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The History of Black Lipstick

From Maori tattoos to the golden age of Hollywood, from David Bowie to being considered a "disruptive force" in schools, black lipstick has been around much longer than Hot Topic and the Kardashian Krew.
Illustration by Kat Aileen

Few things make as big of an aesthetic impact as a swipe of black lipstick. Says influential Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto on the color itself, "Above all, black says this: 'I don't bother you--don't bother me.'" It's for this unapproachability that the color is so thoroughly associated with counterculture and club looks and has become an unspoken part of the beauty lexicon. You want to look hot? Wear red lipstick. You want to look hot and scary? Pick up the black tube.


From Egyptian Mummies to Maori Mortality

The first recorded reference to black lipstick comes from Egypt, at around 4000 BC. Egyptian women in this period aren't afraid of color or beauty: They wear green eyeshadow, blue-black lipstick, red rouge, henna on their feet, and accent their breasts and nipples in blue and gold. They even had their own makeup kits--lipstick was painted on with a wet stick of wood and archeologists have found wooden boxes used to store makeup pigments--ancient Caboodle cases, if you will. Men painted their lips, too. And appearance was a top piority not only for the living but the dead: Women were regularly buried with two pots of rouge in their tombs.

Inscribe yourself, so you have a friend in death.

A few thousand years later, blackened lips appear again, this time amongst Maori tribes in New Zealandin the 1700s. Maori tattoos in New Zealand are considered by some to be one of the first instances of black lipstick (or at least, adjacent to the idea of black lipstick, since it is a more permanent approach). Maori consider the head the most sacred part of the body, and tattooing has long been considered a rite of passage and a sign of social standing; Maori tattoos on women have historically been centered around the mouth, mostly in dark blue and black. It went out of fashion in the 20th century, but Maori people have revived it in recent decades. The Maori have a saying about their tattoos: "Taia o moko, hei hoa matenga mou." According to Dr. Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, a Maori woman and scholar who has written extensively on the subject, it translates to mean: "Inscribe yourself, so you have a friend in death." Death and beauty have long been pals.


Hollywood Heyday

If you can't live forever, your work (and beauty) still might be able to. The sparkle of Hollywood in the 1920s saw black lipstick, too, though more for reasons logistical rather than symbolic. This is the era of Mae Murray, Clara Bow, and Max Factor: old-school film sirens and the makeup artist that helped make them stars. In this context, black lipstick came about as a way to fix a problem with movie lighting. At this time, makeup was primarily heavy greasepaint and was typically used in theater productions, and Factor, a Polish Jew who immigrated to the United States in 1904, came up with a more blendable version in primary colors, calling it "flexible greasepaint."

Read More: The History of the Fedora

With it, he redrew contours and lines onto the face for contrast on film, which, being only black and white, required a different process from the theater's brash, colorful facepaint. The color he used for redrawing "bright" red lips on film? Black. All these film heroines were painted up like living grayscale. It was around this time, specifically because of Factor's involvement in celebrity and Hollywood, that the beauty industry in America blossomed. With black lipstick a fundamental force in his arsenal, Factor invented the term "makeup." (If his name sounds familiar, it might be because you see the modern cosmetic products on sale in drugstores or beauty supply stores.)


Tarry-eyed and Totally Kiss-Proof

While black lipstick continued to be popular in film for decades, the color did not become a common household staple for some time (though it did become more readily available).

One of these later moments of black lipstick notoriety in the mainstream happened in 1927. This was the first recorded introduction of indelible, transformative lipstick. Brands introduced lipstick that changed from the bullet to your lips. The most notable came from the French brand Rouge Baiser, in the form of their Black Lipstick: an indelible ("kiss-proof") formula that changed from black in the tube to red on your lips. They evidently lasted forever. So wearproof, in fact, they were eventually pulled off the market. The line originally came in six shades, with only the deepest looking black on the stick. These were pricey for the era-selling for five times the cost of other lipsticks on the market ($5 compared to $1). Later, cheaper black lipsticks debuted from brands Tattoo and Tokalon.


