The Most Iconic Lipsticks of all Time 

red lips with iconic Rouge Dior 999 velvet satin

A symbol of glamour on Marilyn, of feminism on the Suffragettes, of provocation on David Bowie, and even an indicator of economic health. Lipstick is the iconic beauty item of empowerment that best encapsulates the spirit of every era

red lips with iconic Rouge Dior 999 velvet satin


By Silvia Manzoni. Cover image: Courtesy of Dior

It even has its own celebratory day: National Lipstick Day on July 29. And it deserves it. This product possesses a magical aura unlike any other cosmetic. It can translate charm, seduction, and express provocation or freedom. Refresh all the most iconic lipsticks of all time.

A bit of history about iconic lipsticks evolution

Some trace its origins back 5,000 years to Mesopotamia, where it was made from hard stones reduced to powder and later replaced by a paste made from red seaweed. Cleopatra is said to have worn it when she seduced Caesar, launching the carmine colour trend with orange, magenta or even midnight blue being preferred at the time. The first moulded lipsticks resembling the ones we use today are believed to have been invented by Abu Al-Qasim Al-Zahrawi during the Islamic Golden Age. Elizabeth I famously wore lipstick, not just for looks but because she thought it had magical properties and warded off death. She made her own bright red lipstick using cochineal, Arabic gum, egg white and fig milk. During the Inquisition, wearing lipstick was banned for women, and in 1777, the English Parliament passed a law allowing women who wore lipstick in public to be punished by burning at the stake like witches. The first lipstick in a stick form was created by Guerlain in 1870 and was called ‘Ne m’oubliez pas’ (Don’t forget me).

Ne m’oubliez pas by Guerlain is the first lipstick in a stick dated 1870

Empowerment in red: from suffragettes to Elizabeth Arden

A few decades later, red lipstick became a symbol of female empowerment with Elizabeth Arden. In 1912, thousands of suffragettes marched in front of her New York salon, which had opened two years earlier. Arden was an advocate for women’s rights and gave out tubes of bright red lipstick to protesters, who wore it in solidarity as a symbol of rebellion and independence. In 1941 and throughout the war, red lipstick became a requirement for women enlisting in the U.S. military. Elizabeth Arden launched “Victory Red” and Helena Rubinstein her “Regimental Red.” U.S. government approached Arden to create a specific lip and nail colour for servicewomen, resulting in the creation of her “Montezuma Red”, which perfectly matched the uniforms and their red outlines.

Victory Red is the shade of red created by Elizabeth Arden in 1941

Lipsticks in times of economic downturn: what is the Lipstick Index

In more recent times, Leonard Lauder, chairman of Estée Lauder’s board of directors, recognised its importance for the economy as well, introducing the concept of the Lipstick Index: in times of economic recession, lipstick sales tend to thrive, outperforming sales during more prosperous periods. This phenomenon signifies a form of indulgence that remains affordable during times of crisis, allowing consumers to enjoy a small luxury even when they have to cut back on more expensive items.

From runways to red carpets: how iconic lipsticks conquered the world

And if you want to identify great makeup artists, you should start with the lips: Val Garland (L’Oréal Paris) and Violette (Guerlain) never go out without red lipstick, which has become their signature. And so do Lucia Pica (Byredo) and Gucci Westman (Westman atelier). It can also occur that lipsticks are even featured on the runway. It happened with fashion makeup artistry star Pat McGrath, who created a series of lip looks ranging from glamorous to subversive, worn proudly and mischievously by mannequins at Louis Vuitton’s Croisière 2025 fashion show in Barcelona.

Backstage make-up moment retouch at Louis Vuitton Cruise 2025 in Barcelona

Iconic lipsticks in music culture

Rouge also became a language of provocation and rebellion on the lips of pop and rock stars, definitely inspiring entire generations.
David Bowie – The great pop star was known for his bold and flashy makeup choices. One of his most famous looks was captured by photographer Diego Uchitel in 1991 in Los Angeles while the musician was on tour with Tin Machine. In the image, Bowie can be seen sporting striking red lipstick. According to the photographer, “After working with David a few times, I asked him what we could do differently, and he simply said, ‘What if I put on red lipstick?’” Apparently, he was inspired by an ordinary man in a business suit he saw casually strolling around Lausanne, Switzerland, wearing bright red lipstick. The rest is history.”

