The controversy of red lips at the turn of the century is an interesting one. In the late 1800s and very early 1900s, Western women who took to making up their faces were considered to be of loose morals, either someone whose profession involved the stage or a prostitute. According to Mimi Mathews, author of A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty, “Queen Victoria herself denounced make-up as being ‘impolite,’” and this continued the established Victorian belief that makeup was a low form of trickery and/or sinister vanity. The Manet painting below of the courtesan Nana caused an uproar at the time of its reveal. Not only is she in her underclothes within her boudoir, she is unabashedly applying makeup.
These associations with makeup began to change in the 20th century, albeit slowly. Prior to this time, lip color was applied by brush and would have been difficult to apply outside of the home. Due to the negative connotations with its use, if applied at all, it was done privately in the home and in natural colors that would not draw attention. Certainly not a bright red lip color! It was also not mass produced, so for the few brave enough to wear lip coloring or a lip salve, they would have concocted something at home (or their maid) and applied it as a paint. In the mid-1800s, they would have boiled suet (cow or sheep fat from the loin and kidney area) and lard with alkanet chips, and later in the 1890s, recipes using oil of almonds, wax, spermaceti, and alkanet root were used. Varied recipes existed and changed throughout the years, but were always some combination of wax, oil, and color.