CHINATOWN AND THE PERFECT RED

To go out of the house without lipstick on is, as far as I’m concerned, to go out into the world improperly dressed. I don’t think twice about popping out to the local shops in baggy-kneed trousers and an impasto of henna concealed beneath a makeshift turban of chiffon and clingfilm. So long as my mouth has been anointed with Rouge Cubiste, I am armed and in control.

Once my lips have been given the once-over, I feel confident, capable of handling just about any crisis. If there were a fire in my house, I would probably pause to apply a slick of Love That Red, before grabbing the cat and my insurance policy, and diving for the exit.

It was when my vampire novel Suckers was published to what is generally referred to as “a mixed reception”, that I began to suspect lipstick was performing a function in my life that went far beyond the purely cosmetic. Instead of taking to heart the more vitriolic reviews (“Absolute drivel!” “Shockingly bad!” etc – most of these penned, I suspect, by writers upset that a vampire novel had got me included in a list of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists), I found I was using them as an excuse to go into Harvey Nichols and blow 20 quid on a tube of Kanebo’s Rose or Misty Akane. Somehow, it put everything in proportion. So long as I had an expensive new lipstick to play with, all was right with the world.

Pedants will tell you that the painted mouth was once the sign of a courtesan whose speciality was fellatio. But I prefer to think of lipstick as a mark of liberation, a brand of power, a sign of self-sufficiency. During a brief flirtation with radical feminism in the 1970s, I found myself faced with a choice: lipstick or dungarees. Are you kidding ? No contest: if lipstick and sisterhood were incompatible, then I’d rather tackle life as an only child.

Since my first encounters with the Rimmel make-up display at the hairdresser’s where my mother went for her perm, my relationship with lipstick has acquired a rich assortment of cultural, philosophical, and religious connotations. That ancient make-up counter bore more than a passing resemblance to an altar, with lipstick the most potent ritual implement.

It took me years to perfect the art of air-kissing—a gesture invented specifically for lipstick-wearers. I have learned to savour the blotting of a freshly repainted mouth on a paper napkin at the dinner table. And how can I begin to describe the Zen-like pleasure of that moment when you pull off the cap and the vacuum suction kicks in and gives out an immensely gratifying little “thunk”?

I embarked on this lifelong relationship capriciously, at a time when the fashionable shade was a whiter shade of pink. There followed several years of barely-there flesh tones and discreet auburns, all designed to blend and look natural. Then, in the early 70s, I saw two films that changed my attitude to lipstick forever.

Delphine Seyrig as Countess Báthory in Daughters of Darkness

The first was Harry Kümel’s Belgo-Franco-German (but primarily Belgo – I think Belgium can fairly lay claim to this one) horror flick, Daughters Of Darkness, in which Delphine Seyrig plays a 300-year-old vampire with a Marcel wave, long red fingernails and the most perfectly scarlet-painted mouth you ever saw – not a fang in sight. Lipstick, I realised, was not meant to blend in with the rest of your face. You had to flaunt it. It made a statement and perhaps, just perhaps, it hinted at decadent, neck-biting tendencies. Not for nothing is Daughters of Darkness known in French-speaking territories as Le rouge aux lèvres or Les lèvres rouges. Red lips.

From that day on, I revelled in the darker, more conspicuous shades and started to outline them in lip pencil. Those early days were dominated by Biba and Mary Quant – Posh Prune, Aristo Claret, Bordeaux and Mulberry. And it didn’t stop there. On dark party nights I dabbled in proto-Gothic chic, crossing the colour bar with Biba’s Black or Matisse Green.

The second film – as you might have guessed by now (the pictures are a bit of a giveaway) was Chinatown, a revisionist film noir and one of the best private-eye movies ever made, and as soon as Faye Dunaway made her entrance in impeccable femme fatale make-up, I was a woman possessed. Since that moment my life has been an Arthurian quest for the Perfect Red. I am doomed to wander the enchanted realms of cosmetics counters, my wrists covered with experimental scarlet smears like the hesitation marks of a would-be suicide.

When, many years later, I found myself actually interviewing Dunaway in the flesh, there was only one question I really wanted to ask. And so I asked it. She responded politely, but vaguely: “Revlon’s Fire and Ice?” But I knew it wasn’t Fire and Ice; I’d already checked that one out. Of course, the correct answer would have been that that precise shade of lipstick had never existed in real life, any more than the shades featured in lipstick advertising exist – they’re figments of filmstock, lighting and the cosmetician’s palette.

But in 1980, I thought I’d finally located the motherlode. Yardley’s Holly Red had it all: the plain pillar-box colour, waxy texture, evocative smell, and affordability. I wore it constantly. Other women admired it, inquired after my secret, and agreed I had hit the lipstick jackpot. Then – disaster! Overnight, and without warning, Yardley changed the formula. All of a sudden, Holly Red was slicker and less tenacious, a shadow of its former self. And I never even had a chance to stockpile. I still have a worn-down stub of the original Holly Red. Occasionally, I take the cap off and sniff it nostalgically, thinking of what we might have achieved together, that lipstick and I. It smells like an attic, but not a musty one – the sort of attic in which you would stumble across a chest containing a treasure trove of antique but eminently wearable garments in exquisite silk, lace and chiffon, all untouched by moth. The original Holly Red smells like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It smells like… Chinatown.

And so my quest was resumed. Thanks to Yardley’s perfidy, I have been obliged to graze in ever more exclusive pastures. I have explored the rich pickings of Chanel’s Rouge Extreme. I have kissed in Clinique, eaten in Estée Lauder, wrapped my laughing tackle around Lancôme. I have yet to find the Perfect Red but, as far as I am concerned, happiness is a new lipstick. The way I see it, wearing lipstick is the entire point of being a girl.

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in Elle (British edition) in 1993.

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5 thoughts on “CHINATOWN AND THE PERFECT RED

  1. Daughters of Darkness is one of the best vampire films I have ever seen for a multitude of reasons. The primary reason the picture succeeds is due to the amazing talents of Delphine Seyrig.

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  3. I bought Holly Red in my first year at university in 1967. It was THE Lipstick! I was grief- stricken when it disappeared. Nothing has replaced its texture or wonderful smell…….

  4. Aha, a fellow Holly Red fan. Perhaps if there were enough of us, we could petition them to bring it back. I still have that stub, and I still sniff it occasionally. It makes me feel wistful, no doubt now for all sorts of reasons. For me, it’s the madeleine of lipsticks.

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