The idea for this iteration of black lipstick comes from Paul Baudecroux, the chemist behind Rouge Baiser. The dye used in the lipstick was oil soluble, making the bullets look black, but there isn't enough free oil on the lips, so the makeup leaves behind a red stain rather than the deep red-black of the lipstick in the tube. The same kind of gimmick is used today in mood-changing lipsticks and cult favorites: just look at Lipstick Queen's "blue" lipstick, Hello Sailor, and Givenchy's Rouge Interdit Magic Lipstick-not much has changed since this invention.


Just two years after the introduction and popularity of Rouge Baiser's black lipstick, Vogue shouts out black lipstick… or rather, shouts it down, in an article called "Discoveries in Beauty" that claims "even the young are now agreeing that black lipstick and beautiful Russian-spy perfumes are pretty ridiculous."

Even the young are now agreeing that black lipstick and beautiful Russian-spy perfumes are pretty ridiculous.

That didn't stop film actresses from wearing it on camera, of course. The very same celebrities featured in Vogue still wore the hue regularly on set. In a Hollywood biography about the industry in 1948, actor Richard Board recalls Gloria Swanson wearing black lipstick on set. "I was amazed that the women wore black lipstick. I mean black, black like tar."

Bowie, Biba, and The Craft

It was about a decade later that black lipstick went from public disapproval in Vogue to becoming a sellout shade on the high streets of London. In the 1960s, the iconic brand Biba becomes the arbiter of all things beauty, with gold, blue, purple, and black lipstick on every cool girl around. Lisa Eldridge has some great videos of vintage Biba cosmetics put to work, so you can see just how pigmented and rich the brand was at its peak. Lou Reed was a big fan of Biba's black lipstick; Helmut Newton shot the campaigns; David Bowie was a store regular. Besides black lipstick, the brand had a deep dark brown hue-their first lipstick, actually, and it sold out instantly. Dark lipstick had finally made a mark on the public.


After the Biba girl came goth, which is perhaps what black lipstick is most known for now. In 1977, Manic Panic releases their first black lipstick, Raven. It's a semi-matte shade and is worn quite differently than in the era of Biba: rather than paired with a rainbow of shimmering, pastel, and jewel-toned clothes, goth girls prefer a deathly pallor.

They get what they want, and a lot of it, when Hot Topic first opens its doors in 1988. They begin selling lipstick catered to the goth crowd immediately and never stop. They don't just sell black, but blues, dark greens, and half-white tubes. Around this point, even drugstores had their own black greasepaint sticks during Halloween season.

In 1977, Manic Panic releases their first black lipstick, Raven.

Eight Halloweens later and black lipstick comes out of the Halloween aisle and into the mainstream beauty market once more. In 1996 Urban Decay launches with 12 shades of nail polish and ten shades of lipstick--one of them in black, called Oil Slick. It was sold until a few years ago, when they revamped their lipstick packaging and formulation, though you can still find it sparingly, on eBay, much like everything else precious and rare in the world.

1996 is also the year The Craft comes out, inspiring moody teens around the world to aspire to join covens and wear black lipstick while hexing those who have wronged them. The Craft effect is real and palpable--shortly after the release, black lipstick becomes considered a "disruptive force" in schools. A pre-teen girl attempts suicide after being sent home twice for wearing black lipstick, and her story makes the New York Times. (She survived and transferred schools.)

Not So Deadly After All

It is almost exactly a decade later that black lipstick returns to a less tragic platform of social commentary. In 2008, YSL launches YSL Gloss Pur Black for fall, sending models down the runway in black wigs and black lips.

From this point onward, black lipstick is more or less always a point of conversation in beauty communities. It's no surprise then that in 2013, MAC releases their own black shade for Black Friday, capitalizing both on the niche obsession with the color and the most shoppable day of the year. It's a limited-edition color and sells out instantly.

Now, you'll notice black lipstick is pretty much everywhere: I mean, if the Kardashian Krew is wearing it, you can safely argue that it's not so niche anymore. That's the thing with alternative identities: they get adopted and made into something entirely different. Culture eats culture and spits it back out, an undying monster. It's fitting that black lipstick is so connected to rebirth and the afterlife, considering how many lives it's gone through. No longer must goths journey to obscure punk venues and possibly hitch a ride in their mom's minivan to a fabled suburban Hot Topic: Instead, they may simply wander into their local Sephora or bodega for a quick pick-me-up of angst in a tube.