According to the well-known book of the same name, French women don’t get fat - but they do wear lipstick, and never more devotedly than now. As soon as the country lifted the majority of its mask-related coronavirus restrictions, sales of prestige lipstick increased by 35 percent when compared to the prior seven day period, according to market research company The NPD Group, who called the results a “spectacular increase.”
Spectacular, yes, and also indicative of just how wedded the French are to their rouge a levres. Even the words sound more seductive in French. There is scant possibility of the French ever abbreviating rouge a levres to “lippy”, as the British are wont to do. Where am I going with this? Why, I’m going with the idea that French women wear lipstick with a panache and fanaticism that we Brits could learn from. Well, I know I could.
Think of French women in lipstick and red is indubitably the first colour that springs to mind. The film world is fecund with images of French women with perfect red lips. The eighties had Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger (1983); the nineties had Isabella Rossellini in Death Becomes Her (1992), the early aughts had Eva Green in Casino Royale (2006), while in more recent years, red lips have been worn with seductive conviction by Marion Cotillard and Lea Seydoux, both in film and on the red carpet. Both actresses favour an ultra-matte red lip which looks indisputably French. Cotillard often wears Chanel’s Intense Matte Lip Colour in ‘Rouge Obscur’, a deep red shade, while Seydoux’s go-to is Lancome’s ‘Rouge in Love’, a tomato red hue.
Contrast these sirens with my own red lippy role model, growing up - The Cure’s Robert Smith - and I can begin to see where I am going wrong. By the time I had discovered Sade - a peerless red lip wearer who could hold her own against any French woman - alas, my own teenaged habit of going well over my lip-line was entrenched. With lip fillers and other cosmetic enhancements yet to become as commonplace as facials, the only way to achieve fuller lips was by virtue of your own shaky hand, and your willingness to go out looking as though you’d neglected to wipe your mouth after eating a jam sandwich.
Cack-handed and dire as my own methods were, it turns out that they may not have been quite as off-beam as I imagined. For, according to a slew of experts, the secret to achieving that perfect red lip so beloved of the French is actually to embrace a soupcon of imperfection. According to the creative director of Guerlain, Violette Serratt, French women love to blend the edges of their lipstick with their finger, to add a slightly blurred edge. Her Instagram feed (find her @violette_fr) proves that she herself is a strong advertisement for the technique.
Too nervous to use a finger when my dexterity with a lipstick already leaves a lot to be desired, I asked the makeup artist Florrie White for more pointers. White, who has tended to the faces of Rosamund Pike, Emily Blunt and Blake Lively, recalled a recent trip to Paris, during which she worked with Christine D’Ornano, global vice-president of Sisley, who turned up for the shoot already wearing the brand’s popular Rose Bolshoi shade. Expecting to touch up her makeup, White was surprised to note that D’Ornano demurred, saying that she preferred it to look more like a stain than as though it had been freshly applied. “She looked nonchalantly beautiful - perfectly French,” notes White, adding that she has copied this approach ever since.
How do we try this at home? White says there are two ways. “Either take a highly pigmented lipstick, apply it just to the top or the bottom of your lips, rub your lips together, then kiss the back of your hand so your lips are stained with a nuance of the shade but without obvious product showing on your lips. I then use the residue of the lipstick on my hand to add a matching blush to the apples of my cheeks. Otherwise, another favourite quick trick is to apply lip balm then draw out the colour of your lips with a lip pencil. Tease out the shape of your lips with the point of the pencil, and the balm will make sure you avoid any harsh lines. Your lips will look pronounced, yet not obviously painted - like you’ve just been kissing, or drinking red wine in a brasserie, ideally with a lover.”
Was a more French sentiment ever spoken? Immediately, I reassess my own lifelong relationship with lip balm. While I have no scientific or statistical evidence to back it up, I blame British women’s relative reticence with lipstick - or at least, my own - on our love of lip balm, a devotion which seems to start at primary school and which we never quite seem to shed, no matter how old or sophisticated we become. Show me a British woman without a tin of Vaseline rattling away in their handbag and I’ll show you a woman with French genes.
In her rehabilitation of the humble lip balm, White is definitely on to something. The makeup artist Christophe Danchaud, who works with Marion Cotillard, also uses cult Aussie lip balm product Lucas’ Pawpaw ointment on the actress’s lips to create what he calls “a sexy texture”. Is this the way for British women to achieve chic French lips: by combining their beloved Vaseline with their favourite red lipstick? “I like to believe that all French women carry their favourite shade of red lipstick with them at all times,” says White. I do not doubt it. The next time I pack my handbag, I’ll pop Mac’s Ruby Woo in with my Carmex and expect to be kissing by lunchtime. Or at least, look like I have been.