Sally Feldman's page from New Humanist, May/June 2009Will you be applying Fire and Ice this summer - or Cherry Rain? Fabulous Rouge or Love That Red? If you're blonde you'd do well with an orange base - dark-skinned, and I'd advise hints of blue with a gold base. But whatever your beauty regime, you simply won't be complete without this season's hottest accessory: on the catwalks, in the high street, in board rooms and bordellos, mouths are going to be slashed with scarlet, grins gashed with geranium, every pout painted pillar-box red.

For red lipstick is a sign of the times - a glaring, glossy signifier of our cultural and economic plight. When times are hard, sales of lipstick go through the roof. This was an observation first made by Leonard Lauder, president of Estée Lauder, who developed his Lipstick Index after 9/11 when he noticed a massive rise in sales. He then found the same phenomenon occurred during times of economic downturn.

A survey of Depression-era households in America showed that 58 per cent of them owned at least one tube of lipstick compared to 59 per cent owning a jar of mustard.

But why do so many women resort to lipstick when times are hard? It could be a simple matter of recompense. If a Chanel jacket or a Chloe bag are out of your reach then at least get a small taste of designer luxury. But lipstick confers more than mere comfort. For many women it's a morale-booster, a reaffirmation of identity, a sealing of self.

In her book The Thoughtful Dresser Linda Grant quotes the diary of one of the first British soldiers to liberate Bergen-Belsen at the end of the Second World War. "It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived," he recalled. "This was not at all what we men wanted. We were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don't know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it. It was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick . . . At last someone had done something to make them individuals again: they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity."

It may seem absurd that in the face of appalling suffering women can be cheered by something as seemingly trivial as lipstick. But, right from ancient times, it has had a curiously powerful and abiding appeal. And of all the shades and colours and tints, from pale pinks favoured by hippy girls in the 60s to Gothic Black or Dallas cerise, red is the abiding favourite, the true benchmark colour that all devoted lipstick adherents most aspire to and return to. And part of its allure derives from its myriad and contradictory associations.

On the one hand, red lipstick means glamour, a status conferred by the original Hollywood starlets: Gloria Swanson and Lana Turner with their scarlet pouts, Jean Harlow's come-on curled lips, Bette Davis's crimson defiance. Max Factor capitalised on the passion for emulating the stars, creating such lipsticks as the Clara Bow Look, the Theda Bara Look and the Mae Murray Look.

The glamorous allure of red lipstick was taken to greater heights by Marilyn Monroe with her signature glossy pucker, reinvented and imitated by Madonna, then revitalised more recently by actresses like Kim Basinger in LA Confidential and Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, then redefined again by Scarlett Johansson, who has made red, full lips her hallmark.

Red lipstick, like all cosmetics, has its origins in idealised notions of youth and beauty. Full, red-blooded lips are a sign of health and fertility, so we paint our lips to preserve our youthful radiance, and these days we can go even further, injecting and filling our fading, drooping mouths cosmetically to enhance the impression of pouting youth.

But while red lipstick conveys youth and innocence, it is also a signifier of danger. You can always tell a fictional vixen by the shade of her lips. Where would the film noir or the whodunit be without all those telltale red lip stains on the cigarette butt or the wine glass betraying the sinister presence of the femme fatale? Red lipstick shouts sex, seductiveness, licentiousness. It's red as in red lights and red lampshades over the naked bulbs in seedy hotel bedchambers. It's the sign of the vamp and the adventuress.

Poppy King, who has made her fortune with her exclusive range of designer lipsticks, is acutely aware of red lipstick's metaphorical power. "A slash of red on the mouth has a clear relation to genitalia, sex and the menstrual cycle, and wearing it is a sign of female power," she says. "You leave your mark on the world."

The association of red lipstick with sex is hardly surprising, since the first users were harlots. They would redden their lips not only to heighten their sexual allure but also to display their wares, to advertise their availability. The sexologists Harry Benjamin and REL Masters claimed that lipstick-wearing originated in the ancient Middle East where prostitutes used it to show that they would perform oral sex: "Lipstick was supposed to make the mouth resemble the vulva, and it was first worn by those females who specialised in oral stimulation of the penis."

