Sali Hughes: ‘Red is so much more than a colour. It’s a state of mind.’

Red Lipstick is the Little Black Dress of beauty. No item sums up beauty so succinctly – if you had to imagine a make-up item, you would probably picture a red lipstick before foundation or mascara. Red is powerful, strong, smart, bold, sexy, lethally feminine and iconic (try to imagine Marilyn Monroe without her glossy, orangey-red lips – it’s not possible). It moves every outfit instantly up the dress-code scale, transforming jeans and T-shirts into appropriate evening wear. It brightens the face, giving it a strong focal point and allows you to skip the faff of complicated eye looks in the sweeping of a glamorous tube. The right red makes skin appear clearer and teeth whiter. Nothing has such glamorous, timeless appeal. It breaks my heart that so many women are scared to wear it.

Pretty HonestI’ve been wearing red lipstick since I was 13, when Miss Selfridge’s Doris Karloff crimson gave my weekend uniform of Smiths’ T-shirt, vintage Levi’s and Doc Martens some much-needed femininity without compromising my then-relentlessly arsey attitude. It is probably the only part of my make-up style that has remained constant throughout my life and I know I will never stop wearing it. Nowadays, I team red with practically anything- a sweater dress on a loafing day when I need a swift kick up the backside, in important meetings when I want people to know I am not to be screwed with, at parties that deserve some effort or just on days where I need the extra backbone that red provides. I don’t wear red every day – I’m too greedy to be monogamous, and besides it would make it feel less special. But there are times when only red will do. It’s a cheerer upper, a motivator, a game-changer, a weapon. Red is so much more than a colour. It’s a state of mind.

Sali lipstick

This is why I warn women not to obsess too much over their skin tone and hair colouring when choosing a red. Yes, finding a flattering red is half the battle, but before you can feel great in even the perfect one, you must first accept that there is a period of readjustment during which it is a mistake to flake out on grounds of self-consciousness. We are talking about two, maybe three evenings of increased self­awareness, where you wrongly assume everyone is  looking  at your mouth and thinking ‘oooh, you’re fancy tonight’; where you instinctively cover it, as though masking appalling halitosis, when all you are effectively doing is merely daring to be noticed. Please try wearing red on three occasions before making up your mind. If you still feel uncomfortable at the end of the third, bin it. But ifyou overcome the self-awareness, I promise you will love it forever.


I am nerdish about tracking down perfect shades. Last year I interrogated someone in John Lewis about where she’d found her perfect matte brick red (Kate Moss for Rimmel) and stopped an 8o-something lady behind Oxford Street to ask her about her gorgeous retro scarlet (Elizabeth Arden), then bought both the same day. But finding your staple red is really not that hard. Here’s how.

As a general rule of thumb, the paler the face, the orangier the red should be. Cool, blue-based reds are more flattering against dark skins. Not that this means the very white can’t look cool in blue-reds and the very black can’t look amazing in orange-reds – rules are there to be broken. But it’s wise to follow this basic one for your first red. You can always experiment later when you’re firmly on side.

Think about finish. Lipstick is a broad church, ranging from the sheerest red tint or gloss to deep, creamy, dense matte. If you are very nervous of red, or if your work dress code forbids, then go for a stain, worn in one coat and blotted well with a tissue. Otherwise, a good first red is a satin-finish lipstick. This is neither glossy nor matte, but somewhere in the middle. It’s grown up and chic, keeps lips comfor­ table and soft and contains enough pigment to make a statement.

Do you want a pure pillarbox red, or a more muted tone? Brick reds and cranberry shades can be very pretty and soft and are often closer to one’s comfort zone than the pure crimson of a Chelsea Pensioner’s coat (my preferred shade). They are good gateway reds – a few months’ wear and you will probably want to go brighter.

Avoid sparkle. Frosty reds can be effective on certain party looks, but they have no business calling themselves red lipstick. A proper red has no glitter, no frost, no sparkle. If you really must have glitz, then layer a sparkly red gloss over a red lipstick.


If you’re wearing foundation (unless you have perfect skin, red looks best with a good base), smooth it all over your mouth area and blot with powder.

Take a red or nude lip pencil and, starting on the top lip ‘V’, trace over the outline of your lips, top and bottom. Colour in the inner comers. This will stop your lipstick disappearing throughout the day. Lick your teeth.

Applying straight from the stick (which should be slanted, I don’t understand fiat lipstick nibs at all – the shape when new is there to help you. Don’t spoil it), stroke the point of the lipstick upwards into the lips’ V, on either side, then along the whole lips, with the pointed nib faced upwards and fiat against the skin.

Repeat on the bottom lip, from side to side.

Blot with a tissue, kissing it but not moving the tissue. Reapply as above.

Put your whole index finger in your mouth and close your lips around it. Pull it out slowly. This will remove any bits of lipstick that would otherwise stick to your teeth.

Touch up every three hours or so, depending on activity (more regularly if this is of an amorous nature).


On mouths with a very thin or no upper lip. Use a red gloss or tinted balm instead.

When you aren’t prepared or able to retouch at least once during the day. Worn-off red looks like you’re at the end of a big night out. It needs to look smarter.

With lots of dark, dramatic eyeshadow. Great in a Robert Palmer video, terrifying and ageing in person. Only drag queens and Joan Collins can pull this off well.

With tan blusher. See above.


Reapplication is a necessary part of wearing red. I say embrace it. Touching up one’s lipstick is a good look, especially when its packaging is a stylish accessory in itself (see also: face powder compacts, in the Beauty and the Career woman chapter). I always consider tube design when choosing a red before an engagement. Tom Ford, Chanel, Dior, Clinique, Elizabeth Arden, Givenchy, Guerlain and Estee Lauder all have boast-worthy tubes that look great pulled out of a clutch at a restaurant table.

Taken from

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    Taken from Pretty Honest.

    For more from Sali, check out:

    Date Make-Up and The Morning After

    The introduction to Pretty Honest

    ‘Saving the best for now’: an audio extract

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