11/20/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Lipstick Theory Blues

Shopping at the major department stores in the heart of New York City should never be a meditative experience. Sometimes it can be transcendental, yes- I can attest to a sort of fleeting runner's high induced by the abundant proximity of so many shiny pretty things all in one place. But never have I entered a department store in search of Zen.

It seems that now's the time though, to go shopping if what I am craving is a quiet getaway. Our spiraling economic crisis has decimated the conviviality of the department store biosphere, deftly ripping apart the delicate seams of its dreamy fantasies. What's left is a thick veil of perfume to cover the smell of sweat. Entire floors of designer frocks languish on their hangers yearning for bodies to fulfill them. It's a bit like Pompeii after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius- everything remains neatly in its place, waiting for business as usual, but the falling ashes blot out the sun, forcing survivors to scurry for more hospitable territory.

This is the moment when cosmetic companies smile. For now is the time when will women take comfort in the indulgent but relatively inexpensive pleasure of lipstick. " When lipstick sales go up, people don't want to buy dresses," says Leonard Lauder, Chairman of Estee Lauder Cosmetics. Lauder is credited with the "lipstick theory" which suggests that the economy can be read by the rise and fall of lipstick sales. Indeed, he should know, since Lauder's Leading Lipstick Index tracks their team of brands, which account for roughly half of the prestige cosmetic sales in the U.S., and includes well know labels like Clinique, Stila, Origins, Bobbi Brown, Prescriptives and MAC.

Lipstick, which dates back at least 5,000 years, has often colored significant moments in history. Cleopatra had her lipstick made from crushed carmine beetles for a deep red pigment that used ants as its base. Bright red lipstick became popular as the 1920's ushered in the successful mass marketing of makeup to the U.S and women gained the right to vote. Marilyn Monroe's 1950's glamour girl lips remain an icon of sexuality today. Post-9/11 makeup arbiters declared red lipstick the comeback kid of cosmetics and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan proclaimed, "It's feminine and full of life," symbolizing that "a certain return to essentials is going on." An ad for Revlon's Absolutely Fabulous lipstick from 2001 captures the Index perfectly: it featured a model standing in front of what looked like the NYSE trading floor and read, "On a bad day, there's always lipstick."

But is there? Before you rush out and spend those last few stimulus payment dollars squirreled safely away in the cookie jar on a new tube of crimson, be warned: a study from 2007 by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found that a significant portion of lipstick manufactured in the United States contains surprisingly high levels of lead, which can be toxic when ingested. So now even our smallest secure indulgence, a simple lipstick, is parsed into cautionary territories of safe and unsafe, with rather ambiguous guidelines on exactly how widespread and pertinent this health issue could be. My brow furrows and my lips purse as I try to figure out where to run next. Times really are tough.