The association of lipstick with libido and lust is no doubt the reason why the world religions have tended to mistrust and condemn it. Islam is not particularly specific about lipstick, denouncing in general the application of cosmetics as a sign of wickedness and conceit. But you won't be surprised to learn that, at the height of its political power, the Taliban in Afghanistan banned lipstick, along with such pursuits as chess, guitar playing and fireworks.

Prohibition of lipstick has been far more consistent and strict, though, in the Christian world. In Medieval England lipstick was banned by the church. It was seen as an "incarnation of Satan" because the alteration of a woman's face challenged God's workmanship. Pictures of devils putting lipstick on women appeared often and sinners would admit to lipstick-wearing at confession. Some liturgical texts denounced it as a mortal sin. A 17th-century English pastor, Thomas Hall, declared that face-painting was "the devil's work" and that women who put brush to mouth were trying to "ensnare others and to kindle a fire and flame of lust in the hearts of those who cast their eyes upon them."

Part of this condemnation sprang from a fear of disguise and falsehood. Which was why, in 1770, the English Parliament passed a law condemning lipstick, stating that women found guilty of "seducing men into matrimony by a cosmetic means" could be tried for witchcraft.

By Victorian times mistrust had hardened into disgust. Lipstick was reviled as wanton, and condemned by the Queen herself as impolite. Yet by the mid-20th century it had been completely rehabilitated: no longer the garb of harlots, but the apotheosis of good grooming for respectable women.

The historian Kathy Peiss, tracing the emergence of the cosmetics industry during the last century, identified lipstick as the most potent signifier of a change in attitude whereby the trappings of prostitution were not merely sanctioned, but came to be regarded as an expected part of feminine grooming. By the end of the 1950s American women were spending $93 million on buying 62 million tubes of lipstick - a trend that was eagerly taken up in Britain.

Scarlett Johannson has made full red lips her hallmarkAt the vanguard of this change in perceptions was Elizabeth Arden - always the queen of packaging and promise. She was aware that although make-up had become widely accepted by the 1930s, lipstick was still viewed with a certain wariness - especially red lipstick. So, according to Lindy Woodhead in War Paint, an account of the lives of Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, she introduced a kit of seven colours promoted as "toning with your clothes", giving them glamorous names like Coquette, Victoire or Carmencita. Miss Arden toured the stores, accompanied by seven ballerinas wearing Isadora Duncan-inspired costumes in muslin, dyed to match the lipstick colours, and dancing on a revolving mini-stage to the music of the Gold and Silver Waltz, spotlit in pink.

Elizabeth Arden may have done her bit to rescue red lipstick from its sluttish reputation, but its associations with both harlot and housewife persisted for several years after her musical extravaganza. Kathy Peiss cites the example of a cosmetics firm which, in 1938, introduced two new lipsticks named "Lady" and "Hussy". "For nineteenth-century Americans, lady and hussy were polar opposites - the best and worst of womanhood - and the presence or absence of cosmetics marked the divide. Reddened cheeks and darkened eyelids were signs of female vice, and the 'painted woman' provoked disgust and censure from the virtuous. But by the 1930s, lady and hussy had become 'types' and 'moods.'"

The next wave of disapproval came not from the church but from its strange bedfellow, feminism. The radical feminist commentator Sheila Jeffreys, for example, roundly condemns lipstick as a mark of women's subjugation. Feminists should reject all beauty practices, she insists, because their purpose is to emphasise our difference from and inferiority to men.

"The creation of sexual differences through beauty practices is essential to affording to men the sexual satisfaction that they gain as they go about the tasks of their day from recognising 'woman' and feeling their penises engorge," she declares in Beauty and Misogyny. "Beauty practices show that women are obedient, willing to do their service, and to put effort into that service. They show, I suggest, that women are not simply 'different' but, most importantly, 'deferential.'"

