My first memories of my mother are red-lipstick memories: her smearing it on as we headed out the door on a Saturday night to an art opening, the color so bold against her slate-gray Yohji Yamamoto pantsuit; her cleaning out the cupboard under our sink where she kept her lipsticks (all varying Chanel and Revlon reds) and nail polishes (same); and the time she let me draw it on my face in concentric circles like a Yayoi Kusama installation gone deeply wrong.
My mother’s style wasn’t overtly feminine. She was one of a group of women (Cindy Sherman, Sarah Charlesworth, and Marilyn Minter, to name a few) whose emerging presence in the male-dominated art world in the late seventies and early eighties signaled a tidal shift. Being a woman wasn’t an easy space to occupy then—it required strength, precision, and fearlessness. Maybe that’s why, growing up, I remember a lot of menswear: crisp white shirts, J.Crew khakis, desert boots, shoulder pads. But always red lipstick, reminding the powers-that-be that their femininity was an asset rather than an albatross.
Nearly 40 years later, we find ourselves asking similar questions about our rights that we never thought we’d have to revisit. This has galvanized a new generation of women, women who never considered themselves political, to engage in a dialogue about what we want, what we deserve, and what it will take to get it. The exciting news? The second-wave sense that taking up this call to action means denying your femininity (see: images of oversize T-shirts, corduroy pants, and unmascara’d lashes at the protests of the seventies) has been replaced with an anything-goes, all-encompassing idea of what womanhood can be, reappropriating makeup as a simple pleasure that allows a moment of private joy for even the most public activist.
The revolution will wear red lipstick.
We saw it on the fall 2017 runways, from Topshop to Prada, Jason Wu to Preen: lips in every shade of vermilion, from just-sucked-lollipop to vampire assassin. As the world reeled following the surreal circus of the U.S. election season, it was hard not to see the connection between the complete Pantone palette of carmines and scarlets and the sense that many dissatisfied women were collectively demanding more. Maria Cornejo, long admired for her collections of strong, inventive womenswear, collaborated with the makeup artist Dick Page to send models down her fall runway with clean skin and a warm, glossy brick lip. It was as much a colorful complement to her velvet dresses in chocolate and crimson as it was a purposeful statement. “If you’re just wearing red lipstick, you’re usually not wearing much else, and I think that shows confidence,” says the Chilean designer, long a devotee of Shiseido’s matte bullets. “You can still be a feminist if you wear lipstick and look pretty.”
These days, feminists are recognized as coming in all shapes, sizes, and shades, and there is no fashion prerequisite for membership—or at least that seems to be the message echoing from voices like Sarah Sophie Flicker’s. The performance artist, activist, and a leading organizer of the Women’s March is rarely seen without her go-to bow of MAC’s Ruby Woo, the classic orangey-matte pigment that she and her fellow march organizers, Tabitha St. Bernard and Janaye Ingram, wore like war paint in Washington, D.C., in January as they helped wrangle and energize the millions gathered at the National Mall. “But there’s room for everyone who shows up,” Flicker explains, “red lips, hijabs, long hair, no hair, natural hair, dressed up, and pared down”—binaries and boundaries that were once upheld largely to “police, contain, and shame women,” according to trans activist Janet Mock, who wears red lipstick to amplify her words during speeches.
Culturally, a well-lined cherry pout has always sent a certain message: seductress, femme fatale, devilish lover sure to leave a mark. Watch Ryan Murphy’s Feud for a full catalog of red lips and the women who made them legendary, then move on to Sid and Nancy. But they’re not just the man teasers Marilyn Monroe believed them to be.
Symone Sanders, the former national press secretary for Bernie Sanders, sees hers as an essential part of a duty to highlight diversity. “I don’t think there are a lot of bald black girls on the political scene, at least that the American people get to see every day, so I want to represent for brown girls, all shades of brown,” explains the CNN talking head, who has no qualms about showing up on air with a pop of MAC’s Carnivorous, a blood-wine that is not trying for subtlety. And that’s its charm.
Sanders is quick to pay homage to Huma Abedin—“She is always rocking that lip”—Hillary Clinton’s chief adviser, who has (to government knowledge) never been seen red lip–less. “Anytime is red-lipstick time,” says Abedin, who depoliticizes her early love of Clinique’s Vintage Wine, which was inspired by pictures of Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly, and glossy tear sheets from Vogue. “Red always feels confident, fresh, bold, and simple to me,” she continues, explaining that while she never “properly” learned how to apply makeup, a quick slick of Yves Saint Laurent’s matte red 201 or Huda Beauty’s Heartbreaker allows her to explore a love of color while boosting her confidence, something her job demands. “Red goes with everything, and it just feels right whenever you wear it.”
I ask my mother about the dawn of her own red-lip allegiance, and we remember my grandmother, whose diminutive stature belied the steely will of a woman who raised three Jewish girls in the shadow of the Holocaust, keenly aware of the radical act of purely existing even as she attempted to melt face first into suburbia. “My mother absolutely would not leave the house without it,” she says of what for her has become at once “a cosmetic enhancer as well as a disguise, an art project, a photo op, a suit of armor, an invitation, and a do-not-disturb sign.”
I have one more red-lipstick memory of my mother: a photograph of hers that hung in our downtown loft of a small doll in a housedress pushing a lipstick as big as she is across an ideal 1950s home. That perfect tube, bright and angry, possessed me. “In hindsight,” she says, unpacking the piece, “I think I was saying my femininity is as big as me. I’d gotten the feeling that historically women needed to imitate men or renounce their femaleness to be ‘real’ artists. I wasn’t buying it.”
And neither am I.
Watch Lena Dunham test drive the brow microblading trend:
If you have written a sexy sitcom, television or movie parody, how.