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The Lady Arwen from The Lord of the Rings movies Image retouching: James Bareham/Polygon | Source image: New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures

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Lord of the Rings is helping keep a 50-year-old shade of lipstick alive

Here’s the story of Arwen’s Black Honey lips

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The early aughts were filled with a lot of questionable makeup choices for preteens and teenagers alike, from bold blue eyelids to flavorful Lip Smackers and sparkly lip gloss. But 20 years ago, there was another very specific lipstick that had a chokehold on anyone who found themselves thrown into an obsession with Middle-earth.

2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies' 20th anniversary, and we couldn't imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we'll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon's Year of the Ring.

In 2001, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring burst onto movie screens everywhere, and a cultural reset began. Liv Tyler’s Arwen wore the perfect shade of lipstick in Fellowship. It was eye-catching, yet understated, and shockingly from a brand synonymous with Macy’s department stores and the bottom of our mothers’ purses. The brand? Clinique. The shade? Black Honey.

Now, 20 years after the release of The Fellowship of the Ring, Arwen is having a renaissance of sorts. In late June, a trend emerged on TikTok that led to users seeking out Clinique’s Black Honey lipstick online and in stores, and once again trying to replicate Arwen’s iconic look for themselves.

Arwen Undómiel first appears in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy when Frodo Baggins arrives in Rivendell, but the majority of her story is told within the appendices of The Return of the King, which expanded the rich tapestry of lore in Tolkien’s legendarium. While Arwen did not play a major role in the source material, Peter Jackson smartly chose to make her a more active participant in his film adaptation. By doing so, Jackson brought Aragorn and Arwen’s love story to the forefront of the films, and that alone sparked a different kind of love story with the fans.

Arwen became an icon to a lot of young women who were looking for their place in Middle-earth, and she had a lasting impact on the audience at many levels. It isn’t just cosplayers that are tracking down Black Honey lipstick to complete their costumes — TikTok is filled with regular, everyday people looking to incorporate it into their go-to makeup routines. Éowyn, with her “I am no man” line, is undoubtedly the first name who comes to mind when you think of strong female characters from Lord of the Rings. But it’s Arwen that seems to be inherently bound to the cultural memory in such a way that people long to recreate her aesthetic.

On TikTok, the hashtag #CliniqueBlackHoney garnered nearly 25 million views in the span of a few months, with a number of users going viral with their makeup routines. Lauren, a cosplayer who goes by Lauren.Does.Cosplay, got over half a million views on her video where she tested out the product.

“Arwen has always been an icon to me since I watched Lord of the Rings when I was eight years old,” she told Polygon. “Not only is she stunning and the embodiment of a woman who can also be a warrior, but her love for Aragorn and her willingness to give up her immortal life for him is such a wonderful love story.” She went on to say, “I admire Arwen’s courage to follow her heart, even in the face of the world’s greatest evils.”

Clinique introduced Black Honey lipstick in 1971, a mere five years after an official edition of The Lord of the Rings hit the U.S. bestseller list. The raisin-colored lipstick stood in stark contrast to the bright colors that proliferate in the age of disco and psychedelics. While it might look dark before application, the lipstick, according to Clinique, is a blend of blue, red, and yellow pigments that works for every skin tone — even Liv Tyler’s pale complexion. At its debut, it was sold in a gloss pot, but Clinique relaunched Black Honey in 1989 in the same sleek tube that it’s sold in today. Lauren agreed with this sentiment, noting that she had already incorporated the lipstick into an everyday routine because “it’s the perfect lip for running errands.”

a close-up of Arwen in the Lord of the Rings Image: New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures

Peter Swords King, hair and makeup designer on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, told Polygon that he chose Black Honey because it had “dark undertones, but at the same time it was sheer so [it] would look like the colour of her lips rather than lipstick.” When asked about the fact that his makeup designs have endured as a go-to look for so many fans, King said, “I find it absolutely amazing that people are so influenced by something that I did so long ago. It is also very flattering as I am now working on my 50th movie in a design capacity. Long may it continue. “

A lot of information about the Lord of the Rings films has been passed down like folklore over the past 20 years. In that time, the internet has drastically changed — in some cases taking with it vital information that had been painstakingly curated and cataloged by dedicated fans, who spent their free time running fan sites and fostering a community. Other fans have done the work of preserving that information.

In 2001, Lord of the Rings makeup artist Noreen Wilkie was interviewed by InStyle about her work on The Fellowship of the Ring. The interview included the first reference to the Clinique Black Honey lipstick that was used “to soften” Liv Tyler’s lips. At one point, the article was uploaded onto TheOneRing.net (TORn), a site dedicated to everything a fan could need — scanned articles from magazines, information about community meetups, and vital links to other sites like AlleyCatScratch.

This is a great example of how information has been passed along within the Lord of the Rings fandom over the years. The interview was first published in the print version of InStyle, before appearing online temporarily for AOL and InStyle subscribers. For a period of time, both TolkienOnline.com (now TolkienEstate.com) and TORn hosted links to the InStyle article. At some point between 2001 and 2008, the article was deleted, but the information was preserved on one fan’s personal site, Very-Faery.com. The person behind Very-Faery saved the article in Microsoft Word and then posted it on their own site. That site, though now also deleted, was fortunately captured and preserved by the Wayback Machine.

It takes dedication to ensure that vital fandom information remains accessible for future generations of fans. And it’s a task that is growing more difficult for digital archivists trying to preserve significant fandom sites like GeoCities from mass data deletion.

an image of a tube of Clinique Almost Lipstick in the Black Honey shade, superimposed atop a swatch of the lipstick
What Clinique’s Almost Lipstick in the shade “Black Honey” looks like today.
Image: Clinique

Outside of pulling this information from the depths of the Wayback Machine, the only remaining evidence of Black Honey lipstick being used for Arwen exists in a post that was originally uploaded sometime prior to April 2008. The dedicated fans at AlleyCatScratch created a handy guide to Arwen’s makeup, which listed both the screen-accurate palettes as well as less expensive alternatives to replicate the look.

Today, fans aren’t necessarily looking for alternatives that are cheaper — they’re seeking ones that can be found on shelves at all. Clinique’s website claims that a tube of Black Honey lipstick is sold every three minutes, and that may not be bluster. The renewed interest on TikTok seems to have made the lipstick hard to find. Licensed cosmetologists like Jenn Aédo have been providing viewers with alternatives, including cruelty-free or vegan dupes such as Burt’s Bees Tinted Lip Balm in Red Dahlia, ELF Sheer Slick Lipstick in Black Cherry, or Tarte’s Quench Lip Rescue in Berry.

Aédo went viral in August with nearly 3 million views on a video in which she discussed the Black Honey trend. In an interview, she explained that the Sephora store where she works is completely sold out of the shade. While Aédo said that no customer has specifically mentioned Arwen when asking about the lipstick, she expected that upcoming comic conventions would only lead to more people searching for the shade. At the time of writing, Black Honey lipstick was still available to be ordered in Sephora’s Sephora Favorites collection, on Amazon, and at Dillard’s.

No matter how far removed fans may be from the release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the initial fanfare that came with it, the franchise gave them characters that they still carry with them to this day. That may be wearing the Ruling Ring around their neck, or it may be applying a little Black Honey lipstick before heading out the door to face whatever battles wait for them. Arwen’s look remains a classic for fans. As Peter King Swords said, “Long may it endure.”