Friday, January 11, 2008

red lipstick

The New York Times Magazine had an interesting piece on red lipstick and, to a certain degree, how it traverses on art. It started off with saying that red lipstick had made a comeback (when did it ever go away…?). It also explored a trend of women perversely kissing paintings made by men, wearing their most indelible red. It happened to Cy Twombly.

They say that you can get rid of the red initially, but that it keeps coming back. It will resurface, sometimes years later. Indeed, the woman has made her mark permanently, branded the work. Oh, there are so many ways to interpret this. The women quoted in the article seem to come from love and adoration of the artwork, but I think much more is at play here, and at stake.

I have a pal who has not lived here long, coming to PDX via much bigger cities. She believes her perpetual red lipstick makes others uncomfortable around her. I was a little puzzled, as I love lipstick, especially red, and don’t think much about it one way or another. I whip it out and back into my bag so quickly, I couldn’t imagine it was a force or subtle repulsion. But perhaps I was missing something.

Sure, sometimes a fellow would tell me he did not want his women to wear lipstick. But I always figured that this was the same fellow who had the magazine rolled up under his bed, filled with girls wearing nothing but.

My friend works in more established arenas than myself, so maybe these power movers do not wear paint. But it’s not like they are the vast right wing conspiracy – it’s the very hip and free thinking art world of the Pacific Northwest.

So I checked out her theory. Do people avert their eyes when you whip it out? - as though you’ve got some kind of sex toy in your hand? My friend says they look away while you’re doing it (applying the paint) and they also look at her lipstick traces on cocktail glasses with a vague repulsion. This doesn’t happen with soft lip-glosses, mind you. It’s the commitment (or rather aggression) of red which sends them. Is it because, as someone in the Times article says: “Red is primary and violent – it’s the universal gash.” -? (Italics mine.)

We followed this trend from personal style into the art itself. Can women venture boldly into color and if they do, how is it met? Surely not repulsion? Or is color just fluff? Is the denial of color a more serious pursuit? You know, it’s not a little bit like that freezing studio and leaky roof….

- We found some depressing indications that the more subtle the color, the more we are encased in a dreary encaustic grey – so like the weather! - the more seriously it might be taken. This is not a down-the-line assessment, and I am not going to give examples here either, but it’s never been a high-color town anyway, until more and more of the out-of-town New Garde arrived (thank God). And some of this relates to a general chromophobia which has nothing to do with gender.

Of course this is all reminding me of Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus. That book speaks of gloriously aggressive times and aggressive characters, while not exactly being any kind of landmark feminist manifesto. Yet who wears lipstick - ? Are there chapters on Siouxsie Sioux and Lydia Lunch, exploring that very title? No. Yes, the title is lifted from an Elvis Costello song, but I think there was a big missed opportunity.


m. said...

"Sure, sometimes a fellow would tell me he did not want his women to wear lipstick. But I always figured that this was the same fellow who had the magazine rolled up under his bed, filled with girls wearing nothing but."

no doubt!! that kind of request is about control as is this subject, i suspect, on some level. that "gash" thing paired with the word "violent" has me thinking too. for some reason my literary persona relates the word gash to references to the female sex...anybody else feel those overtones...?

Anonymous said...

Well, the article in the Times (by Alexandra Marshall) quotes Poppy King, the lipstick maker: "A slash of red on the mouth has a clear relation to genitalia, sex and the menstrual cycle, and wearing it is a sign of female power."

Huh! I do not think of these things when I put it on but maybe others do... case in point:

I was walking downstairs into the subway on 7th and 57th when a fellow passed me, saying just loud enough for only me to hear: "Red lips, red pussy."

So I guess some people do think that way.

m. said...

i'm not saying that's what i personally think of when i see or wear red lipstick...consciously, anyway...and i think i'm in pretty good touch with much of my subconscious as well...though there is a reason they call it sub...anyway...

i was asking if anyone else had the feeling that they had read a lot of literature tying the word 'gash' to the female sex/genitalia...and maybe also the mouth...and the two to each other...probably a lot of male literature, i'm sorry to have to theorize...

when you posted that quote, it just sounded so darn familiar and brought up references that i don't think i myself would personally make unless i could almost see the words in my mind linking them...which i almost can...lots of short stories and novels...

problem is it's been so long since i've read anything like a 'canonical' book (ten? fifteen years?) that the visual recall on that stuff has long been pushed aside for more recently useful stuff...

just thought there might be somebody out there with some examples handy as if i go try i wouldn't even be starting with titles or authors, just the word...not very helpful...

Anonymous said...

Naomi Wolfe in the Beauty Myth probably says something about it.

Perhaps it has more to do with our background, how comfortable we are around facepaint.

My mom was not only an artist, but also, for a few years, an Avon Lady! So she had ALL kinds of paint around.... literally hundreds of lipstick samples... just thinking about it makes me happy... a happy childhood memory. I played with them just like I played with her art supplies.

