Suggestions, carried lipstick in 1920 and assured women it was “permissible to ‘paint the lily’” but cautioned “we are striving to assist, not caricature, Nature.” In 1938, Volupté marketed two lipsticks called Lady and Hussy, practically the same shade, but Lady was a toned-down matte and Hussy had a lustrous gleam. Apparently we were already in touch with our inner hussies, because Hussy outsold Lady five to one. Women wanted lipstick, and magazines such as Ladies Home Journal, with their beauty advice and print ads, were making lipstick acceptable if not mandatory. “Paint” was gone; the emphasis shifted to showing off a gorgeous new you. Max Factor, makeup man to movie stars, ran ads in the 1930s showing Joan Crawford applying his lipstick to her famous mouth while asking if you are one of those women (read: hopelessly old-fashioned) who conceals her beauty. “Powder, rouge and lipstick blended in subtle color harmony is the secret that can transform you into a radiant new being.” That was Joan Crawford––subtle.

The ‘40s were lipstick boom years. Vogue had a 1941 editorial that asked if women were selfish to worry about makeup during the war. A soldier replied, “To look unattractive these days is downright morale-breaking and should be considered treason.” You were not a hussy, you were a patriotic, morale-building gal! Lipstick was vital if you worked a man’s job during wartime. You might be bucking rivets but you were still feminine and worth fighting for. Even the U.S. Director of Economic Stabilization got in the act: ladies’ rooms in factories were told to supply free lipstick as a way to improve efficiency.

But even the war couldn’t prepare the world for Fire and Ice. The introduction of Revlon’s timeless, scarlet lip and nail color in the fall of 1952 was a landmark in advertising and a landmine of sexual innuendo in the days when Lucy and Desi had twin beds, Doris didn’t kiss till the last reel, and Ozzie meant Nelson, not Osborne. A two-page ad featured model Dorian Leigh in a Richard Avedon photo wearing “a figure-hugging silver-beaded turtleneck sheath dress, which left little to the imagination.” Her Fire and Ice fingertips were splayed next to her Fire and Ice mouth on one side and across her silver-spangled pelvis on the other. The copy: “Are you made for Fire and Ice?” Probing test questions provided the answer. “Do you sometimes feel that other women resent you?” “Would you streak your hair platinum without consulting your husband?” “Do you blush when you find yourself flirting?” “Do sables excite you, even on other women?” “Do you love to look up at a man?” There were eleven in all. Answer yes to any eight and you were a Fire and Ice woman. It was a breakthrough combo of product and sex––a juxtaposition we now take for granted in advertising, whether for lipstick, laundry soap or lawn mowers.

When I asked friends for lipstick memories, the first response was usually about their mothers’ lipstick rituals––whether Mom was a naked-without-it type or a special-occasions-only type or the type who applied Fire and Ice in the rear-view mirror while doing seventy on two-lane blacktop. My own mother always had stubby gold tubes of Coty in a modest shade of red. Her application method was a mini-portrait of her whole personality: two rapid-fire daubs at the center of her upper lip, followed by hard outward swipes of the pinkie to spread the color and a few tense lip presses to transfer the red to her lower lip while applying whatever was left on her pinkie to her cheeks in fast, skin-pulling tugs upward. No-nonsense. No waste. No lingering. No separate pots of rouge, no other makeup except the occasional swath of too-dark pancake from a workmanlike compact.

My most vivid memory of lipstick from my teen years in the 1960’s is mixing white with bright orange to obtain an elusive shade of tangerine that I wouldn’t be caught dead in today. Of course when I am dead somebody will probably put an equally dreadful color on me and send me to the afterlife looking like an aged That Girl. Friends’ memories of their mothers’ lipstick often quickly jumped ahead to the lipstick Mom had on in her coffin. Sometimes the daughters themselves had lovingly applied the pre-funeral lip color in a final ritual before burial. Some remembered making sure the mortician received the proper tube of their mother’s favorite shade. Or, the opposite: a memory of a deceased mother or aunt or grandmother wearing a shade so wrong that it haunted the kids for years afterward.

