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Lipstick Politics: A Chat with Ilise S. Carter

September 20, 2021 Carla Seipp
September 20, 2021
Nathan Powers via Unsplash

Think lipstick is just another makeup item on the vanity? Think again. Not only were sales of the product up 80% and totalled $34.2 million in April of this year, constituting a massive chunk of the industry, but beyond the statistics, the cosmetic product holds much more profound and extensive significance. Ilise S. Carter made it her mission to follow the trail of bullets and glosses woven throughout American history, leading all the way to the present day, with an eye on the horizon of the near future.

Part historian, part beauty copywriter, part drag performer, Carter’s perspective is as multifaceted as they come. Her freelance resume includes The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Allure. As a copywriter, she has created content for the likes of Bliss and bareMinerals. When she is not busily typing away, Carter emcees and performs under the stage name The Lady Aye, eating fire and swallowing swords.

In her recent book The Red Menace: How Lipstick Changed the Face of American History, Carter takes a deep dive into the historical, social, and political significance of the beauty essential from colonial times until today. In her words, an exploration of how we became one nation under gloss. Each chapter begins with the shades of the decade, listing iconic products ranging from Clinique’s Black Honey and MAC Ruby Woo in the aughts, to the colored lip salve popularized by Martha Washington in the 1700s.

Amidst the release of her monograph, Carter sat down with BeautyMatter to discuss empowerment through consumerism, the legacy of Martha P. Johnson, and what makes red lipstick so enduringly iconic.

What inspired you to write about lipstick specifically?

I saw a call for pitches for a publisher, they do mini histories. And I was like, “Oh, wonder if anyone's ever done lipstick for them.” It popped into my head and the more I thought about it, the more I thought, this is a whole book. I am very into micro-history and nonfiction, and it struck me as a really good way of looking at not only women's experience, but the American experience. It was a really good lens to look at, and so much deeper than I had initially assumed.

You have a degree in American Studies, and industry insight as a copywriter— what was your unique perspective on it because of that?

With my concentration in American Studies, I have this great interest particularly in studio films and Adrian costumes [Adrian Adolph Greenburg was a prestigious costume designer for hundreds of films during Hollywood’s Golden Age]. In the beauty industry, I've been working for different companies for years, but almost a bigger influence on me was being a professional performer and what burlesque legend World Famous Bob calls a “female female impersonator.” We're coming more into a generation that understands gender as a construct. That was a big thought it all went back to: the different ways we ask women to present themselves, to realize themselves, and to some extent, who they are and who they want to be. When I get into drag, I really start to feel my power, and to be heard, I think for a lot of people, it’s really empowering. Not to say all beauty messaging is positive, but it can be such a powerful sense of self and a sense of fulfillment.

I especially saw that when I got into researching World War II. I couldn't believe it, it's so insanely American. It's this form of propaganda, the Axis countries specifically forbade makeup. A woman who was part of the Aryan ideal was this clean-scrubbed beauty, and in contrast some Allied women are like, “We’ll wear as much makeup as we damn well please.” When you think of Rosie the Riveter, that ‘40s pin-up, you think of that red lip, and it really was in all the advertising and propaganda. Morale building is such a part of World War II, normalizing the workforce for a generation of women who suddenly are wearing overalls instead of aprons and dresses. And in some ways, it was absolutely oppressive. One of the first pieces I found in my research was a newsletter from Manzanar internment camp, which was a Japanese internment camp. They stated, “We know how to make you feel better, go down to the general store and pick yourself up a new lipstick.” We are stripping these people of all rights of citizenship, imprisoning them, and saying a lipstick could really improve your mood. It's insane.

It's just a very interesting dichotomy and runs the gamut of everything. I found it such an incredible lens of the history of America and the history of gender. I hate to say women, because there's so many men involved, whether you're talking about Max Factor or RuPaul.

How did that cosmetic item play a cultural role in America versus other countries?

The title of the book derives itself from our fear of communism. At the height of the Cold War in the ‘50s, when female Americans would venture over to the Soviet Union, one of the first questions was: Do they have lipstick? That became this thing of, “It could be worse, you could be living in a Soviet block and not have lipstick.” They did have lipstick, but it was of lesser quality and hard to come by. A lot of Soviet critics railed against lipstick as decadent, but it becomes this symbol of the triumph of capitalism and would you even be female without your lipstick. It's like Coca-Cola, something we bring with us as soon as we hit a foreign shore.