She also warns of the physical dangers of lipstick, which, in common with most cosmetic aids, can contain toxic chemicals. And she has a point. Early adopters of lipstick experimented with some outlandish, sometimes grossly poisonous concoctions. Ancient Egyptians extracted purplish-red dye from fucus-algin, 0.01 per cent iodine and some bromine mannite, which could be fatal. Cleopatra had her lipstick made from crushed carmine beetles, with ants for a base. Queen Elizabeth I, who favoured a ghostly pale face slashed with crimson lips, was said to have invented her own recipe of cochineal blended with gum arabic, egg white and fig milk. But the most common ingredient of the time was cinnabar, mercuric sulfide, a crystal with a red lead base.

And lead seems to have persisted as an ingredient despite its dubious effects. A study by the US consumer group Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in October 2007 found 60 per cent of lipsticks tested contained traceable amounts of lead, one third exceeding the permitted limits for lead in sweets.

But these are still somewhat slight dangers, exaggerated for political effect by Sheila Jeffreys and like-minded disapproving feminists. What these critics fail to recognise is that women may enjoy wearing make-up not because they're unwitting slaves to the patriarchy, but because they feel empowered, even liberated by it. Lips may well serve as a substitute vulva, as the erotic location for kissing and sucking and fellating. But we also use them, probably even more frequently, for talking, shouting, exhorting, commanding, laughing and demanding.

Indeed, early campaigners for women's rights tended to regard lipstick not as a symbol of submission but as a mark of freedom, a bright red underlining of their ability to speak loudly and to be heard. In 1913 New York witnessed a huge demonstration of over 5,000 women demanding the vote.

"The march was a triumph," reports Lindy Woodhead. "Inez Milholland, a campaigner as beautiful as she was dedicated, led the parade riding a horse and marching behind were housewives, trade unionists and hundreds of female factory workers. The women, all dressed in white, made a strong visual as well as emotive statement: as a badge of courage they wore bright red lipstick."

Woodhead goes on to explain the gesture's meaning. "For the grandees it signalled they were able to wear lipstick because they now wanted to and they were not wanton women. Others were striking a blow against the deep, puritan ethic of 'anti-adornment' so prevalent then amongst American women."

Somewhat to the surprise of her staff, Elizabeth Arden left her salon to join the marchers as they swept past her window. She had never before expressed much interest in women's rights, but she was certainly interested in the society women who did espouse the cause. And no doubt the lipsticked procession must have seemed to her to herald the promise of a whole new market.

In both America and England, feminist campaigners publicly applied lip rouge with the express intent of offending men, a deliberate rebellion against male authority. It was only in the second phase of women's liberation in the 1970s that feminists urged the discarding of beauty frippery, seeing lipstick as a trap rather than a tool of assertion, and dismissive of the claims of "lipstick feminists" like Natasha Walter who argue that wearing make-up need not be incompatible with equality.

But, as Walter makes clear in The New Feminism, the pressure to conform to a single, unadorned, plain and dowdy version of the female image is as stultifying as the old sexist stereotypes. Women, she claims, "however they dress, however they make love, however they flirt, can be feminists. They do not want to learn a set of personal attitudes before being admitted into the club."

She goes on to cite numerous radical women - the barrister Helena Kennedy, the MP Barbara Follett, who founded Emily's List, Fiona Driscoll, chair of the 300 Group working for gender equality in Parliament - who, despite their feminism, enjoy looking beautiful, well-groomed or sexy.

Such women are too busy fighting for real equality, real rights, to feel guilty about their predilection for lipstick. While their predecessors in the suffrage movement might have used it as a gesture of defiance, powerful women today are more likely to emblazon their lips with scarlet as a seal of strength. "Blair's babes", if you remember - that army of new women politicians ushered into the Commons in the landslide Labour victory of 1997 - were characterised by their red jackets and bright red lipstick. And in Washington, red lipstick for a woman politician carries a similar status to the red power tie for men. Hillary Clinton conducted her entire presidential campaign in flawless red lipstick, and now uses it to underline the firmness of US policy in her role as Secretary of State.

Maybe a truly liberated, utterly equal woman shouldn't really need the prop of a glossy cosmetic. On the other hand, what's so very wrong with looking good, feeling great, getting a little boost, putting a bright face on a dismal world, and smiling a brilliant, sunny, strident, happy, kissable smile?