Inside The Ancient History Of Eyeliner

Today, people use eyeliner to play up their eyes, to create a certain fashion look, or simply because they enjoy playing with makeup. And enthusiasts of this cosmetic staple have no shortage of types to choose from. In fact, the eyeliner business is currently a 3 billion dollar market, with countless brands providing everything from eye pencils to gel liners to liquid liners in various colors, styles, and formulas (via Dataintelo). Whether you're a cat eye person, a kohl liner person, or are partial to a dramatic winged look, you can find something to suit your style.

While eyeliner might be a staple of modern makeup bags, it is hardly a modern invention. In fact, the first appearance of eye liner is said to have been roughly 10,000 BC in Mesopotamia (via Good Housekeeping). Now that's what we call a classic. But what was eyeliner used for back then, what was it made out of, and how did it follow humanity through time to become what it is today?  

The ancient origins of eyeliner

If you happen to be one of the people who prefer the kohl eye liner look, you have something in common with the very first people to ever wear eye liner; in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, people lined the outer rims of their eyes with kohl to both accentuate the eyes (which were thought to be the windows to the soul) and to protect them from the sun (via 

In the ancient world, people of both genders used a mixture of things like galena copper, machalite, iron manganese, burnt cork, soot, and lead to create the inky black cosmetic that they then mixed with oil or fat to make a paste. Then, using a curved stick, they would apply the mixture to their faces. And while that might not sound too terribly different from the way we apply eyeliner today, it's probably for the best that we now know the dangers of things like lead.   

How the movies modernized eyeliner

While things like mascara and powder evolved and changed and were used (primarily by women) in several different historical ages of the west (like mascara during the Victorian Era and powder during the Elizabethan Era), eye liner doesn't have the same type of story. While some eastern cultures continued to use various types of eyeliner that were not very unlike the original formulations, western cultures like that of the United States didn't pick up on the trend until the twentieth century (via Byrdie).   

When the tomb of the now-famous Egyptian King Tutankhamun was discovered in 1922, the news fascinated people from eastern and western cultures alike, including Americans. The ancient eyeliner looks that were displayed on everything from King Tut's sarcophagus to the paintings on the walls of the tomb took hold of people's imaginations. Suddenly, eye liner was being used by stage actors and movie actors alike, which encouraged women to emulate what they were seeing. 

The 1920's was a time when women were pushing back against the restrictive, buttoned-up Edwardian and Victorian eras. They were fighting for the right to vote as well as other forms of social and political liberation. Brands capitalized on this. Maybelline, Max Factor, and Revlon made over $1 billion on kohl shadow liners, and women also made their own with soot and petroleum jelly. 

Eyeliner over the last century

In the 1920's, the eyeliner looks that were popular were dramatic and dark, often involving thick kohl lining the entire eye area (as far as possible from the prim and proper modesty of the previous generation). But by the 1930's, softer looks were becoming popularized, and if eyeliner was used at all, it was used on the upper lid only, and only in a thin, soft line to accentuate the lashes (via Byrdie). Come the 1940's, the makeup staple had nothing to do with the eyes at all; red lipstick ruled the day thanks to the notion that Hitler hated that particular cosmetic. As such, women in allied nations, especially those in the United States, wore bright red lipstick to declare their allegiance to democracy and their commitment to peace and freedom (via CNN).  

In the 1950's, however, things changed again. Enter the era of the doe eyes. Looking to play up their feminine features, women used eye liner to crate an almond shape akin to the famous eyes of Audrey Hepburn (via Byrdie). And thanks to the creation of liquid liners and newly-expanded options for color and formula, Marilyn Monroe's bedroom eyes look could be achieved at home. 

When the 60's came around with the bold, intense look of dark liner and big lashes (think Twiggy), women had countless options. Blue eye liner? Have at it. Dramatic black liquid lines? Absolutely. White? Why not.   

The 1970's through today

Come the 70's, two different looks were popular. The drama of the 60's was still being embraced, but a more "natural" look was also taking hold due to the influence of "flower children" and hippie culture, which were trying to get in touch with a more communal, peaceful, natural way of life (via Vice). At the same time, Glam Rock entered the scene, and suddenly men like David Bowie and Prince were not only wearing sequins and sparkles, but also dramatic eyeliner and other makeup. 

By the 80's, the influence of eccentric pop stars had taken an unshakable hold on beauty culture; Madonna, Cindi Lauper, Boy George, and Whitney Houston each brought their own styles to the table, and fans couldn't emulate them fast enough. Bright blue eyeshadow and orange/pink lipstick were paired with always-lined eyes that popped. Eye pencil was in, and whether you were going for a bright, bold, colorful look or a more subdued, soft style, liner was likely part of the package (though shades and styles varied widely). 

In the 90's and 2000's, "Girl Power" was all the rage and makeup and fashion were now presented as a means of self expression and empowerment. Each Spice Girl had her own look, and girls and women were encouraged to find theirs. But whether you were wearing a frosty shadow like Britney Spears or a dark, goth look like the ladies of "The Craft," chances are that heavy, penciled eyeliner was involved. 

The liners of today

We are still heavily influenced by the media these days, and we have more access to pop starts, television shows, and movies than ever before. As such, our current and recent trends are affected by what we see. When the AMC drama "Mad Men" took the world by storm between 2007 and 2015, we saw a major resurgence of classic eyeliner looks from Betty's 50's-style liquid liner to Meghan's intense, colorful cat eye of the 60's (via The Rake). When "The Great Gatsby" became a hit film in 2013, people were suddenly throwing 20's-themed parties, and flapper dresses and flapper makeup became popular again. And we hardly have to tell you that America's obsession with the Kardashians influences styles and looks. 

But no matter what modern trend you are looking to create, we're sure you're glad you have better options that soot mixed with petroleum jelly. Byrdie has rounded up a list of the best eyeliners on the market today, in case you are in need of a new one. They rate Lancome's Drama Liqui-Pencil as the best pencil liner, Maybelline Eye Studio Mater Precise Liner as the best drug store option, and Stila's Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner as the best liquid liner. And as always, we recommend checking out the Environmental Working Group's website to ensure safety and to check ingredients if you have any allergies. 

Happy lining!