Book Review: The Red Menace

Book Review: The Red Menace

Thumbnail image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay

By Kathy A. Megyeri 

In honor of National Lipstick Day, here’s a bit about the history of red lipstick:

The myth: In 1912, cosmetic genius Elizabeth Arden gave lipstick to the suffragettes as they marched down New York City’s 5th Avenue. They loved the lip color as it helped bring attention to their voting demands. Formerly associated with sex workers, brightly colored lips then connoted rebellion and eventually became an essential part of every lady’s beauty regimen. 

The facts: Although Arden did march once with the suffragettes, her impact then wasn’t that radical. But ironically, The Great Depression of 1929 spurred a radical growth in the sales of cosmetics, partly because the industry made their products indispensable and necessary to being female. This was not the time to go without make-up when one’s own future depended on a well-painted and attractive face. 

In 20 years, lipstick became as accepted and as necessary as toothpaste or electricity. Lipstick also became as obligatory and expected a product specifically marketed to women, thanks to mass media’s push to “emancipate women and make them desirable.” For the new generation, lipstick represented “the modern aspirations of economic independence, self-expression and sex appeal.” But its mission also was to promote the ideal of women who were “white, effortlessly flawless, upwardly mobile and young.” 

Image by Huy An Nguyen from Pixabay

As portrayed in the movies, women were encouraged ”to smile, be brave, be determined, and be entertaining and delightful.” When in the 1980s, women entered the professions and were pressured to look competent and professional, make-up was really encouraged. NASA even put together a make-up kit for Sally Ride, the first woman in space, assuming she’d wear a full face of make-up for her historic shuttle flight, but she never wore it. Then, in the 1990s, performers like RuPaul and Courtney Love created a powerful impact on lipstick styles and trends. 

Red Menace: How Lipstick Changed the Face of American History” author Ilise Carter knows of what she speaks because she is a consulting copywriter to the beauty industry. She’s written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Allure with a focus on pop culture. For over 10 years, she’s been a consulting copywriter for beauty brands like Avon, L’Oreal and Madame OJ Walker, so she excels in branding and product identity. 


She’s also a performer and holds a Bachelor of Arts in American Studies from Columbia and a certificate in Film Production from New York University. She packs this book with facts about the history and impact of lipstick’s meaning in culture, commerce, advertising and beauty standards. Best of all, she shares a survey of the most popular lipstick shades decade by decade for us fashion and make-up devotees. 

But the book isn’t all fluff. It’s a scholarly study with 18 pages of notes and a 10-page index.  And according to author Carter, lipstick is part of one’s identity, self-expression and portraiture of freedom and/or rebellion which makes it a multi-billion-dollar industry as a necessary female accessory.   

Thus, “The Red Menace” is a delightful and entertaining history of lipstick from early times to the present and will impress readers about the importance of a little tube that not only helped define the middle class but built Fortune 500 businesses. Lipstick has been both a witness and part of America’s history. It went to war with women, it gave Black women new business opportunities, and it helped promote celebrities in the mass media. 

In the 20th century, lipstick went from being a beauty secret for only a few to absolutely essential for well-dressed women while at the same time, it was a mark of rock n’ roll rebellion and a political statement. It’s remained important because the classic red lip is linked so inextricably to our gender and is so tied to the history of beauty culture. We appreciate its impact when every female celebrity launches her own beauty line and features a particular lipstick. Tonya Hurley, New York Times author, calls the book a “fascinating story of how America came to be ‘one nation under gloss’.” That says it all.