The evolution of eyeliner

Jenessa Williams

A well-applied eyeliner can completely transform your face, but for just how many years have we been trying to master the perfect cat-eye flick? It all goes back to Ancient Egypt…

Eyeliner in 10,000 BC

cleopatra
Elizabeth Taylor sporting Ancient Egyptian-inspired kohl liner in Cleopatra, 1963

Beginning as most enduring trends do, eyeliner began its life as the domain of the wealthy. As early as 10,000 BC, Egyptian Kings and Queens would mark out their eyes with kohl not only to define their shape, but to protect themselves from the wrinkle-inducing effects of desert wind and heat.

Upon studying the composition of make-up found in ancient tombs, scientists showed that samples of eyeliner from the time would boost the production of nitric oxide in skin cells by up to 240 per cent, making it hugely powerful in fighting viral infections.  Some research even suggests that wearers thought that eye make-up could ward off evil spirits, worn as a mark of spiritual protection.

"Wearers thought that eye make-up could ward off evil spirits"

Containing various heavy metals such as copper, antimony and lead, we now know Kohl to be somewhat dangerous in terms of its poisonous potential, but it endured in popularity right through to the days of the Roman Empire, slowly becoming more available to the working classes.

Though Ancient Egyptian use of eyeliner is the most documented of the pre-millennium period, forms of eye marking for both aesthetic and ceremonial reasons have long existed amongst communities of the Native American and South Asian diasporas, particularly within Japanese culture.

 

Eyeliner in the early 19th Century

Louise Brooks wears eyeliner in The Show Off
Louise Brooks in The Show Off

Though Western make-up of the early 19th century focused on pale complexions and rosy lips, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 heralded a whole new interest in Egyptian eye make-up.

Early cinema needed to accentuate the features of its performers for filming, and so twenties film starlets like Louise Brooks would regularly be seen in dramatic winged liner, paving the way for a sense of post-war freedom and self-expression. Even when austerity hit, make-up remained a perpetually thriving industry, women turning to cosmetics as a way to raise the spirits of both themselves and their husbands.

Finally putting pay to those kohl health warnings, cosmetics regulation came in in the US in 1938, and productions were temporarily slowed throughout the 1940s before booming again in the 50s. Teamed with red lipstick and a perfectly powdered face, eyeliner had become essential for the perfect put-together “housewife” look—to leave the house without it was simply unfathomable for the becoming woman.

 

Eyeliner in late 19th Century

Brigitte Bardot eyeliner

In a feat of distinct rebellion against the patriarchal standards of the 50s, the arrival of mod fashion brought eyeliner to new experimental heights. Championing by Twiggy and Brigitte Bardot (above), eye pencils were used to apply rounded lines above the lid, to draw on extra lower eyelashes, or even to pack in shades of white right around the cornea, thought to make eyes appear bigger.

As the 60s turned into the 70s, and the 70s became the 80s, eyeliner was more available than ever in a wider array of colours, tailored for whatever subculture one found themselves within—new romantics, ravers and punks.

With the arrival of the 90s, grunge was in, and smudgy liner was favoured by fans of all genders, harking back to Little Richard’s experimentations with his mothers’ eyeliner in the 1950s.

 

Eyeliner in the 2000s

Gerard Way

Something more than a passing trend, the appeal of “guyliner” only increased upon the arrival of a new millennium. A uniform staple of the pop-punk and MTV emo genres that made stars of the likes of Panic! at the Disco, Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance (above), guyliner was both mocked and admired as a subcultural style, but quickly became du jour on fashion catwalks right across the world. 

Although alternative music scenes were heavily dominated by male musicians, this reclamation of make-up as a genderless product allowed acts to played with aspects of femininity and theatricality, firmly enamouring them with identity-seeking teen audiences.   

Even if mosh pits and studded waistbelts weren’t your thing, the advent of gel liner made it easier than ever to mark out a continuous fluid line across the eyelid, not dragging the skin in the same way that pencil liners tended to.

As bedroom blogging and YouTube culture began to push for a more “natural” look, brown liners came firmly back into fashion, accentuating the eye without creating such a harsh mark against the skin.

 

Eyeliner in the 2010s

eyeliner in the 00s

Whether it was the influence of the Kardashian family or the enduring popularity of Old-Hollywood glamour, there was only one cosmetic look that defined the early noughties—the smoky eye. Full beauty careers have been built upon its mastery, with “perfect smoky eye tutorial” remaining one of the most popular YouTube searches.

Eyeliner is a central part of this look, and as a result, new products are constantly emerging—pencils, pens, even inky little pots of brush-applied liner that look and feel very similar to the ones that would have been used all the way back in Ancient Egypt. Some versions of glamour, it seems, never truly go out of style, and eyeliner is truly one of them.

 

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