Eyeliner defines the eyes—and eyeliner has come to define icons, eras, and social designations, too. It is symbolic of legends: Cleopatra; Twiggy; Prince; Marilyn Manson; Grace Jones; Boy George; Amy Winehouse. Eyeliner distinguishes a high school senior from a freshman; a YouTube tutorial aficionado from an amateur; a queen from her people.
Transcending fad, eyeliner has become a staple in countless popular makeup looks of the past century. To understand how eyeliner became so ubiquitous on faces across the world, I’ve traced its journey from Ancient Egypt, to flappers, to the makeup bags of every cosmetics-wearer you know. Let’s begin!
Eyeliner’s Origins in Kohl
Long before makeup artists demonstrated how to perfect a smokey eye on YouTube, the people of Ancient Egypt used kohl, the first recorded eyeliner-like substance known to historians, to trace their eyes. Kohl is a mixture of galena, a form of lead sulfide, and other minerals mixed with water, oil, or other soluble substances, like animal fat. Though its formulas have differed based on time, location, and the class of its wearers, its function has remained the same: to decorate eyes, brows, and occasionally other facial features.
In 1912, German Egyptologist Ludwig Borchardt discovered the bust of Ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti in Amarna, Egypt. Given her long neck, high cheekbones, and perfectly symmetrical features, the world was captivated by Nefertiti’s undeniable beauty—fittingly, her name means "the beautiful one has come forth.” The widespread fascination with the sculpture and Ancient Egypt at large led to a trend that propelled eyeliner into the 20th century, where it mimicked the thick, black line of kohl that outlined Nefertiti’s almond-shaped eyes.
Kohl dates back to the Protodynastic period in 3100 BC, long before Nefertiti’s reign. Historians have also found evidence of the use of kohl and other eyeliner-like substances in Ancient societies among Romans (who called it platyophthalmon), the Canaanites in the Levant, the Ancient Greeks, and more.
In Ancient Egypt, kohl was worn by both men and women. While it outlined and complimented their eyes, beautification wasn’t their only impetus to use kohl: Historians believe that cultural reasons for wearing kohl included honoring deities, reducing the sun’s glare, and even maintaining hygiene (in 2010, scientists discovered kohl’s antibacterial abilities). Both poor and wealthy Egyptians wore kohl, but many belonging to lower classes had to substitute lead and other minerals for fire soot, meaning that the quality of one’s kohl (detectable by its shine and wear) could be used as a measure of class.
What we know about Ancient Egyptians’ use of makeup is due to their devotion to recording their lives on papyrus, burying their dead with artifacts, and leaving behind extraordinary pieces of artwork. “We have the first recorded use [of kohl] in Ancient Egypt, because they were writing things down on papyri which have survived,” cosmetics historian Madeleine Marsh, who authored Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Day, tells Broadly. “The Ancient Egyptians lived and died surrounded by their cosmetic palettes.” Kohl pots with traces of kohl still inside them are commonly found inside unearthed Ancient Egyptian tombs—as Marsh says, “If you are going to meet the gods, you want to look your best.”
“If you are going to meet the gods, you want to look your best.”
While kohl has Ancient roots, it is by no means a cosmetic of the past. Today, in parts of India, Pakistan, Africa, and the Middle East, a version of kohl with a formula similar to that of the kohl used in Ancient Egypt is still used to adorn the eyes. The word kohl is Arabic in origin, but it is also called kaja, al-kahal, surma, tiro, or kwalli, depending on the region it is used in. Its modern function is mainly cosmetic, but in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, kohl is also applied to children to ward off the evil eye. Applying makeup with traditional kohl is a controversial practice today, as medical experts have found that it includes hazardous levels of lead sulfide, whuch can result in lead poisoning. Consequently, the US Food and Drug Administration has deemed kohl illegal.
Though it can still be found in specialty markets catering to North African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian communities, you won’t find eyeliner containing lead on the shelves of Sephora in America today. What you will find is an array of eyeliner pencils and sticks labeled “kohl” or “kajal” from popular, high-end brands like Mac and Dior. This name is borrowed from the traditional Ancient eyeliner, but alludes to a smokey or deep black color, rather than the pencil’s formulation.
