When I slide into my car and swipe on my favorite lip shade — a hot pink dubbed “Blooming” by Clove + Hallow — I know full well that I’ll be putting on my face mask in a few minutes. In March, this realization would stop me in my tracks.
But ten months later, in mid-December, I've turned a corner and embraced more than a few things that March me would find … strange. Smudged face masks be damned, I’ll never quit lipstick.
I would say I’m more of a lipstick evangelist in the middle of a pandemic than I was in the Before Times. Before March, lipstick was reserved for special occasions. Date Night me would bust out the fancy lipstick, while Errand Running me would use something tame like a tinted lip oil.
But now, I’ll take any chance I can to inject a little glam into my day. I wear lipstick whenever I want to, because I firmly believe that at a time like this, we need our little luxuries. Hot pink might not be well-suited for winter, but when I see my reflection after applying it, I perk right up. I even finally took the plunge and bought a red lipstick for the first time — I didn’t even try it on first (gasp!). My husband and daughter might not love the color on me, but what matters most is that I do.
I’m not the only one clutching my lipstick tube while I watch the world fall in shambles. Zoe Kravitz still rocks a crimson lip in quarantine, and even congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sports lipstick while wearing a tee and ponytail on her Instagram live streaming sessions.
Lynne Tanzer, an Atlanta-based creative, first fell for lipstick after seeing the 2005 comedy In Her Shoes, starring Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette as sisters who have to walk a mile … you know. As a plus-sized woman, Tanzer found it to be unrelatable. “I was like, ‘This is bullshit. Shoes don't always fit.’ But then the next day I remember going to the mall and putting on Yves Saint Laurent lipstick, and I was like, ‘This is what the movie should have been about. This always fits,” says Tanzer.
Tanzer has had more than one afternoon rendezvous with her favorite “obnoxiously red” lipsticks since being cooped up with her two kids since March. It’s a luxury item that she doesn’t have to feel bad about indulging in once in a while. “My Gucci lipstick was $42, which is so excessive to some people, but it might as well be a Gucci dress," she says. "It makes me feel sophisticated and pulled together."
The idea that women turn to lipstick in recessions, forgoing, for example, a Gucci dress, is one that has persisted for decades. During the financial downturn of 2001, Estée Lauder reported an uptick in lipstick sales as women stopped purchasing other luxury items. Then-chairman Leonard Lauder dubbed this supposed phenomena the “Lipstick Index,” or the Lipstick Effect. Instead of expensive handbags or shoes, he argued, women splurged on high-end lipstick. The theory has never been easy to prove, and it’s even shakier during a pandemic when people are working from home in sweatsuits or running errands with their mouths covered. Consulting firm McKinsey recently published a report that seems to squash the theory outright: Lipstick sales have decreased during the pandemic, while demand for nail polish and self-care products has increased.
Rachel Taylor, owner of the Atlanta boutique Fig & Flower, reports that the shop’s lip product sales are down 54% from 2019, despite the fact that previously sales had grown about 10% annually. Customers that venture into her store often wistfully remark that they wish they could still wear lipstick.
There are loyal customers who still buy their favorite shades, though. “Even me, working at the store with a mask on, I’m still usually trying new lipsticks and different shades just because it does make you feel more put together, and it's a little change of pace,” says Taylor.
While the overall number of people buying luxury lipsticks may have dipped during the pandemic, those of us who are still wearing lipstick are as enthusiastic as ever. Simone Xavier, co-founder of cosmetics brand Sigma Beauty, says that liquid lipstick remains a strong category for them, and that the releases of their newer shades, like peachy-nude Cor de Rosa, have still been considered a success. “The interesting thing about the Cor de Rosa launch is that it happened right in the middle of the pandemic, around April," says Xavier. "And inside the Cor de Rosa collection, it has sold really, really well for us.” Sigma’s other best seller is Temptation, a dark mauve.
Xavier isn’t surprised that people have remained steadfast in their love of lipstick. “It’s one of those products that with one swipe, you can really change your entire face,” she says. Unlike eye shadow which requires several steps, or blush which isn’t enough on its own, lipstick is a product you can put on and call it a day. “I think people enjoy it being so practical. Also the hydration feels good on the lips,” she says.
In Princeton, New Jersey, communications professional and writer Pooja Makhijani says, “The only non-essential things I've bought since March were a pair of jeans, a jumpsuit, a pair of shoes, and I think six tubes of lipstick,” she laughs. “So it's my guilty pleasure.”
Makhijani is currently smitten with Hi Wildflower's lipstick in Mati Rose Gold. “I don’t even know how to describe it, it’s just the most magical lipstick I’ve ever owned. And I love that it's independently owned by a queer person, and a brown person as well. So it's a brand that I'm really, really faithful to,” she says.
When Makhijani would go into her university job before the pandemic, she would keep her lip color choices pretty buttoned up. But now that she’s working from home, lipstick has become her morning pick-me-up. “I reach into this Mary Poppins bag of lipstick, and whatever comes out, I put on,” says Makhijani. “So in some ways, I think I’ve become more adventurous, because it’s just me and my mirror and it’s so fun.”
Though the days somehow seem to simultaneously drag and whir by, we know that pandemic-life won’t be forever. One day we’ll leave the house without masks on our faces. But for now, lipstick is the little spark that gives our day some much needed oomph. “There’s this pervasive sadness, and sometimes it’s just like, Oh, this is the little joy I’m going to have today. And that’s OK,” says Makhijani. “So it’s really fun to pull out a crazy pink or purpely purple and just have fun with it.”
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