In a season of insipid pastels, there's something timeless and compelling about bold red lipstick. It's the makeup equivalent of the trumpet fanfare. Can red lipstick really make us more confident, or is it all in our heads? Lifelong lipstick devotee, Mandy Lehto, explores the mood-boosting, trend-defying power of the red lip.
"Am I doing this right?" asks Emma, 42, a healthcare worker, as she applies her first slick of MAC's Russian Red lipstick. "Wow. It's bright," she says, a little wide-eyed, as she steps back surveying her reflection.
I've convinced Emma to participate in an experiment I'm conducting. I've asked her to wear red lipstick for a week to see how it makes her feel, and how others respond to her. For someone who doesn't wear much makeup, it's a big ask.
She inspects herself for a good few minutes and says, "Well, it's definitely bright (another pause, another turn of the head). But I like it. I feel like a secret agent," she adds mischievously. She snaps the lipstick case shut, and heads to a dinner party with an air kiss and a skip in her step.
Your first scarlet pout - do you remember it? That moment of transformation, for better or for worse? Mine, if you don't count playing with my mother's makeup, was at a Laura Mercier counter many years ago. The makeup artist applied a take-no-prisoners crimson to my lips. "It's an instant pick me up," he assured me, winking.
It was indeed. I had never looked so bold and switched on. Walking home, I felt like my lips were strutting five steps ahead of me. Everyone was staring - or so it seemed. For a moment I felt empowered by the attention my red lipstick was getting, then had the sickening thought that it must be smeared across my teeth. As a red lipstick virgin, I felt too conspicuous, not having the chutzpah to carry it off. I wasn't used to standing out. 5 baby wipes later, I was 'me' again. But my fascination with the super-charged lip was born.
The Red Lipstick. That beauty product that's a state of mind as much as a cosmetic. That instant glamouriser and hangover cure. That complex elixir that has the power to turn a mouse into a minx with a simple sweep. It's sexy, yes. But the power of the red lip is as much about meaning business in the boardroom, as it is in the bedroom.
"Red lipstick is a about feeling confident and capable," says make-up artist Victoria Barnes. "It's a great tool in the boardroom, or for public speaking, because it makes your mouth such a focal point. Red lipstick works if you really want to be listened to."
Emma, my lipstick experimenter, agrees. A few days into her fieldwork, she rings me: "Initially, I wasn't sure about wearing red lips to work. But there is something to it. I definitely felt more confident in meetings this week. And my teeth look very white." I ask if the lipstick itself makes her feel braver, or if it is simply amplifying her inner confidence. "I'm not sure," she responds. "It's like the red lipstick ups the ante. It says, 'I'm here.' So I'd better live up to it."
It seems red lipstick can help us to exude confidence and power. But there's also an overtly sexual element to the red lip. Studies confirm that red lipstick draws attention to the mouth, especially from the opposite sex. Scientists at the University of Manchester tracked the eye movements of 50 men while they viewed different images of women. The research determined that men spent most time fixated on a woman's lips when she was wearing red lipstick (7.3 seconds). Pink lipstick captured the viewer's attention for 6.7 seconds, and no lipstick for 2.2 seconds.
A French study found that waitresses wearing red lipstick received tips 50% of the time from male customers. Waitresses wearing pink, brown or no lipstick were only tipped 30% of the time. When asked about their tipping behaviours, the men were unaware of being influenced by their server's appearance. Interestingly, wearing red lipstick made no impact on the tipping habits of female customers. Translation? Red lipstick will clearly get you noticed, especially by the opposite sex.
"My red lips have definitely made me feel more sexual," Emma says of her red pout. "I'm more aware of how I walk and what I say," she adds. "And I'm getting comments on my lips at the school gates - people are asking if I've just come from work. They're saying that I look well, and that red suits me. In general, I'm getting more eye contact from men, which is a confidence boost. My lips have become conversation starters."
That's great, if you can handle the attention. Style psychologist, Kate Nightingale, says "red lipstick can boost your confidence. Because the colour red is associated with confidence, sensuality and power, wearing red lipstick can induce those feelings in us." In a recent poll of 1,000 women, conducted by the British Heart Foundation, 26% said red lipstick boosted their confidence.
"However, if your confidence is low, wearing red lipstick can have the opposite effect," Nightingale notes. "It can make you feel vulnerable and out of place." Which reminds me of my first red lipstick encounter, that I clearly wasn't yet ready for.