When we were reconstructing Europe on the Marshall Plan after World War II, sending lipsticks was a mark of our power—it's an empire builder both for good and for worse. Going back to World War II, American women would send care packages over to their British counterparts, and what would be a part of the care package? Nice underwear and lipstick. It's almost always a part of our campaigning.

What were the unique factors that made red lipstick become what it is? Why didn't we have a similar thing evolve around mascara, eyeliner, or any other kind of cosmetic product?

Initially red was easiest to make, the dyes were readily available, and so for years that was the color. For generations, we didn’t think of lipstick as self-expression; this is my shade, I'm a pink person or a nude person. Initially it was about recapturing that youthful flush. Up until the second half of the 20th century, it was less about standing out and more about fitting. There was a lot of social pressure in the advertising.

Red lipstick serves a lot of functions. One, it was easy to make, from ground-up beetle bodies. Two, it was what everyone was wearing. And it's such a statement, wonderfully unnatural in the best possible way. It has all these iconic moments. It's interesting if you look at the early ‘60s; the counterculture, like the fashion culture, completely rejects the red lip. They go the direction of this practically white, very pale pink. That was about rejecting the conformity and tradition of it.

There is a film critic I studied with, Molly Haskell, who says you wear the opposite of whatever your mother wore: your mother was from a natural or pink generation, you wear red, and vice versa. Red is such a sexy, bold color, it has become so fetishized. It's become the power color.

The hot shade in the ‘90s was a darker, or just insanely red, lip, but then you'll see more sedate ‘50s reds, sheer reds, glitter reds, more orangey reds. It'll change but stay in that family. I have read almost 300 years of beauty press now—every few years without fail someone says the red lip is back. And we shouldn’t do that because it never goes away.

What contexts, trends, or developments will be most relevant in the near future?

Americans don't respond well to any kind of deprivation, and often respond to scarcity or inability to wear lipstick with a huge, bold consumption of it. The year and a half of wearing a mask and the coming out of a nude lip trend, I feel like people won’t want anything subtle. A bright color is going to be the next thing that we're going to start getting back, away from that overinflated, nude, Instagram influencer lip. I hope that people are going to start discovering what suits them rather than the trends. That's my guess: red, pink, and purple lips are going to make a comeback.

This idea of the lipstick effect has come up recently, but obviously with the mask covering you aren’t going to buy a lipstick, even if it is an uplifting thing.

I'm not a believer in the lipstick effect. I'll tell you why: because it doesn't work out mathematically. Women buy lipstick in good times, women buy lipstick in bad times. The logic behind it is real, it's credited to [Leonard] Lauder but it actually goes back to the 1930s, the Depression. I spent about two years working for Wall Street firms, so I have some sense of how to read financial analysis, and it's not a good indicator. It sounds right, but there's no attachment there for it to be an actual economic indicator. But with the not buying lipstick for a year and a half, the industry is probably leaning upturn.

Something else you touched upon is gender as a construct. How will evolving ideas around fluid gender concepts influence how we view lipstick?

Drag is probably five minutes older than gender norms. I am old enough to remember Boy George and Adam Ant and when that was a big deal. Lipstick comes and goes for straight cis het men, but it's exciting to see a new generation be more open to the idea, and that it wasn't necessarily just for one small corner of the world. I recently did a lecture on lipstick and subversion. I was looking around and there are now huge [male representing] K-pop stars who are wearing a gloss. It's cool to see that even more mainstream brands like L'Oréal believe now that not every model is a white woman. There's so far to go, but seeing change start to come in, even if for some of the companies it is mercenary or about their bottom line, is still generally, very good. Huge companies like MAC are responding to feedback from their own employees and changing their slogan to All Ages, All Races, All Genders because that was more reflective and inclusive of what they're actually talking about. It's really interesting to see people adjust to that change in the market and culture.

What are your predictions for the rebound effect of being able to wear lipstick again? Are there any other evolving cultural roles for lipstick?

I was in a meeting yesterday with one of my clients, and they're talking about trying to do online live selling now, this very immediate form. With the influencer culture and how busy the market is, people are really filing down their message to a very fine point. That is going to continue. Makeup used to be drugstore makeup and department store makeup, which was either more modern like Clinique, or classic continental like Lancôme. It didn't get much finer than that. Now, people really want to see themselves in the company, whether that means more companies fronted by people of color, more companies that are sustainable, more companies that are socially active. That is really driving what the market looks like. Rihanna really pioneered that with Fenty Beauty—she’s the one to beat in terms of connecting with an audience, in terms of recognizing who your customer is, and how you speak to them in their language rather than having them come to you.

