Are You Wearing Lipstick, Rose?

There was a remarkable interview with the great novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard (once daughter-in-law to Scott of the Antarctic and formerly Mrs Kingsley Amis) in the Times recently. Among other interesting observations she talked of her friendship with Charlie Chaplin’s widow, Oona, who apparently possessed the largest collection of lipsticks in the world. How extraordinary and wonderful is that! And how did Oona know hers was the most extensive? I feel men are missing out on something unique here: for the price of a bottle of spirits a girl can buy an item that is considerably more than a mere cosmetic.

I used to sell alongside a woman who sported printed silk cocktail gowns to work and who in youth had doubled for Loretta Young. She always said as she painted a wide generous mouth, “you can make up your face as you please but without lipstick, it’s nothing; lipstick is the signature that completes the picture.” If you’ll notice, most “candid” photos of celebrities “without makeup” rarely show the sitter reluctant to pose with a naked mouth. Karen McLeod, former doyenne of Arden and Guerlain, and a treasury of information on this subject, tells me “Lipstick is the most versatile and most womanly of all cosmetics: mood-enhancing, life-changing, it lifts the spirits, boosts confidence and morale. Thoughtfully chosen and expertly applied it flatters your eyes as well as your mouth, gives spirit and life to your whole face…”

Something of the transmutation of this power seems inherent in the well-known sign-off of leaving a triumphant, dismissive or abusive message scrawled in lipstick on a mirror. As it may be, Dietrich’s dismissal of Cary Grant’s attentions in Blonde Venus; or journalist Evadne Price’s scornful autograph across Hitler’s bathroom glass – beneath which another war reporter, Lee Miller, had so recently bathed in the Fuehrer’s tub. Writing with lipstick is almost as powerful as writing in your own life-blood but conveying authority and confidence rather than despair.

And the colours! the rainbow of colours from nude transparent pink and 1960’s white, through taupe, pillar box red, plum, chocolate and black via that tarty 1930’s favourite tangerine which looks so irresistible with a dark honey tan and matching painted toe nails. Which brings us to Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice and her lipstick rolling across the floor to John Garfield’s feet in a challenging gambit and a wildly mixed metaphor of sex. And here’s another thing: lipstick lost none of its impact in black and white movies . Think of what Vogue called Joan Crawford’s “bow-tie mouth”, Bette Davis’s thickly smudged omission of the cupid’s bow, Mae Murray’s bee-stings and Katharine Hepburn’s oblong quivering inverted grimace. The drama, the gloss, the gleam and the punctuation of lipstick worked long before Nathalie Kalmus and the Technicolour consultants arrived on the scene. For along with eyeshadow and mascara, cinema had birthed lipstick, even before Theda Bara stickily mouthed “Kiss me, my fool”. Women had coloured their mouths for millenia but the lipstick is a favourite child of twentieth century Hollywood.

So now I’m sitting in the garden smelling a rose which is the exact shade of strawberries mashed up with cream; and which smells of sugar, raspberries, tonka, vanilla and just, ever so faintly, of a very expensive lipstick warmed on the mouth – some olfactory reference whether real or imagined to pollen, honey and beeswax. And I’m amazed, yet again, at the cunning and chutzpah and beauty of Ralph Schwieger’s Lipstick Rose perfume which breathes out all these scents, and maybe more. Schwieger’s fragrance also succeeds eminently in evoking a very precise sense of colour: impossible that it be crimson, cream or scarlet – it is inescapably a brilliant, shiny satin pink – close to Schiaparelli. Pink, that most uplifting,relaxing and calming of colours. A Gertrude Jekyll or Queen Elizabeth rose, exuding the vibrant powerful perfume of a glorious summer morning when the dew has gone but the sun not yet too high: fresh, fruity, intoxicating and overwhelmingly feminine.

Lipstick Rose is young, like the morning: upbeat, happy, vivacious. In the best sense it’s naïve and innocently sexy, without being coy or shy. Frank is maybe the best description – and with a great sense of humour. There is a hint of a lipstick print about it too: that most intimate souvenir traced on a Kleenex, a cocktail glass, a cigarette, a picture. In 1972 we came up from school (despite the headmaster’s grave misgivings) to see Dietrich on the London stage: she shimmered at the Stage Door in shocking pink and gold Balenciaga with lips to match – my best friend had the wit to ask her to wipe her mouth on a photograph and I was pea green with envy for lightning did not strike twice…

And there’s more. The shine and sheen and aldehydic glitter of the fragrance makes one think not only of the gloss on the mouth, but the elaborate metal casing of the lipstick, the lacquered black, gold or silver which gives out such a satisfying click, like the snap of a handbag clasp – a click like an amen: the contents safe, a mind made up, a life put temporarily back in order,a face painted, composed and ready. With this thread Mr Schwieger cunningly leads us into thinking of an expensive and beautiful purse redolent of suede, make-up, powder, perfume and perhaps a fresh linen handkerchief. Like a conjurer with a silken cloth, he makes a pass in the air and seemingly without effort offers his perfect Lipstick Rose.

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