A few weeks ago I was sitting in the foggy morning light in my pale blue bedroom, meditating, when a declaration bubbled into my head. ‘I’m going to wear red lipstick every day when the pandemic is over.’
‘Yes,’ I thought, even though one is not supposed to think thoughts while meditating. YES.
What better way to declare avid participation in the new world than red lipstick? When it’s safe to go out without masks, I’ll wear red lipstick. When we can be in crowds, exuberantly absorbing music and sports and food and culture with our friends, I’ll wear red lipstick. When it’s finally safe to travel again, I’ll stroll the streets in Umbria and Rajasthan, wearing red lipstick.
Almost 30 years ago, when my fiancé was killed, I decided not to buy or wear makeup (except lipstick) for a year. Every time I looked in the mirror I was reminded of the depth of my loss.
But now, when the time comes to take off our masks, every time I look in the mirror I want to be reminded that we are free. I want to hurl myself into our hopeful future, to declaratively embrace what’s ahead.
“The sudden streak of lipstick across the lips spells courage. . . . For one poignant moment, the little stick takes on the significance of the sword.” This text comes from a Man Ray photo essay in the November 1937 Harper’s Bazaar called “The Red Badge of Courage” , which I found in a delightful book, Red Lipstick, by Rachel Felder.
At 22, as I sat typing a letter on my IBM Selectric in the dingy, drafty upstairs offices at Christies on Park Avenue, my colleague Rachel came in and whispered about an amazing find. “It’s like wallpaper,” she says. “It just doesn’t come off!”
‘It’ was a new lipstick called Russian Red, made by a new company named MAC. This was 1985. MAC was brand new, only available at Henri Bendel on Fifth Avenue. I hustled over there and picked up a tube. I wore it nearly every day. I couldn’t afford designer clothes, but I could and did revel in that gorgeous red lipstick.
Twenty years later, in my early 40’s, on a girls weekend in Beverly Hills, a wonderfully talented makeup artist for Shu Uemura talked me into trying something different. He put me in soft pinkish nude lipstick. I bought a couple of tubes of these disorientingly light colors.
Back home a few weeks later I got dressed in a white t-shirt and black skirt. I put on the light new lipstick and a pair of hoop earrings. Backing out of the driveway, I looked in the rear view mirror and stopped dead in the middle of the street. My face felt naked. It was so weird. Change is hard. But I embraced the change and Tom Ford Casablanca as the dignified choice for a woman in her forties.
I never threw away my red lipstick, and every once in a while I’d pull out my Ruby Woo, MAC’s retro formulation that’s the closest thing to the original Russian Red.
This winter, in the throes of the second pandemic surge, I found myself buying Fenty Beauty’s Ma’Damn and Pat McGrath’s Crimson Couture Lip Kit, both of which are about as useful to a woman in pandemic life as water skis are to a squirrel. I know that I’m aspirationally shopping, trying to catch a glimpse of life on the other side, trying to manufacture hope.
I am going to wear red lipstick every day when the pandemic is over. Until then, I am watching, waiting and looking for any signs of the delights to come.