Illustration of multiple women all wearing different lipstick colours by Rosemary McLeod

Red my lips: Rosemary McLeod pens an ode to the timeless red pout

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30 October 2021

Reading Time: 3 minutes

This new age of face concealment is cramping Rosemary’s style.

My mother wasn’t an unfailing source of wisdom. She made epic mistakes, as we do, but she left behind useful pointers for living, and lipstick was one of them.

What would she have said of this age of mouth concealment? She’d have put it up there with gross human rights violations.

“All women,” said my mother, “need lipstick after the age of 30.”

And she meant all the time. She never left home without it. Lipstick is armour, defence against the world, an exclamation mark showing you exist whatever your age and shape. It’s necessary. Joyce wore a confident red, not scarily bright but definite, and never any shade of pink. I don’t trust pink lipstick either. It’s too girly.

She carried a powder compact in her handbag to keep control of nose shine, dabbed at hers at regular intervals with a pale beige powder puff – the mirror was inside the lid – and refreshed her lipstick as it faded. Her foundation was Cyclax Milk of Roses, gone now and forgotten, but it smelled nice.

Powder compacts and the Cyclax brand may be ancient artifacts, but lipstick survives, looking pretty much as it did in her time, apart from newer dark and gloomy fashion. Sadly, Covid forces us to hide the colour under our masks, making us look diminished, half-erased, and unlovely. We wear lipstick to be seen. Why else?

As a young teenager, I tried white lipstick. We all did. White boots were in fashion, there must have been a link, but you couldn’t get them. The idea was to add false eyelashes and thick mascara, the effect reminiscent of a TV ventriloquist’s puppet, Lamb Chop, popular back then. I never had the courage to walk out the door like that – maybe because my dad was a sheep farmer and I knew too much.

I tried pink peppermint-flavoured lipstick after that, since girls are encouraged to wear pink, and then a horrible dark red from a sale bin. Then I gave up until I was 30 – mother was right. Revlon’s Fire & Ice, introduced in 1952, was seen as acknowledgement, for the first time, that women wear lipstick for themselves, and it’s still in production. It was close to the shade my mother wore (she was dead by then) and I still default to her lipstick shade and scone recipe, but I ignore her directive to wear clothes that match your eyes. I’d be stuck in camouflage gear from Army Surplus if I took to that, muddy green and brown. You couldn’t insult a decent lipstick with that.

Names of today’s lipsticks in various brands have lost their innocence and invite efforts at bad erotic verse. Kinda Sexy, Pout Pop, Walk of No Shame, Orgasm, Pillow Talk, Dominatrix, Catfight, Supermodel, Bad Reputation and Diva beg to be worn. In the world of erotica, surely Miramar lipstick – they can’t be serious – couldn’t hope to cut it against exotic Morocco.

Cosmetics saleswomen, intimidating and patronising when you’re a kid, still can be. Attractive young women behind those counters seem to feel they deserve better than advising hopeless cases, older and unworthy of such products, for a living. Reading the names of lipsticks on their counters can only make them restless, and suitable men looking for love, interested in both cosmetics and women, may be rare visitors.

I’m carrying around Atomic Orange and Dolce Vita, neither exactly the colour I want. That was Stand Out, which the brand discontinued; it always happens when you find your favourite. They’re slowly building up a mucky reddish orange smudge in the lining of my mask.

Nobody sees my lipstick, dutifully applied each day, but I know it’s there.

In this small thing, for once I obey my mother.

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