In my work as an image consultant, I see first hand the transformative power of lipstick. Yet so many of my clients regard red lips as the domain of the ultra-confident. "I wish I had the courage to wear red lipstick," is one of the most common things my clients say. Some have tried with mixed success.
Red lipstick tends to travel - onto teeth, tea cups, clothing and beyond the natural lip line. For a lot of us, that makes wearing it too risky. The fear of being so conspicuous, or indeed of having a lipstick malfunction, is simply too high.
"It's too sexy for work," says Laura, 38, a corporate communications consultant. "And way too high-maintenance when you're busy all day. For an evening out, maybe. For work, no way." Admittedly, red lipstick is the stiletto of the make-up world. Many women prefer lip balm, the Ugg-Boot equivalent.
Another of my clients, Michelle, 50, a corporate finance expert, is a self-confessed red lipstick aficionado. Like Dita von Teese, Michelle won't leave the house without her trademark red pout. Because she doesn't have much time to get ready the morning, she feels it pulls her look together. "It's my way of looking like I've make an effort, without really having made one. My bright lips make me feel confident to face the day."
Emma is finding the same thing with our Russian Red experiment. "I don't need to do much else - just a little foundation, a slick of red lipstick and I look put together. 5 minutes, tops. What's not to love?"
Another plus - the red lip never dates. "It is a cosmetic statement which remains classic, yet modern; bold, yet timeless, and can bring confidence, power and renewed energy to a woman," says Tony Glenville, Creative Director of the London College of Fashion.
A bold lip can be the busy (or lazy) girl's way of looking fashionable. There's a red for every woman, depending on your undertone, and what finish and texture works on you. The key, as Glenville points out, is to "keep the shape clean and strong." If in doubt, opt for a matte finish, which makes the red lip look ladylike, but still playful. Gloss sexes it up.
Anna DeVere, formerly of Elizabeth Arden, now at Colour Me Beautiful, says "During World War II, Elizabeth Arden created a red lipstick for American women serving in the US armed forces to help them feel confident and powerful." That attests to the confidence-boost of a red lipstick.
It still holds true. Red lipstick is a way of saying 'I care about how I look.' It's about making a confident statement, without necessarily following a trend. The red lip is old Hollywood, but it's also eternally of the moment. That's why red lipstick can work so well if you want your look to say something, but don't want to follow fashion. There's also something confident about defying trends - making a statement doing your own thing.
All In Our Heads?
Emma's red lipstick week is over. I ask what she notices about her confidence levels. "Applying red lipstick meant taking 5 minutes for myself. You can't just slap it on. Applying bright lipstick with a brush, over a lip pencil - it's a deliberate act of self-care. That has made me more self-aware." She reiterates her increase in cheekiness and taking things less seriously: "Red lipstick gave me that nudge to be braver. When I tried my neutral beige lipstick after the experiment, it looked flat and lifeless. I felt drab."
Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner, psychologist and author of You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Say About You, says 'there is the chicken and egg question when it comes to red lipstick: is the person who wears the red lip more daring, or does she become that way because of the external reinforcement after the fact? We will never know." This brings to mind Gwyneth Paltrow's quote: "Beauty, to me, is about being comfortable in your own skin. That, or a kick-ass red lipstick."
I ask Emma if red lipstick is a 'forever' look for her? "I like who I am when I'm wearing it, so yes, I'd keep it up. Maybe not every day, but I know what effect it can have. Red lipstick definitely makes me more confident - maybe it's all in my head, but who cares? It works."
How to Wear Red Lipstick, By Make-up Artist, Victoria Barnes
1. Too bold? Try a sheer version, rather than a full-strength opaque red.
2. Keep eyes minimal. Stick to mascara and neutral shadow to avoid looking overly made up. Red lips look best when the rest of the makeup is clean and fresh.
3. Smooth surface. Prime the lips first - red lipstick needs a good surface to adhere to. Red doesn't work on dry, chapped lips.
4. Rediscover Liner. Use a lip liner around the edges, and then fill in the whole lip before applying lipstick. This stops lipstick from feathering and gives it lasting power. Red pencil intensifies the colour. A nude pencil keeps it lighter.
5. Own it. You need to wear the lipstick with confidence, or it will wear you.