“Tut-mania,” Picture Palaces, and Flappers
Between the Ancient period and the 20th century, different forms of eyeliner were present in societies around the world: Ancient Roman women were also fond of kohl to darken their eyes, Maiko, the apprentice geishas of Western Japan, outlined theirs using charcoal in the mid-18th century, and Native American Pawnee and Osage people often used red face paint around their eyes for spiritual reasons.
The everyday use of eyeliner in Western cultures did not begin until the 1920s. Coming out of the Victorian Era, when visible face makeup was associated with prostitution, conservative attitudes towards cosmetics were the norm in Europe and America. “In the 19th century, you did [makeup] very discreetly. You might darken your eyelashes with elderberry plants or a bit of kohl, but you did it in secret, and you did it yourself,” says Marsh.
With the onset of “Tut-mania” following the discovery of Nefertiti’s bust in 1912 and the tomb of Tutankhamun (King Tut) in 1922, attitudes towards makeup and fashion changed, inspired by Ancient Egyptian aesthetics. Ancient Egypt’s influence was obvious in the intricate bead designs of dresses, art deco patterns, and even popular soaps of the 1920s.
While Egyptomania was in full bloom, Hollywood began to expand its reach, thanks to the introduction of "picture palaces”—theaters that could seat up to 2,000 people at once—and the introduction of sound in major motion pictures. On screen, actresses wore heavy smokey eyes to accentuate expressions that were otherwise difficult to make out in the silent black-and-white films of the times (sound wasn’t introduced to film until 1927). Actors also wore eyeliner, if more subtly, for this effect. Most notable was Charlie Chaplin in his famous 1914 character “The Tramp,” though he mostly wore eye makeup to achieve a purposely funny, cartoon-like look.
“The eyes are the most important and expressive features. The makeup which relates to them is all-important,” wrote filmmakers John Emerson and Anita Loos in their 1921 guide Breaking Into the Movies. “The edge of the upper eyelid is clearly lined. Then the shade is worked back toward the eyebrow, getting constantly lighter, until it finally blends with the grease paint of the face. The process is reversed for the lower lid [...] Your eyelids should be lined with black cosmetic.”
At the same time Hollywood’s motion picture industry was kicking off in the early 20th century, so was Bollywood’s. Bollywood’s very first silent film, Raja Harishchandra (1913), featured a cast of both men and women with eyes outlined in black makeup.
“The eyes are the most important and expressive features."
At the beginning of the 1920s, negative Victorian attitudes about makeup (held up by its association with sex workers and Queen Victoria’s announcement that it was vulgar) were prevalent. “In the early 20s, when young flappers got home, their parents would probably scrub their makeup off their faces,” says Marsh. But shortly after, influenced by Tut-mania and film stars like Clara Bow, attitudes towards makeup changed drastically, and a smokey eye became the standard 1920s makeup look of choice for women.
Eyeliner as a Commercialized Beauty Staple
“By the time you get to the late 30s—we're really talking a 10-15 year period—if you didn't have your makeup on, you weren't considering yourself properly as a woman; your husband would leave you; you didn't have respect for yourself,” says Marsh. According to her, eyeliner’s popularity was based in burgeoning social liberties, as well as in domestic norms. “After WWI, there was a revolution: women began to get the vote, it’s when they shed skirts and started drinking and smoking in public. There were a whole load of new freedoms—among those new freedoms are cosmetics,” she says.
The beauty industry exploded right before the Great Depression devastated industrial markets across the US, but due to what’s since been dubbed “the lipstick effect,” the beauty industry was one of few markets that actually saw growth during this period. “In the four years from 1929 to 1933, industrial production in the US halved, but sales of cosmetics rose,” wrote Larry Elliott in The Guardian.
