FYI, Women Have Been Wearing Eyeliner For Thousands Of Years

Beauty was a priority, even then!

Creating the perfect cat-eye is always a cause for celebration. Balancing out both wings without giving yourself panda eyes is definitely a good makeup skill to learn. But how did we end up applying black product (be it liquid, kohl powder, or gel) around our eyes?

Let’s take a trip back to Ancient Egypt and beyond for a brief recap on the history of eyeliner. 

Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia 

As early as 10,000 B.C., Egyptians and Mesopotamians made use of various cosmetic products primarily for aesthetic reasons. However, new research theorizes that ancient eye makeup may have had antibacterial properties to prevent eye infections. The oils and animal fats used to make kohl more easy to apply also protected their skin from the scorching sun

According to Madeleine Marsh, author of Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Daythe ancient Egyptians "lived and died surrounded by kohl jars, makeup boxes, [and] perfume vials" in order to remain eternally beautiful in the afterlife.

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Perhaps the most famous example of ancient makeup being depicted in art is the bust of Queen Nefertiti of Ancient Egypt. The royal had thick black lines of kohl outlining her almond-shaped eyes, a look that's still incredibly popular today.

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A photo of the limestone bust of Queen Nefertiti of Egypt.

Ancient Greece and Rome

Cosmetic products, just like other exotic goods, were imported from Egypt and sold across the Mediterranean. In Ancient Greece, eyeliner was used to magnify the eye, and was therefore called platyophthalmon, a term that came from a passage in Pliny the Elder's Natural History book XXXIII.10.

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According to author Kelly Olson in her article, "Cosmetics in Roman Antiquity: Substance, Remedy, Poison", women used to line their lids and cosmetically dye their lashes daily. Eyes were lined with kohl, a mixture of ashes and oil, or saffron, and applied with either a thin stick or needle.

Japan and the Geishas

The geisha tradition gained distinction in the mid-18th century. Young maikos were required to wear their makeup near-daily for the first three years: Traditionally, charcoal was used to outline the eyes, but nowadays modern eyeliner is applied along with red pigment to emphasize youth. 

Fun fact: You can identify a geisha's rank by looking at her lips. First year maiko only fill in their lower lip with color, because only a full-fledged geisha is allowed to have her lips fully colored red.

A photo of a geisha holding a red umbrella.
Getty Images
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Eyeliner in Western cultures

In the Victorian Age, the obvious use of makeup was considered socially indecent; the term "painted lady" actually referred to actresses and prostitutes. However, in the 1920s eyeliner made a big comeback. With the discovery of Queen Nefertiti’s bust and the tomb of King Tutankhamun, "Tut-mania" heavily influenced makeup and fashion. The flapper era promoted increased cosmetics use, and thanks to silent movie stars like Clara Bow, a dark eye and red lipstick combo became trendy (it made facial features more visible on black-and-white film!).

From the '60s onwards, makeup looks continued to evolve. Models like Twiggy went for heavy eyeliner along the lash line and eyelid crease, while the '70s makeup fad leaned towards the use of color like white and pastels. Pop singers took center stage in the '80s, with excessive color and makeup application being in vogue. Singers like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper popularized neon eyeshadow and dark liner on both the upper and lower lash lines—the bigger the better. 

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The '90s was heavily influenced by the "grunge" look of heavy, messy, smudged eyeliner in dark colors, not just black. This preference for darker shades carried into the 2000s, where singers like Avril Lavigne and socialites like Paris Hilton popularized "tightliner"—eyeliner worn on the waterline to give the illusion of thicker lashes.

Avril Lavigne wearing her signature smoky eye makeup look.
Avril Lavigne wearing her signature smoky eye makeup look. Getty Images
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The creation of YouTube in 2005 meant that makeup tutorials were just a click of a button away, and OG content content creators like Michelle Phan quickly saw an opportunity to establish their beauty empires. Due to the rise in smartphones, the "selfie" became an easy way to show off the latest "MOTD" (makeup of the day), and makeup challenges became quite common.

Looking back, it's amazing to realize that ancient civilizations prioritized both practicality and hygiene when it came to their cosmetic products. Perhaps multi-use products weren't a modern invention—after all, why buy three products when you can save money and stick to one?

H/t: CNN, Vice, Smithsonian Journeys


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