So there's not real sex attachment to it for me. And I never sold it that way either, like "You'll be sexy if you wear this." Uh uh. I just think it looks good and never really took it apart.


m. said...

my mom was not much into too very much makeup in general, but she did love her lipstick, and thus i too have many fond childhood memories associated with the subject...of being allowed to watch her in the mirror, very calm, very motherly, applying, checking, re-applying...thanks for that, E...i don't know why, but that angle brings me a lot of comfort and 'cha can never have enough of that after the holidays ::grin::

sharon said...

Great post Eva!

Anyone who says lipstick and the application of it isn't sex is lying to themselves. What lipstick-wielding woman doesn't enjoy the power of the Red, smoothly applied? I love the neat little click of a makeup-mirror and lipstick casing. I love the widened eyes of the male involved. And of course, I love the aesthetic effect. I have to admit, I wear a lot less red lipstick in Seattle than I did in NY because people here seem to be offended by anything loud, and sometimes I just don't want to be under a microscope of observation. Sometimes, I don't care.

I can't think of anything off the top of my head having to do with feminist theory in regards to lipstick, but as we all know the phenomenon of the mouth is well documented. Of course a bright red is indicative of power-- it captivates the male, suggests sexual arousal, and reflects the geography of genitalia. It's terrifying and alluring to men.

Actually, I'm sure Julia Kristeva might have a lot to say about that sort of thing, in regards to abjection in general; or perhaps Barbara Creed who attacks certain subjects of femininity in horror film.

m. said...

i've enjoyed seeing you around a lot of shared blog haunts lately, sharon, but anyone who decides to speak for everyone without a bit of tongue in cheek might want to take a step back and reassess the kinds of statements they're making and whether there might be a better way to make a point than to speak for all human kind.

i'm not saying you're wrong...i'm just saying i can speak for myself, thanks, and if you have a dialogue to open with me personally (or with the members of the blog in general), i very much welcome it over you having a two-way conversation with yourself ::grin::

Anonymous said...

Damn, I need to get to Seattle and talk with you all about the perils of red face paint in the Northwest. Because there definitely is something to it.

sharon said...

Haha! Fair enough, m. and well said.

It's true; sometimes that blanket statement just slips out, doesn't it? I think I smiled when I wrote it, but that did need to be more tongue in cheek and less definitive to work.

I retract the lying to themselves bit, and rephrase to say that I'll speak for myself in my earlier statements, and keep the possibilities open as a question for others.

Hey I'm totally up for face to face conversations! ^_^

Anonymous said...

If indeed we are talking abour red lipstick with smokey eyes - what they used to call the Chanel Look in the industry - then maybe we can say that it's all about sex.

But this discussion has me remembering other looks, non-red looks, or non-traditional red looks, which were not "sexy" at all to me.

Two significant styles/eras: the first was Twiggy. She was maybe the first heavily painted woman (er, girl) that I paid attention to. And she was all about being a child and looking like one, while still wearing all these marvy colors. Even Veruschka, with all her makeup, had this other-worldly thing about her, like she was almost an alien. Empowered, yes, maybe even scary, but playing to men? - comme si comme ca.

The next important makep style for me was glamrock and punk. And while we might look back and think "that's sexy" it was not at the time. All the black lips were not a sell to men and they did not take it that way. Most of them ran, not walked away from me in this country.

Of course it was different over in the UK. My mind was just blown away at all those gorgeous boys actually wearing all that makeup and nail polish!... And boys who liked girls too.


(PS odd I try to convince myself it wasn't about sex, at least for me, but I found the makeup on the guys, no matter how crudely applied.... really hot...)

sharon said...

Boys in makeup? Absolutely.

In light of Twiggy as an example, does that bring up the point that many women are dressing and making up for other women as much as themselves? What are the reasons we like to paint ourselves (having nothing to do with sex) and is it automatic?

p.s. m. I wanted to let you know my comments were not indirectly directed at anyone. Just so you know. :)

Anonymous said...

It might be for other women, but for some of us, it was also about art.

I'll never forget the first time I saw someone in pink and blue hair and that trademark makeup. It was a couple at Heathrow airport, 1977 and I was immediately jealous. Because they were art in human form and even political art - even though I did not understand the ramifications; I hadn't read anything in the press about it. It was the first time in adult life that I really related to a look. Vogue had left me cold...much as I wanted, at one point, to be all Halston etc., I was not of that class and it was too much about following. The punk thing was like looking at a Picasso who fell in with Dada, simply marveous - and something you could actually achieve with makeup alone, if you had to. You didn't need the clothes really. Just the paint. Ah!


m. said...

on the women dressing up for other women thing, i have another mother story to relate--again with mom!!

anyway, as a youngster one day i saw her getting all daytime glam and knew she was only going to lunch with a girlfriend and asked her why she was bothering to get so 'dolled up' as we called it in our house (not sure about the ramifications of that phrase but can't go into it now)...

she replied that you owe it to your friends to look your best for them, too, not just for the men. i thought about that for a long time.