As the unregulated industry grew, many of the products it produced were dangerous to the skin or even poisonous, much like traditional kohl. In 1933, when a product called Lash Lure hit the market, its chemical composition—which included the toxic hair-dying chemical paraphenylenediamine—left one woman dead, and many others blind or with ulcers. As a direct result of the harm caused by Lash Lure and similar products, Congress passed the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 1938, giving the FDA authority to regulate cosmetics (this is the same act that was later amended to illegalize kohl). The health risks involved with eye makeup didn’t stop women in the 20s and 30s from using it, but new regulations meant they could rest easy applying their eye makeup after 1938.
"If you didn't have your makeup on, you weren't considering yourself properly as a woman."
During World War II, while items like sugar and tires were being rationed, the use of makeup persisted, as it was considered a morale booster for women while their husbands were off fighting.
“During the war in the 1940s, production was restricted. You used what you could get ahold of, but cosmetics were still very important because [they were] part of fighting the enemy with courage,” says Marsh. “People did go back to Victorian recipes and used coal dust, dyed their eyes with elderberries.”
Even the iconic 1943 Rosie the Riveter poster—the propaganda image created to encourage women to join the workforce in jobs traditionally filled by men who were now off at war—wore a full face of lipstick, lashes, and thick eyeliner. The role of eyeliner during WWII extended even beyond the face: Women created the illusion of stockings by using black eyeliner pencils to draw a seam down the backs of their legs. By the time the war was over in 1945, women were encouraged to shift their focus back to domesticity and all the work that comes with it—like looking good for their husbands.
Societal pressure on wives to keep their husbands satisfied at home after the war and an uptick in production led to the consumerism and extremely binary gender roles of the 1950s—and consequently the glamorous makeup that accompanied the decade: a flirtatious cat-eye, a dark refined brow, and sultry red lipstick—think Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
The look hung around through the early 1960s, as evident on the faces of Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy. But by the mid-60s, 50s eye makeup was swapped for the experimental eyeliner looks of the swinging sixties, inspired by Mod fashion and designers like Mary Quant who encouraged a more playful attitude towards style. Models like Twiggy and Brigitte Bardot and downtown it girls like Edie Sedgwick popularized the copious eyeliner of the decade, which coated not only the lash lines but also the eyelid crease, and often extended down towards the cheeks to mimic eyelashes. In 1965, famous model Pattie Boyd published a tutorial on how to perfect the look.
The 1970s carried on the overdone cat eye of the 60s, but usually accompanied it with a bright pastel shadow and, often, a line of white eyeliner alongside the black to make the eyes look bigger and deeper. At the same time, the “natural look” grew in popularity, likely inspired by flower power, hippie culture, and a rejection of the mainstream. While some women eased up on makeup, the introduction of glam rock saw famous men like David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Lou Reed, and Prince trying their hand at lining their eyes, also called “guyliner.” (Although Little Richard was rocking his mother’s eyeliner back in the fifties.)
By the time the 1980s rolled around, the “natural look” was out the window. The fashion influence of Hollywood stars was matched, if not surpassed, by the influence of pop singers like Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Whitney Houston, and Boy George. Many of these artists styled themselves based on eccentric subcultures of the time like the New Romantics, hardcore punk, goth, and rave culture. The excessive makeup trends of neon eyeshadow, packed on blush, and dark eyeliner on both the top and bottom lash lines became quite popular and mirrored the excessiveness that was 80s culture in both consumerism and fashion.
In the 90s, the rise of “Lipstick Feminism,” a variety of third-wave feminism that embraces femininity and women’s sexuality, assigned a new meaning to wearing makeup: Makeup could be empowering, rather than simply an attempt to look pretty. This attitude was exemplified by celebrities like Courtney Love and the Spice Girls. The growth of grunge culture through the popularity of bands like Nirvana also influenced the decade’s fondness for heavy, messy eyeliner. Nineties girls less fond of the grunge look still wore eyeliner, but kept it to a clean line. Still, in contrast to the 80s, the majority of 90s makeup looks overwhelmingly featured dark colors like deep rouges and purples.
“With fashion, you get one look, and then you'll have the opposite look in the next decade because everyone wants to write their story be it in clothes or cosmetics, and part of writing your story is not doing what your mom did or what your older sister did,” Marsh explains. “You want to write your fate.”
