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From Kohl to the Fox Eye Lift: A Brief History of Beauty Treatments for Eyes

Tracing the big moments in eyeliner history--and more.

April 7, 2022

Of all the features of the face, the eyes may be the most important. 

Making eye contact with someone else is how you signal connection and attention. Our eyes give away our emotions, even if the rest of our face stays composed. We say a lot with our eyes, without saying a word.

So it’s no surprise that people from all over the world throughout history have used cosmetics to emphasize their eyes for a variety of reasons, from the practical to the aesthetic to the sacred. Today we’re taking you through just some of the important moments in this history.

400BC and earlier–ancient kohl in Egypt

In ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, people wore kohl around their eyes. This practice was also common in ancient Greece and Rome, and among the Canaanites, and is still done in parts of India, Pakistan, and the Middle East. If you look at the famous bust statue of Queen Nefertiti, you’ll notice the thick black line around her eyes–that’s how ancient Egyptians wore their kohl. 

Kohl is a mixture of lead sulfide and other minerals mixed with an emulsifier (animal fat, water, or oil). It provides a deep black color. People wore it for beautification purposes and to protect their eyes from the glare of the sun. But as you might imagine, getting lead in your eye is not that great for your health, and can lead to lead poisoning.. Today, mass market makeup products called kohl or kajal are formulated to mimic the effect of the ancient formula–without the toxic ingredients. 

1800s and earlier–Plains Native American tribes paint eyelids

Throughout their histories, Native American tribes who lived on the Great Plains wore face paint for many different reasons, including spiritual protection, grieving, and delineating social hierarchies. In times of war, warrior men of the Pawnee nation painted their eyelids red, and men of the Osage nation painted red around their eyes and hairline. They made their red paints from natural materials like iron oxides, roots, and red clay. Face paint continues to play an important role in Native American cultures today.

Victorian era–No makeup makeup

The Victorian era–from 1837 to 1901–was not a fun time to be a woman in a lot of ways. Makeup was totally frowned upon, and the Queen herself called it vulgar. So if you wanted to wear makeup, you had to do it in secret and keep it super subtle. During this time, women darkened their eyelashes with elderberries or soot. 

1924-Clara Bow popularizes the smoky eye

During the silent film era, film quality was not as good as it is now. So actors (both male and female) had to wear heavy makeup to define their features, especially their eyes. Stars like Clara Bow and Joan Crawford wore smudgy black smoky eye makeup, created with greasepaint and powder mascara applied with a comb. In those days, roughly half of the United States public attended at least one movie every week. It wasn’t long before millions of American women and girls had adopted the smoky look. Combined with vampy red lips, the ‘flapper’ look was ultra-dramatic, and signaled the newfound freedom women came to enjoy in this decade.

1960s–Liz Taylor and Twiggy make eyeliner trendy

If the 1940s and 50s were all about the scarlet red lip, then the 60s was the eye makeup decade. Elizabeth Taylor wore thick black eyeliner as the title character in Cleopatra. The dark colors accentuated her super rare lilac-blue eyes. Across the pond, model Twiggy pioneered the Mod look of a cut crease and painted on lower eyelashes. The Twiggy eye makeup look–super rounded and dramatic–heralded a sea change in the culture in general. Youth culture was ascendant. Frank Sinatra was out, and the Beatles were in. Teenagers and young adults enjoyed greater cultural power than ever before.

Early 2000s-Amy Winehouse creates the ultimate cat eye

Amy Winehouse was a once-in-a-generation talent. Her untimely death in 2011 shocked the world, but over ten years later, she remains an icon.  Along with her influential music, Amy is also remembered for her hair and makeup. Her signature look was ultra-thick black winged eyeliner paired with a towering bouffant hairstyle. Her look was so influential that the Grammys museum even had an exhibit about it. Trendsetter and socialite Julia Fox has also emulated Amy's ultra thick wing lately–and added her own unique flair. 

Now–the fox eye lift and more

As technology advances, there are now more ways to change how your eyes look besides cosmetics that wash off. Recently the fox eye lift has become super popular. If you want to emulate Bella Hadid’s famous gaze, it’s the treatment for you. Strategic Botox injections lift up the corners of your eye area for an elevated eye without the eyeliner. 

In addition to the fox eye lift, dermal fillers in the under eye area can make you look less tired. You can get lash extensions that last for weeks. You can even have surgeries done to lift your eyelids and permanently change the way your eyes look. There have never been more ways to emphasize your eyes. 

People have used all kinds of techniques for thousands of years to bring out their eyes. Your eyes belong to you–use them to express yourself!

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