'course now i wonder for many other reasons if she is not a closet lesbian (nothing wrong with that, just trying to parse out my childhood here), so that would put a different spin on things thar...


p.s. to sharon, did not take your indirect comments directly, for whatever that's worth...also know that i, too, have been known to speak for all humanity on accident ::grin::

Edd said...

Lipstick definitely has a relationship to sex and all the complex strangeness that can evoke in people. As a male I find watching an attractive woman apply lipstick to be a very sensual and beautiful act. At the same time seeing a much older woman wearing or applying lipstick is pretty unsettling, like seeing your grandmother in a miniskirt, bra and high heels.

Certainly a lot of men (and doubtless women) enjoy seeing women in bold lipstick in a pleasantly sexual way (see

Anonymous said...

Hi Edd -
Interesting what you say about the older woman being Grandma. This is an image I want to buck. I guess this is what women mean when they say that after a certain age, you become "invisible." Even applying paint to your face is something you shouldn't be seen doing - because you really shouldn't be seen at all.


Edd said...

@Eva: You're absolutely right, I didn't mean to assign a role to someone based on their age and gender, that'd be as ridiculous as suggesting that seniors shouldn't have active, joyous sex lives. If someone enjoys expressing their sexuality in how they present themselves, more power to them, they have every right.

Unfortunately, we don't get to choose what fires our engines or squicks us out sexually. Applying lipstick is an almost definitively feminine and often alluring sensual act. If one's attracted to the person performing it, lovely. If not, it can be... uncomfortable. That's not to suggest how people 'should' behave or dress, but it may help explain some of the reactions you mentioned.

Anonymous said...

Edd, what I find interesting now about this exchange is that we are still talking about sex. If the older (or younger) woman uses lipstick, she's advancing a sexual agenda.

As a makeup artist for over two decades and as someone who still wears lipstick of all colors - blue, silver, gold, red, purple - I think of lipstick as paint, a vehicle for expression not all that different to what I am doing on a canvas. It's for expression, self expression. Sometimes advancing a fuckworthy agenda means looking for approval - that is the general gist of it - and I am not wild about putting that across as some general goal.

Not all women who wear paint are doing that. Certainly the punk ethic of paint has nothing to do with the getting the guys attention, at least not in the way you are implying. Most of the fellows were afraid of me back then (at least when I returned to Oregon!). The paint was not invitational.

Not that that must be the goal either, but I think it is wrong to assume that a woman applying paint in public is looking for action or approval. And that could be a reason some people are turned off or quesy - any power-seeking, thrill-seeking female can unnerve some people. It is unnerving that she isn't looking for something, you see. It's a cultural thing unfortunately.


Anonymous said...

Just to clarify the last bit..."power seeking, thrill seeking" - meaning someone who just wants to have fun or express themselves, which is very different from the female portrayed as seeking approval within what this society allows her.

Edd said...

@Anonymous: I agree, there are lots of other reasons to wear makeup, self expression, creative expression (stage makeup), social camouflage, occupational dress code, etc. In general though, it seems makeup - and lipstick in particular - are used by women to enhance their physical (sexual!) attractiveness.

Desmond Morris proposed that the full, pouty lips of the human female evolved as a sexual signal (other apes don't have full lips or breasts, the fatty tissue is not functionally necessary) and suggested that lipstick was an effective enhancement of this signal, a supernormal stimulus. It has been in use for at least 5000 years and most often in a context of sex or female power.

In ancient Egypt lipstick used by prostitutes to advertise their services. During Europe's Dark Ages women could be burned at the stake for seducing a man into marriage with the 'unnatural' aid of cosmetics, a witchcraft charge. Queen Victoria ruled that lipstick was vulgar, worn only by actors and harlots. It was only after the second world war that it was considered appropriate for 'decent, modest' women to wear lipstick, a change influenced largely by Hollywood. In regions still controlled by sexually repressive patriarchies, especially the Muslim world, lipstick is still stigmatised along with female sexual desire.

Even today in the West many parents are not comfortable with their young teen daughters wearing red lipstick, it's a symbol of their budding sexuality that makes parents uneasy. I've also noticed women (and, to a lesser degree, men) criticize women who wear a lot of makeup as looking like a whore or a tart. That the pejorative word 'whore' is used instead of the descriptive 'prostitute' I think speaks volumes.

Which all leads me to believe lipstick is primarily about sex. That doesn't mean it can't be about other things as well :-) My all time favorite blog of all time is, a girl who uses lipstick to draw her thoughts and desires on her body in a way that is both powerfully sexual and creative self expression.

Anonymous said...

Gee Edd that must be the reason I surprise (and often offend) sometimes..... Just last night the guys invited me for a drink; they saw the blonde with the blue eyes in the pink lipstick sitting at the bar. Then they got all shocked when I was very articulate about politics and not just that, but angry. Like they just didn't expect angry or smart words coming out of a mouth wearing Coco Pink. People need to brace themselves for women who are not just about the fuckability factor - even when they look good.


PS You read Desmond Morris; well I read Elaine Morgan!

Elliott Broidy said...

Great commentary