Have you ever wondered why you often end up watching someone’s lips move when they talk?
Of course, you look at their eyes, because that’s how we show each other connection and attention. But you keep coming back to their lips. Each little movement contains clues to the questions: how do they really feel about me? Do they mean what they’re saying? What’s their emotional state?
We use our lips to smile, frown, kiss, and talk.
We use them to signal approval or disapproval...
to communicate our thoughts and feelings…
to express ourselves in all kinds of ways.
That’s why we often choose the lips as an area of the face to emphasize. Women especially have been using their lips as a canvas for expression for a long time now. Just how long? We wondered about that, so we’ve compiled a timeline. Here are just some of the major moments in lip history.
3500 BC–The first lipsticks on earth
Based on archeological evidence, it looks like Ancient Sumerians were some of the first to wear lipstick. They mixed crushed red-colored rocks with oils and waxes. Which doesn’t sound like that comfortable of a formula, to be honest. This practice was most likely reserved for royalty.
51 BC–Cleopatra’s famous lips
Everybody's heard of the ancient Ptolemaic Queen Cleopatra, who was queen of Egypt. She was known to rock a red lipstick in her day. The Egyptians made pigment for lipstick from an unusual source: crushed cochineal insects. The resulting red powder is called carmine. You might think that’s kind of gross, but this ancient ingredient is still used in cosmetic formulas today. Carmine has an intense crimson hue that's difficult to replicate. But if you’d rather avoid crushed bugs in your lipstick (understandable tbh), look for vegan lipsticks instead.
1600s–Lipstick as magic
Queen Elizabeth I of England was obsessed with red lipstick. Look at a portrait of her and you'll notice her scarlet lips. But the reason why she loved lipstick is one you wouldn't expect.
She thought it was magical. And she wasn't alone.
Many people in Elizabethan England believed that lipstick was magical. They believed it was healing and protected you from death. So whenever Her Maj was sick, she applied more and more lipstick.
Despite the fact that the queen used it, the church (controlled entirely by dudes, btw) looked down on the practice. Some clergy believed wearing lipstick was a mortal sin...over-dramatic much?
And England's Parliament (once again, an all-male organization) even passed a law outlawing the use of lipstick. They called it witchcraft!
1780-1867–Two toned lipstick in Japan
During the Edo period, Japanese performance artists called geishas wore high contrast makeup, including bold lipstick. This was so that guests could see them well when the only light source was candlelight. Red lips were popular, but so was green! Some geishas wore red on their top lip and green on the bottom, a look known as sasa-iro beni or “bamboo grass red.” Their lip colors came from safflower.
Early 1800s–The first lip fillers
Lip augmentation has been going on for a little while. But it was first done for a reason that might surprise you: to correct deformities in tuberculosis patients. Doctors would inject fat into the lips to correct the side effects of TB. Some people also attempted it for aesthetic reasons. But the technology wasn’t there yet, and this treatment yielded limited results.
1884–Lipstick goes commercial
Up to this point, any kind of lip makeup was homemade. During the Victorian era, visible makeup was associated with corrupt morals, so you couldn’t just go out and buy lipstick. People would make negative assumptions about your moral character.
Despite the shaming attitude towards makeup, women found clever ways around it. Some common homemade lip colors included beetroot juice and strawberry juice, which added a pink stain. Women would also wet red crepe paper and apply it to the face, so that the paper dye would transfer.
In the late 1800s, attitudes towards makeup softened. It became more acceptable to wear obvious makeup in public. Guerlain, a French perfume company, brought the first commercial lipstick to market in 1884. It was wrapped in silk. Tres chic!
1923–The swivel tube
Every lipstick you’ve ever used comes in the familiar cylindrical ‘bullet’ packaging. In 1923, an inventor added the swiveling action to dispense the product more easily. We still use this style of twist-up packaging today. This is also the decade when makeup became mass-produced and affordable. It was a decade of unprecedented progress for women. Multiple countries gave women the right to vote at this time, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Sweden, and Myanmar. In a far cry from the Victorian no-makeup makeup look, dark berry and plum colors were super popular.
1953–Marilyn Monroe’s iconic red pout
It's hard to think of a more influential woman in makeup history than film star Marilyn Monroe. Bright red, heart-shaped lips like hers are shorthand for Old Hollywood glamour. Tons of other celebs have referenced her look through the years, from Anna Nicole Smith to Madonna to Margot Robbie.
Marilyn's iconic look comes from her collaboration with makeup artist Allan “Whitey” Snyder. They developed many techniques to make her lips look fuller. Whitey used a combination of different lipsticks and liners–some lighter and some darker–to create the illusion of more volume. After lipstick, he added white powder in the very center of her lower lip to make it look fuller. It's a weird trick, but it works.
Whitey and Marilyn also had a secret lip gloss formula, which made her lips look even fuller. Sometimes they would put on five (!) layers of lipstick and lip gloss and white powder, for an ultra-dramatic pout. Even after all this time, we still don’t know exactly what was in that lip gloss. A great makeup artist never reveals their secrets!
2006-Lip fillers get upgraded
Throughout the 20th century, doctors tried different substances to add volume to the lips. In the early 1900s, some doctors tried injecting paraffin wax, but it didn’t work well. Liquid silicone came next. But injecting liquid silicone directly into the body introduces significant side effects and weird bumps. Bovine (cow) collagen replaced silicone in the 1970s. It also had a downside: patients had to be allergy tested before getting the injections. The allergy tests took weeks!
Finally, hyaluronic acid came around, sold under brand names like Juvederm and Restylane. Hyaluronic acid fillers were FDA-approved in 2006 after many years of research. Because the body naturally produces hyaluronic acid, it’s a much safer option than substances used before. Today if you want your lips to look fuller, you can book a lunchtime appointment with a nurse injector. There's no downtime. Fillers last for several months, and you don’t even need to put on lipstick or lip liner for your lips to look beautiful. Lip fillers are the ultimate in effortless beauty.
So there you have it–just some of the big moments in lip history through the ages. Women have used various strategies to alter how their lips look for thousands of years. We’ve always found creative ways to express ourselves with aesthetics. Even in times when it wasn't allowed.
In the present day, we have more opportunities than ever to use our lips as part of our self-expression. Whether you slick them with balm, coat them with lipstick, or plump them with filler, your lips are 100% yours. They’re a canvas for your creativity. What will you do with them next?
Btw, if you want to book a lip filler appointment, you can do it here in the Upkeep app.