I have this thing for doors, especially those grand old Parisian coach doors. I often stand before them imagining the beauty that lies behind; they seem so guarded yet also alluringly inviting. If I’m feeling particularly confident (to withstand a potential scolding from a cranky concierge), I surreptitiously lean against them, hoping they creak open to reveal the secret world within.
My favourite Parisian door is in the Marais. Elaborately sculpted, it depicts Mars and Minerva, the god and goddess who bring to mind passion, rejection and war. Suitably, it’s painted a passionate shade of crimson, and the effect is a voluptuous pout of a portal, punctuating an otherwise classic façade like red lips on a demure face. If eyes are the windows to the soul, then surely you could argue that the mouth is the doorway to the spirit?
The word for spirit in French is esprit, but this can also mean wit, intelligence, liveliness or mind — or all of the above. Esprit in this sense is a particularly Parisian phenomenon — and a Parisienne one at that — and can be traced back to the 17th century, when the Marais was the cultural and social centre of the universe, when the most esprit-infused women hosted salons and the who’s-who of society, who would come knocking on those big coach doors, and spend an evening conversing over canapés and bandying about bons mots.
Parisian women at the time rouged not only their cheeks (a stamp of aristocracy) but also their lips, as though emphasising that they had something to say. Lip paint fell out of favour during the Revolution, and for most of the 19th century, too, when women were supposed to be decorative but also docile. Only the flashiest, brashest courtesans continued to lavish their lips in red, then considered a shockingly vulgar shade. Can you imagine the Moulin Rouge any other colour?
And then came the 20th century and a new generation of Parisiennes who proved that women could be the full package: sexy and smart and serious, with a whole lot to say. Think Colette, Coco Chanel and Sarah Bernhardt, who made bold lipstick their own. During World War II, Parisiennes wore red lipstick like armour, a badge of pride, painting on a brave visage in the face of adversity.
Red remains the usual Parisian lipstick colour du jour (the French word for lipstick is, after all, rouge à lèvres) although nobody does a smoky-eye-pale-lip combo better than a Parisienne (merci, Brigitte Bardot), and most French women now have a wardrobe of lipstick shades to rival their scarf collections (macaron-sweet pink; silk-slip beige; red-wine burgundy). But the red lip is their ultimate beauty classic, having been paired with the Dior couture gowns of the 1950s, the YSL Le Smokings of the 1970s, through to this day, when a Parisienne knows that the best way to set off her dark, sleek look of tailored jacket and slim jeans is with a dash of red lipstick. It doesn’t just say look at me, it says listen to me. It’s the doorway to her spirit.