Lipstick does seem to be the main cosmetic associated with death. Ancient Egyptian women, or at least those wealthy enough to have tombs worth excavating, always had two pots of their favorite liprouge included in their tomb-kits and a feathered stick to apply it with. In life, Egyptians also did black lips, going for the Goth look today’s teens think they invented. Morbid chic was also a hot look in the Dark Ages, an age of even darker lipstick that made your skin look paler, and therefore closer to God.

Today, Annemarie Iverson of Harper’s Bazaar says she never stops searching for the perfect lipstick shade, one that “makes me look younger, thinner, taller, smarter, healthier. That’s the dream of lipstick. If you choose the right color, it can do everything.”

So a lot is riding on a one-inch, one-tenth-ounce bullet of beeswax and castor oil. The basic lipstick recipe: castor oil 65 percent; wax 30 percent, usually carnauba, canelilla, ozokerite or beeswax; emollient 4 percent, usually lanolin or shea butter. Gloss has more oil and less wax. The pigments themselves make up a tiny percentage of the total tube. They come from powdered dyes such as iron oxides (deep reds, deep yellows, or black) and titanium dioxide (white). The chemical tongue twisters you may see on a lipstick label, such as capril triglyceride and butylparaben, are either derived from oil or wax, or are present in trace amounts as preservatives.

Many women tell me they can’t resist buying lipstick, whether they wear it rarely or wear it constantly. I’m drawn to it too, like a kid to Crayons, even though I’m hit or miss when it comes to using it. I prefer experimenting with the relatively cheap tubes from the wall of lipstick in the local drugstore as opposed to facing the smug, smocked saleswomen at the department store cosmetics counters. But occasionally, on a rare good hair day or an even rarer halfway dressed-up day, I’ll feel emboldened to belly up to the Estée Lauder or Elizabeth Arden island and act like I know what I want. Those wants are quickly deconstructed by a twenty-something with four-inch heels and perfect cheekbones. Her banter is laced with an unerring combination of false empathy and real condescension that reduces me to Penitent with Credit Card, whose absolution can be granted only with a $36 tube of Mocha Mauve or Charming Cherry, hiding like an embryo deep inside its thick, glossy cardboard box. Ms. Cheekbones even adds her own benediction of tissue around the packaging to show how gently and thoroughly she as dealt with my ineptitude.

So, for my next few lipstick acquisitions, I’ll revert to the inexpensive anonymity of the drugstore or strip mall. I recently tried standing in Target and writing down all the lipstick product lines displayed, but I couldn’t finish before my stomach started growling and I had to go get a falafel. I did tally: L’Oreal Colour Juice, Colour Riche, Brilliant Shine Lip Gloss, Endless Kissable Lipcolour (“Zero Transfer and Extreme Wear”); Wet & Wild Mega Plump Lip Gloss, Glassy Gloss Lip Gel, MegaLast LipColor, Silk Finish Lipstick, Pout Protector, MegaSlicks Lip Gloss; Revlon Super Lustrous Moon Drops, Super Lustrous Shiny Sheers (“Glossy Appeal, No Sticky Feel”), Sugar Sugar Lip Topping, Just-Bitten Lip Stain, and Color Stay Soft & Smooth Lipcolor (“Hours and Hours of Comfortable Color”).

I almost never buy the “long-wearing” varieties, even though one of the abiding mysteries of my life is the fact that lipstick disappears from my mouth five minutes after I put it on. I’m in awe of women who are always––always––lipstick intact, even during and after meals. I guess I’m a chronic lip-biter, lip-licker and mouth-wiper. But since I found out that the average woman eats nine pounds of lipstick in her lifetime, I can’t bring myself to reapply that often. Whatever chemicals they’ve added to make a lipstick long-wearing, I’d just swallow those too.

The best part of my Target data collection was thinking about color names. Someday I’ll do an historical survey and in-depth analysis of lipstick color names and it will be an accurate reflection of our evolving culture. Spied at Target a few weeks ago: Ruby Rapture, Succulent Berry, Plum Wicked, Blood Orange, Indecent Exposure, But Officer, Trailer Trash, Lover’s Coral, Fawn Fatale, Shamelessly Nude, and yes, Fire and Ice.

“Fire and Ice” appeared in the on-line journal Cadillac Cicatrix.