For some it’s the first cup of coffee, or the moment they put their glasses on, or that cold footstep on the bedroom floor. For me, the day begins when I apply my lipstick: neat in its Cupid’s bow, red as any Snow White fantasy. For the past decade and a half, I have worn red lipstick all day, every day. To the office, for a walk, on the beach, up an Alp. To give birth, even. But then came Covid.
Last year, lipstick sales plummeted 49 per cent – with the advent of mask- wearing, no parties, no office and no hot dates, what was the point? The eye was hailed as the feature du jour, the focus retrained to the place that remained on view above a mask. Leonard Lauder’s 2001 coining of “the lipstick index”, that small but significant beauty indulgence that pepped the spirits and defied the economic downturn, was replaced by the far less sexy “moisturiser index” by Estée Lauder CEO Fabrizio Freda. It felt tragic. And desperately unnecessary. Weren’t people missing the private joy, the Blitz-spirit pleasure, the Zoom glamour of the painted lip? In other words, not just how it looks but how it makes you feel?
“Lipstick is a pick-me-up,” says Charlotte Dellal, who is never seen without Mac’s cult Ruby Woo and has often used a red lip motif across her Charlotte Olympia accessories line. “It’s an exclamation mark to an outfit. It also helps distract from bad-hair days, lazy days and not-so-good days because it instantly adds a dash of glamour, distraction and that bit of confidence when it is needed most.” And boy, do we need it.
But finally, there’s a bounce-back in the making. Trend-forecasting agency WGSN is dubbing it “Big Lipstick Energy”. Its essence is an inspiring, defiant, uplifting display of “just for the hell of it” 24-hour glamour. You may not be going out, but this is an incitement to wear lipstick anyway: while cooking, watching TV, on Zoom. One of its advocates must be Black-ish actress Tracee Ellis Ross, who during lockdown posted an Instagram video sweating it out on the treadmill, wearing lipstick and “working on her hot-girl quarantine”.
It’s a movement propelled by the defiantly bold lips seen in the spring/summer make-up collections, including at Hermès, Dolce & Gabbana and Balmain. “Matte liquid lipsticks are superior in my opinion as they leave more of a modern finish,” says Naoko Scintu, Armani Beauty make-up artistry collaborator. Pandemic-defiant matte lipstick launches and collection extensions include those from Dior (Rouge Dior), Mac (Powder Kiss Liquid Lipcolour), Givenchy (Le Rouge Deep Velvet), YSL (Rouge Pur Couture), Nars (Air Matte) and Christian Louboutin (Matte Fluid), to name a few.
Lipstick’s call to arms has form. “It’s a bold communicator, telegraphing self-assurance and strength – and in some contexts, defiance – without uttering a word,” writes Rachel Felder in her book Red Lipstick: An Ode to a Beauty Icon. For while there are the glamazons of Hollywood’s golden age – Hedy Lamarr, Rita Hayworth, Marlene Dietrich – who inextricably linked it with sex-bomb allure, in the early 20th century red lipstick also became the uniform of the Suffragettes; Elizabeth Arden handed it out to women’s suffrage protestors as they strode past her salon in 1912. Later, during the second world war, red lipstick was worn by women in Allied countries as a symbol of defiance. Rosie the Riveter was a fan. Hitler hated it.
Today, politics has a lipstick advocate in the form of congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who, in her beauty tutorial for vogue.com last year, said that it gave her “oomph” and a “boost of confidence” during her first primary election. “We were out, we were knocking on doors… sometimes the best way to really look put together is a bold lip,” she confided. Stila’s Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick in Beso is her lipstick of choice. It is also part of my lipstick arsenal: the colour is the perfect hybrid of military red and Hollywood scarlet, and its staying power is truly remarkable. “I don’t have time to run in and out of the bathroom doing touch-ups,” AOC said – and with this there is no need. It holds firm and lasts all day.
Now, with mask culture, this is stay-on lipstick’s moment. Although lipstick sales were down, says Isabella Rogers, bareMinerals’ marketing director, “within the category, the sales proportion of long-wear performance lipstick grew by 15 per cent, as mask-wearing culture took over in Q3 and consumers were looking for non-transfer products; bareMinerals barePro Longwear Lipstick became the brand’s #1 bestselling lip product.”
In addition to Stila, my top recommendations for intense all-day colour are Nars Powermatte Lip Pigment, Fenty Beauty’s Stunna Lip Paint (£20, harveynichols.com), Matte Fluid from Christian Louboutin and Maybelline’s SuperStay 24hr Lip Colour (£9.99). For slightly more diffused colour coverage, go for Givenchy Encre Interdite Lip Ink (£26.50), Chanel Ink Fusion (£31) or Armani Lip Magnet (£32). Of wearing Lip Magnet under a mask, Armani’s make-up artistry collaborator Naoko Scintu says: “This lip colour actually fuses to the lips and doesn’t budge or transfer. It feels like a second skin.” When I first discovered stay-on lip colours, they were often horribly drying, but these new formulations are “nourishing, long-lasting, liquid lip colour, exactly what you need when wearing your mask,” says Chanel make-up artist Ninni Nummela, of the brand’s Rouge Allure Ink Fusion.
But why even paint lips if they are hidden? “Wearing red lipstick under a mask is like wearing beautiful underwear,” says lipstick fan Katrin McMillan, founder and CEO of digital education charity Hello World and a mother of four. “It’s a secret pleasure, just for you.” Charlotte Dellal pairs her lipstick with a mask embellished with a pair of surreal lips, from Pompom Paris (€58), while I team mine with a bespoke mask embroidered with a tiny pout, by Cressida Jamieson (from £50).
The joy of lipstick is blissfully simple. If you know, you know. A few days after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that many of us couldn’t spend Christmas with another household, I crossed paths with a cyclist wearing a red lip. We had never seen one another before, but as we passed she said: “The world might be going to shit, but there’s always red lipstick.” I smiled. Big and red.