David Bowie Polaroid by Diego Uchitel taken during a 1991 photo session with Tin Machine in Los Angeles

Madonna – “I remember it was early 1990 when Madonna and I went to the MAC store in Canada to pick out colours for her,” says Joanne Gair, Madonna’s makeup artist for the “Blond Ambition” tour. Madonna chose the highly pigmented Russian Red as her lipstick colour for the tour that would begin on April 13, 1990.

Madonna wore the Russian Red shade lipstick by MAC as a trademark of Blond Ambition Tour

The Rolling Stones logo – In the early 1970s, the band was preparing for a major European tour and wanted a distinctive symbol to represent it. While out for a walk in London, Jagger saw a depiction of the Indian goddess Kali. The icon’s outrageously open mouth immediately caught his attention. Irreverent and extravagant, this image, reworked by John Pasche, a young student at London’s Royal College of Arts, exemplifies the British band’s nonconformist spirit. When completed, the originally monochromatic design was immortalised in red, a colour synonymous with passion and love. Some fans believe that this half-open, voracious mouth was actually modelled after the band’s creator, Mick Jagger.

Other famous examples include the Cure’s Robert Smith (MAC’s Ruby Woo), Marilyn Manson (who always used MAC Diva), Boy George (he changed several, but the Makeup54 disco lipstick in the colour Jerry, dedicated to the legendary model Jerry Hall, remains the most famous) through to Taylor Swift, with a dazzling red, Elson, with a hint of blue, or the bright Forbidden Love, both from Pat Mc Grath’s Kiss Proof line.

Lipstick & Movie Icons

Marilyn Monroe and the Ruby Red For one of her most famous films, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the star requested a custom-made lipstick. The makeup artist layered different shades to achieve that distinctive red everyone later tried to imitate. Off-screen, Marilyn used Max Factor’s Ruby Red and Guerlain’s Rouge Diabolique, colors that are no longer available. However, the Besame brand attempted to recreate this shade with Hot Red, the result of research into the lipstick the actress wore in Some Like It Hot.

Audrey Hepburn and Revlon in Breakfast at Tiffany’s The scene of Holly touching up her lips in the cab captured the imagination of every fan. In this scene, as well as others in Blake Edwards’ cult film, Audrey wears a delicate and very elegant salmon pink: Pink in the Afternoon by the American brand Revlon.

4 best-selling iconic lipsticks that define generations

Rouge Dior Lipstick cut out product

The Rouge Dior 999. Rouge Dior is a legendary product in both the fashion and make-up worlds. It was launched in 1953 and constantly improved, even tested on film sets to ensure it looked great under artificial lights. The most iconic shade is 999, a shimmering, complexion-brightening red that embodies Monsieur Dior’s vision well. 999, available in matte or satin finishes, is still the world’s best-selling lipstick today.

Guerlain’s Rouge G 214 Flame Red. Rouge G was launched in 2009 under the artistic direction of Olivier Echaudemaison as an expression of quintessential luxury. The formula contained ruby powder, and the case was designed by Lorenz Baumer, a famous jeweller. The lipstick features a built-in double mirror for convenient application anywhere and has a subtle vanilla scent. Today, you can customise the tube by choosing from a range of offerings, some of which are quite precious. The iconic colour is 214, Flame red, which embodies the perfect Parisian look.

L’Allure Chanel Pirate. Coco Chanel urged women to wear lipstick to struggle with disappointment and spleen. “If you are sad, if you are in love pain, put on makeup, put on lipstick and attack,” the designer repeated. This idea of boosting self-esteem inspired the creation of the first lipstick in 1924. In 2006, Rouge Allure was introduced, a lipstick that deeply moisturises the lips with sweet almond oil. Its signature shade? The glamour-filled Red of Pirate.

Ruby Woo by MAC. Adopted by many stars, indomitable and provocative, the MAC Lipstick Ruby Woo that was launched in 1999 was actually the result of a formulation ‘accident’. In the atelier, MAC was trying to modify the formula of the brand’s top-selling scarlet shade, Russian Red (which Madonna famously wore throughout her Blond Ambition Tour in 1990) to make it softer. People did not like the texture, but the new version of Russian Red, slightly less opaque, brighter and more dynamic, became a legendary colour in its own right.

You might be interested in…