THERE’S nothing like a quick slick of lipstick to momentarily boost my mood. Little things, as the saying goes. Unfortunately, it was one of those little things — eye-shadow was another — that made my dear late mother-in-law slightly suspicious of me when we first met. An old-fashioned soul, she was probably worried I wore it only to entrap her son.
So when a friend who knows of my penchant for the odd and unusual sent me the following tidbit she found on social media, it resonated ever so slightly:
“In 1770,” went the odd item, “British parliament banned lipstick saying it had the power to seduce men into marriage, which was classified as witchcraft.” [sic]
Bad grammar notwithstanding (it was, of course, lipstick, not marriage which was classified as witchcraft), I was intrigued and had to find out more.
My research showed me not only was it true, but also that artificial teeth, false hair, iron stays, high-heeled shoes and “bolstered hips” were banned under the same legislation. Not only was the full penalty of the law — whatever that was — imposed, but any resultant marriage was declared null and void.
A paper written by third-year Harvard student Sarah Schaffer in 2006 — made freely available by that august institution’s Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard programme — produced more delicious details. According to Sarah’s paper, various lipstick status laws were formulated down the years to protect men, long pre-dating any laws concerning lipstick safety (which would, of course, have primarily protected women).
Lipstick, or lip rouge, could be devastatingly dangerous and contained all sorts of weird substances at different times in its history, including sheep fat, human saliva, highly lethal lead, crocodile poo, and extracts from potentially deadly poisonous plants. Gives a whole new meaning to the saying that you have to suffer to be beautiful, doesn’t it?
No such suffering seems to have troubled Roman empress Poppaea Sabina, second wife of the notorious Emperor Nero. The previously twice divorced Poppaea set out to captivate old Nero, who succumbed to her charms and married her in 59AD. A vain woman, Poppaea had around 100 attendants to “maintain her looks and keep her lips painted at all times”, says Sarah’s report: “Indeed, most wealthy Roman women had specially-trained make-up and hairstyling slaves, cosmatae, who were overseen by a headmistress of the toilette, the ornatrix.”
Those ancient Roman divas sound even worse than some of today’s spoilt-brat celebs.
But back to the 18th century ban, and the truism where there’s a will, there’s a way. Although cosmetic enhancement was illegal, the use of (mostly) subtle lip stains prevailed. By the end of the 19th century, and just as the largely joyless Victorian era was coming to an end, there was a groundswell of support for doing away with the ridiculous legislation.
It wasn’t only women who wanted the law overturned. “Artifice must queen it once more in the town,” wrote essayist and caricaturist Max Beerbohm, in his 1894 work A Defence of Cosmetics. Not that he was particularly on the side of the women, he just wanted them out of the way.
They had begun to take up sport, you see – the cause of Max’s alarm. “With bodily activity their powder will fly, their enamel crack,” he warned. “They are butterflies who must not flit if they love their bloom. Now, setting aside the point of view of passion, from which very many obvious things might be said (and probably have been by the minor poets), it is, from the intellectual point of view, quite necessary that a woman should repose. Hers is the resupinate sex. On her couch she is a goddess, but so soon as ever she puts her foot to the ground – lo, she is the veriest little sillypop, and quite done for.”
Luckily for this lipstick-lover and others I know, we’re able to choose how much, how little or even if we colour our lips, although as relatively recently as 1906 a couple of American states considered banning the cosmetic in case it poisoned any men who kissed the women wearing it! — Stevie Godson
(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch)