This season’s best-dressed lips won’t be seen without it. Our correspondent charts the eternal allure of red

It was Christian Dior who said, 'I adore this red, for it is the colour of life,' referring to his first lipstick: a deep ruby shade he named '9'. For red was Dior's lucky charm, and one that he would impart to women as part of his New Look – the iconic style that saw women throw off the shackles of wartime privation and revel in the glamour of voluminous skirts, nippy waists and a triumphant slash of red on their lips.

In fact, tones of scarlet, vermilion, crimson, coral and carmine have always conveyed a frisson of rebellion. Consider the crimson lips of a Twenties flapper, curled around an illicit cigarette in an act of delicious defiance. Remember the pin-up pout of Marilyn Monroe, or the subversive scarlet worn by Debbie Harry in her punk days. Red surely captures the thrill of our emotional extremes. And now this little black dress of beauty is back with a vengeance for AW14 – in an array of shades and modern textures – acting as a code for our feelings today.

Pout power
'Throughout history, red lips have paradoxically represented female power, subordination and transgression,' says Hannah Dawson, a social historian and philosopher whose talks for The School of Life include one called Living by the Rules. 'In today's digital world, where we can feel we're under surveillance, this revival in red coincides with a wider social desire for renewed control and individual liberty.'

So to this season, where red plundered references from a century or more to capture what MAC's director of make-up artistry Terry Barber calls 'the inherent contradiction between female fragility and power'. At AF Vandevorst and MaxMara, MAC's bestselling red lipstick shades Ruby Woo and Lady Danger were dusted with fuchsia loose powder, lending lips the softness of unfurling rose petals. Pair with this season's blush-free skin and a long curved brow for just the right hint of Daisy Buchanan shimmying the night away at one of Gatsby's decadent parties. If adding 'rouge' to your knees as those naughty flappers did before kicking up their skirts seems a jot too risqué, let's not forget the daring of Elizabeth Arden, who in 1912 created her first red lipstick and participated in a march of 15,000 suffragettes.

Red lipstick is like a little shot of confidence

The siren shade
What makes it all the more interesting is that just a few decades later, red had moved on from championing female emancipation – for it had worldwide glamour and sex appeal in its sights. As beauty legend would have it, Marilyn Monroe – the ultimate poster girl for female sexuality – required no less than three different red lipsticks to sculpt the curves of those plump, juicy lips. That Elizabeth Arden's were among her chosen reds will come as no surprise once you've tried the brand's creamy Beautiful Colour Moisturising Lipstick in uncompromisingly bright Neoclassic Coral, a colour that makes you want to throw caution to the wind. 

'Red lipstick is a short cut to unleashing potential. It's like a little shot of confidence in a bullet that sends a message of self-assurance to the outside world,' muses Poppy King, founder of the Lipstick Queen range, who remembers pilfering Biba reds from her mother's dressing table as a child. These days she subverts the traditionally formal connotations of a red lip by wearing it simply with a crisp white shirt, jeans and impeccable loafers when roaming the streets in her home town of Manhattan.

That female curves and red make perfect bedfellows is of course nothing new (one suspects that a certain Mr Louboutin, with his arching red soles, has known it all along). For curvaceous Cupid's-bow sculpting, a pencil will serve you best. Outline and fill yours in with NARS's Satin Lip Pencil in the cranberry-like Mandore, then add a dot of pearly gloss such as Chanel's Lèvres Scintillantes in Rose Rêvé to the centre for a spotlit plumping effect.

Ruby rebellion
But just to say that red is womanly would be far too straightforward. Recall Yves Saint Laurent, who subverted gender roles with his 1966 'le smoking' tuxedo for women – a look that has been revived again and again, with the addition of renegade red lips. How apt, then, that the latest offering from the Saint Laurent house – Rouge Pur Couture The Mats in Red Rhythm – contains 'spherical powders' and silk oil that cloak lips in an intense red with a delicate sheen, conveying strength and vulnerability simultaneously.

For the night owls among you, refer to Anjelica Huston circa 1975 when she accessorised that fringed glossy bob with a shiny burnt-red lip – and a suave Jack Nicholson. Backstage at Matthew Williamson, make-up artist Lisa Eldridge described her 'ode to Huston' lip as the colour of a chocolate cherry – oozing mystery and daring. Two coats of Lancôme's L'Absolu Rouge in sheeny metallic Rouge Preciosa, followed by lashings of clear gloss, is all you'll need for this edgy red.

Whatever your style, there isn't a red for everyone – you'll need several in your crimson closet because, as King says, 'Versatility is what makes red lipstick so endlessly alluring.' And just like Mr Dior, she's a firm believer in its talismanic properties. Which is why she always carries a red – or three – wherever she goes. Just in case.

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