A Visual Marker for 2021? Bright Lipstick



I recently found myself wondering how this virus might impact the way Americans dress. Based on historical examples of fashion being influenced by the economy and pandemics, it seems there are two ways this could go. Our fashion could either become wild and celebratory, or stark and conservative. So which will it be? I predict a middle-ground will emerge in the form of bold lipstick.


The change in trends following the 2008 financial crisis were pretty severe. While the early 2000s were all about ostentatious displays of wealth such as logos plastered on clothing, it became unfashionable to show off expensive clothing following the recession. Even the First Lady made a point of re-wearing expensive outfits. In 2001, Leonard Lauder of cosmetics brand Estée Lauder coined the term the "lipstick index" to describe the way sales of lipstick increase during a recession. This did not hold true in 2008 for lipstick and his theory has been discredited, but economic researchers have found that makeup sales do generally increase in a recession, just not lipstick specifically. The "nail polish index" and "mascara index" have been suggested as better terms.


Why does the makeup industry do so well in bad economies? There are a couple of possible reasons. One theory promoted by some researchers is that women spend more on improving their looks because finding a wealthy man is more difficult. Another explanation less tied to gender stereotypes is that some makeup products are small luxuries that are more affordable than new outfits. In recessions, people tend to spend their money on higher-quality wardrobe staples they can wear for a long time rather than passing trends that will be thrown out. As a consequence, style tends to get a bit boring. Minimalism took over in the 2010s, a trend which is admirable in its environmental-consciousness but isn’t all that interesting visually. When you’re trying to save money on clothes by purchasing more versatile items, it’s makeup you turn to for self-expression.


The recession jumpstarted by the coronavirus and its impact on the makeup industry are a different story. First off, we’re staying home and wearing less makeup. People still wear some makeup on Zoom calls but they're not dressing up for any parties. Second, the practical aspects of some beauty trends are influenced by the Personal Protective Equipment we wear to prevent the virus’s spread. You can’t wear lipstick with a mask. Men’s beards have gone out of style for the same reason. The long, dramatic nails that were so popular just a few months ago can't be worn with plastic gloves. With salons shut down, being able to get your nails or hair done is not an option. The one thing you can do? Wear eye makeup. Even back in January, fashion publications were already predicting that bright, wild eye makeup would be a big part of 2020’s makeup trends, and the makeup on shows like HBO’s Euphoria had begun inspiring viewers to experiment with eye makeup.

Going into 2021, with the virus’s second wave hopefully over and lockdown restrictions lifted, we will go out again. Some articles have predicted that we will never abandon our new best friend, sweatpants. Others have predicted the opposite: that we will be in a collective celebratory mood and we’ll be eager to dress up again. Plenty of people have expressed an interest in permanently working from home even after the pandemic is over, and for them, going out will be an even bigger deal. Everyday events will have more significance, and I’m sure there will be plenty of parties.


Another time when the world dealt with a pandemic and came out the other side ready to dance? The 1920s. Following the depressing events of World War I and the 1918-1919 flu epidemic, people wanted to live large again. The result was the Roaring Twenties. Another similar historical example is the Renaissance. Opulent clothing became even more important after the Black Plague ravaged Europe.

It seems we will come out the other side of this ready to dress up and celebrate. However, unlike in the 20s and the Renaissance, we’ll still be in the middle of a recession and fashion will reflect this as well. So what’s a girl to do?


The answer is all about lipstick. This June has seen many LGBTQ Pride festivals cancelled and bright, dramatic makeup is usually a staple of these events. After being unable to wear lipstick with a mask and having emphasized eye makeup over the last two years, I believe people will eagerly return to bright lip color. With lipstick, people will be making up for lost time. The 2010s had two main trends in lip color: the matte neutrals seen on the likes of Kylie Jenner and the natural looks which were part of "no-makeup makeup" looks, generally not very exciting trends in terms of visuals. Bright lipstick is a natural follow-up. As the recession takes its toll, lipstick will become the dominant form of everyday self-expression. I believe bold lips will become a visual marker of our post-COVID world.