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In this crisis hour, social media is keeping us entertained. Last month, a Facebook friend who lives abroad posted on her wall “Lipstick under my Mask…Must”. Another former colleague posted a photo of hers wearing a light brown lipstick and wrote “Lipstick after ages” using the lipstick emoji. Another FB friend in my list posted a photo of hers in a red lipstick bought in the midst of COVID-19.

Ever since humans have been forced to wear a mask as a precautionary measure against Coronavirus, the lipstick is facing an existential crisis. Its dirge has been sung. A visit to a leading cosmetics store in South Delhi on the occasion of my birthday in the first week of August revealed that sales have drastically dropped in the past few months from April to July. The salesgirl in charge of the Lakme counter, Babita Chauhan, informed that customers are showing a preference for nail polish and eye makeup. 

In this new world order, makeup lovers may find solace in eye shadows and nail varnishes, but these hardly equal the lipstick in status. In fact, lipstick addicts will agree that a dash of lip colour in bold reds, pinks and oranges, or even demure shades like peaches, browns and nudes, instantly lend sophistication, mystery and glamour to our everyday look. After all who can forget Marilyn Monroe’s bold red lips voted the most iconic beauty trend of all time.

A powerful statement

The lipstick is a cultural icon and stands for women’s sexuality, sensuality, desire, ambition and even femininity. In fact, references to the lipstick have been repeatedly used in writings and in cinema to convey important suggestion about women’s liberation. While Agatha Christie talks about the modern women in the throes of great social transformation in post-war British society, there are constant references to the lipstick. In fact, in one of Hercule Poirot mysteries, the little Belgian detective, who is well aware of female fashion and beauty trends, suggests a particular shade of lipstick to a woman character. 

In Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar, in a scene which speaks volumes about female camaraderie, Madhabi Mukherjee, who plays Arati Mazumdar, tries on a lipstick urged by her colleague, the Anglo Indian Edith Simmons. Later, she wipes it off with her saree before entering the home, as middle-class Bengali women applying lipstick was unthinkable in the 1970s. In the film, the lipstick symbolises the heroine’s initial hesitance and then gradual acceptance of her role as a working woman.

The lipstick as the symbol of freedom has also been used in the Bollywood movie Lipstick Under My Burkha directed by Alankrita Shrivastava. In one of the initial scenes, the character of Rehana Abidi played by Plabita Borthakur first steals a lipstick from a mall in Bhopal and then applies it after discarding her traditional burkha. In the very next scene, she is seen wearing jeans and her bright red lips denotes a newfound confidence.

During my childhood, the lipstick was a forbidden thing lying in my mother’s dressing table drawer. Sometimes, when mum was not around, I would surreptitiously open and see the colours and even smell the beautiful pink bullet. Seeing my mother applying it before the mirror was enticing, but it was not for little girls, as she constantly reminded me. 

Walking down the streets wearing one’s favourite lip shade with the wind playing in the hair is one of the best moments many of us can think of. But sadly this is at stake with masks covering our faces.

Will lipsticks survive?

So, is it the death of the lipstick, one of the most potent weapons denoting self-love and strength? As masks in various colours adorn the shelves of shops, the lipstick has been eclipsed, temporarily going out of view. But the desire to apply it remains as strong as ever.

In my reply to the Facebook friend, I told her that I hate to see my lipsticks lying idle in makeup boxes. So, I am unabashedly wearing lip colours at home and also beneath masks. After all, one can still post pretty pictures wearing them on social media, isn’t it? Maybe many of us are thinking the same with Chauhan revealing over the phone a week later that lipstick sales are picking up slowly. 

Though the lipstick made its appearance by the end of the 19th century, in the 20th century it became popular, especially in the West. The powerful, sultry and seductive red lipstick, which was associated with prostitution and loose morals, became one of the symbols of the Suffragette movement which demanded women’s right to vote.

Over the years, the lipstick has witnessed countless revolutions. From matte finish to glossy to creamy textures, the colour palette has also undergone dramatic changes. Apart from the classic red, one can choose from bold pinks, neons and fuschia to dark wine shades and even black.

All said and done, the mask cannot defeat the lipstick forever, though it has certainly been covered up for the time being. When the scenario improves, it will be back with a vengeance and triumph over the current adversity. As lipstick fans themselves are proving that life without the super bullet is unthinkable.


Deepanwita Gita Niyogi is a Delhi-based freelance journalist.

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