Bread lines might have been growing and fascism was on the rise, but the paper of record had declared lipstick both a luxury and a necessity for American women hoping to participate in the economy in even the smallest way. The way the media addresses American women has changed dramatically since the 1930s, but the notion that lipstick is an investment in one’s own social and economic capital has remained intact. It has since become completely encoded in the culture and the economy. Even Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has touted her red-lip look as evidence that “beauty is political,” and a video showing her makeup routine has registered close to a million views in just days.
Markets rise and fall, but lipstick has been inextricably linked to women’s power, potential and identity through the constant work of the cosmetics industry and media. Whether sheer, gloss, pearl or matte, this one small product has been a symbolic and measurable constant of consumer and popular culture.
This idea has persisted into the 21st century. During the economic downturn of 2001, Leonard Lauder, scion of the namesake and chairman of the board of Estée Lauder, created the “Lipstick Index” as a forecasting method. Designed to explain trends in the beauty industry and give manufacturers of luxury goods an insight into how to protect themselves in lean times, the index speculates that lipstick is a small, achievable luxury purchase — the type that people continue to buy to treat themselves even when they stop spending on larger, more costly items. The index has revealed the power of lipstick even in the face of economic downturn.
It was not always this way. At the end of World War I, lipstick-wearing was still something of a rarity among American women because of its association with sex workers. But in less than a generation, because of the exponential growth of mass media (such as film, radio and magazines), advertising, changing roles for women and the popularity of the concept of modernity, lipstick was adopted as an essential item — much like electricity or toothpaste. It became part and parcel of the whole package of being a woman in public.
Through domestic journals, fashion magazines and newspapers’ daily women’s interest articles, the popular media established itself as the voice of expertise and aspiration and gave lessons to women of all races and economic levels on how to keep up with the latest, smartest and most necessary elements of femininity. Even the magazine Good Housekeeping, the bible of domesticity and respectability squarely aimed at White middle-class women, proclaimed in 1936 that “Beauty Is Part of Your Job” — at a time when fewer than 25 percent of women worked outside the home. The magazine’s beauty editor, Louise Paine Benjamin, advised women who were heading into the workforce that they should prioritize appearance. “When you get out your diploma and your references and set out to lay siege to the business world, you should also give some serious consideration to the impression you make physically. Don’t rely on personality and the fact that you were an honor student.” The takeaway was that looks matter, and whether you were working in an office or running a household you simply could not do without the polish of cosmetics; appearances have to be there, then you can have accomplishments or ambitions.
For Black women, who were hit especially hard by the Depression with approximately half of Black men and women unemployed by 1932, the pressure to make a good appearance was at least twofold: You needed be pretty to be employable, and pretty was a model based on whiteness.
In 1937 an article in the Black-owned New Amsterdam News chafed at the standard, saying, “Today, more than any time in the history of our race, women are becoming conscious of their personal appearance. Can we not inaugurate our own methods of procedure in our looks without using the hints put in the paper for women of the Caucasian race? By imitating the assets of other women, we are apt to lose sight of our own physical assets.” Beauty was, according to author Emmita Cardozo, still necessary for success, but its boundaries needed to be expanded. Regardless of race or class, the message was consistent: The story of women and their economic potential would be written in lipstick.
The perceived power of lipstick as a tool of self-worth, self-improvement and self-expression remains through today. There is now a wide offering of advice on how white- and pink-collar workers can tailor their looks for the new normal of Zoom meetings. Earlier this year, for example, Good Housekeeping again instructed readers how to put on their best professional face, albeit within the context of a frightening new reality and a more casual-minded generation. “If you’re feeling like you want to experiment with fresh beauty looks during your work-from-home stint (though we totally condone going barefaced — whatever feels right for you) keep in mind the rules of makeup change when you’re looking at someone through a screen.” In the world of beauty, some things change, some remain the same.
Yet lipstick faces an uncertain future in the wake of its newest and most unprecedented challenge: mask-wearing in the age of the coronavirus. In May, a cosmetics industry report from McKinsey & Company indicated that the change in consumer spending may be entropic with sales remaining strong, but changing shape to favor other items such as skin care or eye makeup. Given the shift, the financial media has already declared the Lipstick Index dead and floated the “Mascara Index” as a possible replacement. But given how central lipstick is to most women’s sense of power and persona, that casualty may be premature — especially, for a pocket-size item that has proved resilient to weather wars, economic down times, social upheaval and even Zoom.