2000s Through the Present Day
Nothing says early 2000s like Von Dutch hats, Juicy velour tracksuits, and tightliner, eyeliner worn on the inside of the lash line (unless you happen to be wearing all of the above while watching The Simple Life). In the aughts, eyeliner for men was commonplace for emo kids, inspired again by celebrities—this time, that meant the likes of Billie Joe Armstrong and Pete Wentz.
Girls outside of emo scenes were also no strangers to tightlining. Like Destiny’s Child, Paris Hilton, and Avril Lavigne, their eyes were coated in one continuous black almond shaped line. To perfect the look, they took a flat liner brush dipped in gel liner underneath their top lashes and on the inside of the lower lash line (though eyeliner pencils can be used to achieve the look as well). Gel eyeliner typically comes in a small glass container, like a mini, less intricate version of Ancient Egyptian kohl pots. Very much like kohl, tightliner can be dangerous. A small 2015 study found that applying eyeliner to the waterline increases the chances of tiny eyeliner particles contaminating the eye.
In 2005, the creation of YouTube meant people could learn how to apply eyeliner from a professional, free of charge and without leaving their homes. Consequently, YouTube makeup artists like Michelle Phan (whose first eyeliner tutorial video posted 10 years ago has amassed over 7.5 million views) and those hungry for cosmetic tips flooded the platform, birthing a young generation that wasn’t only increasingly interested in makeup, but quite good at it, too.
When Keeping Up With The Kardashians first aired in 2007, we had no idea what the show would eventually do to makeup (and also society). In the beginning of the show’s run, Kim Kardashian expanded on the smokey eye, using heavy eyeliner that was indistinguishable from the black eyeshadow on her lids. The look was further popularized by reality shows of this era like the Jersey Shore. But it was Kim Kardashian’s younger sister Kylie Jenner who would have the largest influence on makeup.
Turning controversy into cash (as the Kardashians do so well), Kylie Jenner launched her own makeup brand after confronting rumors about her lip injections. What followed is a generation obsessed with Kylie Lip Kits, lip fillers, and mimicking Jenner’s every look—which includes the way she wears her eyeliner. Jenner often wears a sharp cat eye and though she tends to wear eyeliner, she rarely puts it on her bottom lash lines, instead using lighter shadows for a similar effect. Kylie Jenner didn’t invent this style, but she’s certainly popularized it thanks to the help of her selfies on Instagram and Snapchat. Earlier this year on her Instagram story, Jenner gave away one of her eye makeup secrets: using eyeshadow as if it were eyeliner to create a cat-eye.
Marsh points out that, Jenner’s influence aside, selfies may be another force driving the heightened, nearly professional level of interest in makeup by the masses today. According to Marsh, “Selfies stimulate an increased interest in what you look like and the desire to be camera ready at all times.” If we’re constantly snapping photos of ourselves that we can instantly share with up to millions of people, it makes sense that we’d want to look good in them. With the eyes as the first facial feature we notice in selfies, and usually the location of the most interesting, intricate makeup, eyeliner has remained a core product of millennial and Gen Z beauty routines. As such, of-the-moment makeup brands that cater to younger consumers, like Kylie Cosmetics and Glossier, have launched buzzy new eyeliners in recent years.
Makeup mogul Kylie Jenner has 114 million Instagram followers, and they’re certainly not all American. The internet, and specifically makeup’s popularity on the platforms it has birthed, has led to more homogenous makeup trends across the globe. Popular eye makeup looks in America are hardly distinguishable from those in places like Egypt, Dubai, and India, where kohl has long been the eye makeup style of choice. It seems Americans have finally caught up to the style that women in these countries have been wearing for centuries, if not millennia: thick, dark lines tracing the lashes that extend at the eyes’ corners.
The Ancient Egyptians left behind a plethora of cultural, architectural, and artistic objects and ideas for us to both marvel at and adopt, but it’s hard to imagine that they foresaw the reach of their beloved kohl. Then again, with the care they took to preserve it and the reasons they incorporated it into their lives, perhaps it’d be difficult for them to imagine a future society without it.