There was also a debate around nude lipstick, and how often that was associated with a fair skin tone. Nude didn't acknowledge all the other skin tone spectrums.

That's a question of not just going through your customer, but who's sitting at the table through “Not everyone who buys our lipstick looks like us.” It should be representation, not just in the market, but in the boardroom, design and development phase. Nude doesn't necessarily mean light pink or beige. And there is so much to be done in terms of who is sitting at the board table. I could not get over how few women sit at the head of boards. Even when you talk about it historically, yes there were Estée Lauders and Helena Rubensteins, but also Max Factor and Charles Revson who had founded Revlon. So many guys who were not that interested in female input. They're like, “I'll tell you what you like,” it was very much one of those old types of businessmen. Who is sitting at the table is going to make a huge difference going forward.

“It's very exciting to me whenever I can see someone sticking it to the man. If you can use lipstick for subversion, by all means do it.”
By Ilise S. Carter, Author, The Red Menace: How Lipstick Changed the Face of American History

Even in terms of the aesthetic developments or product preferences, that always keeps changing as well.

In a way the market allows it. That's the wonderful thing about lipstick versus hair color, which is also possible to change, but with lipstick you can change it every day, hell, twice a day, ten times a day, whatever suits you. It does allow you to change in such a quick, instantly satisfying way. You don't have to be one color or the other, it's not a permanent commitment, and even if you don't like it, unless you've bought a $75 Givenchy lipstick, you're not going to kick yourself for that. It's not a bad tattoo, or an uncomfortable pair of Louboutins. There is a great amount of fun in it, because you can cycle through stuff fast, it's part of its charm.

What were your revelations around the industry of lipstick?

Historically, the evolution of women of color in makeup could be its own book. There's so many interesting relationships. One company I was very interested in is Lucky Heart Cosmetics and they still exist to some extent, but what they did was cater to women of color. Max Factor, Maybelline, and everyone else didn’t do that. If you're talking about the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, you couldn't walk in the store and just purchase the lipstick, let alone one that was right with your skin tone. So a lot of them used the Avon model, door-to-door selling. It eliminated that pressure or pain of having to go into whatever the store was, and not being a customer who was wanted there. Madam C.J. Walker, and all the other entrepreneurs, developed their own lines because it just wasn't there. It is so reflective of American history, entrepreneurship, and business history.
There's that story about Elizabeth Arden giving out lipsticks to the suffragettes. I actually don't think that ever happened, but it comes up every election cycle, because we really want to link lipstick with women’s empowerment. It appeals to our sense of self and American love of entrepreneurs. The current industry can stand to learn from where we have fallen down and where we've had triumphs.

The sheer shock that was experienced by regular society when it came to men adopting those traditionally “female codes,” how that can be seen as such an act of defiance also remains interesting.

I was given a glimpse into the archive of the Gay and Lesbian Center in New York and I was able to feature one particular activist, Marsha P. Johnson. Depending on whose narrative you take, she was one of the people who kicked off Stonewall. She was trans, Black, a sex worker, outside the norm in every single way possible. For her, lipstick was literally a civil right. She was homeless and would go into Lord & Taylor or Bloomingdale's, and use makeup samples to make up her face in the morning. Seeing yourself in the mirror as “This is who I am and what I want the world to see,” at a point where it was illegal and cops would make you suffer for it, is an amazing thing. That is as much a part of American history as Rosa Parks saying “no” to segregation. She was declaring herself to the world. For current generations, being able to walk down the street as a trans person with my head held in broad daylight with lipstick on, she's one of the people that made that possible. It’s important to really understand that, and honor that act of subversion, a revolutionary statement of self, a defining act.

It's very exciting to me whenever I can see someone sticking it to the man. If you can use lipstick for subversion, by all means do it. For years the beauty industry told women you're not thin, white, pretty, enough. To take that message and invert it, to make it empowering rather than a burden is fantastic. I am not anti-makeup or anti-beauty industry, but that doesn't mean we don't also have to look at problematic elements, and who's doing something about it. How can we stage these little rebellions everywhere? Even if it's not Stonewall, turning consumerism into power is a big thing.

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