The Surprising History Of Eye Makeup Trends

History Of Eye Makeup Trends

Eye makeup trends have a long and surprising history. Read on to learn more!

By Chere Di Boscio

We’re all obsessed with plucking, threading, and darkening our eyebrows these days. Not to mention extending, thickening and even perming our lashes.

It seems like a bit of modern madness. But did you know that women have been obsessed with eye makeup since, well, pretty much the dawn of time?

One of the earliest examples of the use of eyeshadow in the ancient world can be found in ancient Egypt. A substance known as kohl (made by grinding stibnite) was used to accentuate the eyes of royalty. Apparently, in Egyptian culture, it was believed that kohl allowed the Egyptians to emulate the appearance of their gods. So it had a kind of religious significance.

Before long, the trend spread to Rome and Greece. There, women began to wear eyeshadow simply for the sake of beauty (as opposed to religious reasons). Eventually, eyeshadow spread to India and the Middle East. However, it was largely worn by wealthier women due to its high price.

There are some pretty interesting facts when you dig into the history of eye makeup trends. Just see what I discovered, below!

The Surprising History Of Eye Makeup Trends

History Of Eye Makeup Trends

Ancient Rome

I don’t know how Plinius the Elder was at making love. But according to him, his eyelashes often fell out during sex! So long, thick eyelashes were not seen as a sign of seduction, but rather one of chastity.

Women back in Roman times would darken their eyes with kohl made of ashes, soot and antimony to make their lashes look thicker. The Romans borrowed the look from women in the Middle East. They’d apply the paste with a stick made of bone, wood or ivory, dipped in oil or water first.

Coloured eyeshadow was also used by Roman women to accentuate their eyes. Green eyeshadow was derived from malachite, while blue hues were extracted from azurite.

Cosmetics were seen as something to be applied in private, usually in a small room where men were forbidden from entering. Female slaves called cosmetae would adorn their mistresses with makeup, perfume and jewellery.

But during the later part of the Roman era, Christian women would avoid any kinds of cosmetics. That was based on the belief that they should be pleased enough with the looks God gave them. Oh, and also that sexual seduction was wrong.

Overall, throughout the centuries of their reign, the Romans thought big, wide eyes framed by dark eyebrows that almost met in the centre were the chicest look. Brows were darkened with antimony or soot and then extended them inward. Plucking didn’t begin until the 1st century BCE to tidy the overall eye makeup look.

History Of Eye Makeup Trends

The Medieval Period

As if life weren’t crappy enough back in the Middle Ages – the mode for women at the time was to have bald, bare eyelids. Yipes! To achieve this look, they would literally pluck their eyelashes right off!

I suppose this became fashionable after the church linked any display of hair to an erotic disposition. Ladies of high birth would therefore rid themselves not only of their lashes, but their brows and even most of their hairline, in order to showcase more of their foreheads. Since eyelashes serve an actual function — keeping dirt out of your eyes — this seems like a really, really bad idea. And frankly, it’s pretty ugly, too.

History Of Eye Makeup Trends

The Belle Epoch

In the Victorian era, God-given plainness was a la mode. Well, in Britain, at least. In France during the same period (which they more festively titled the Belle Epoque), it was a rather saucier affair, with women of ill repute (think cancan dancers, actresses, prostitutes) actually sewing real hair to their eyelids to make their lashes look fuller.

Yep, you read that right! Apparently the procedure went something like this: a fine sewing needle was threaded with a long hair from the head of the person being operated on. The border of the lid was cleaned and rubbed with a cocaine solution to numb the pain. The extreme edges of the lid were then sewn through, with the hair ‘thread’ being looped at graduated lengths. The loops would then be cut so they looked like two fine ‘eyelashes’. Yipes!

The more faint of heart would simply try to stick strands of hair to their eyelash line with glue. Sounds much better to me than having a needle that close to your eye…

History Of Eye Makeup Trends

The Hollywood Starlet

By the turn of the millennium, moving pictures were becoming popular, and actresses wanted to look their best. To fulfill demand for thicker lashes, a certain director, D.W. Griffith, brought false eyelashes made of hair woven through gauze to his Hollywood starlets.

Apparently, Griffith wanted actress Seena Owen’s eyelashes to be “supernatural” and practically “brushing her cheeks” in one of his films, so he ordered the film’s wigmaker to glue lashes made of human hair onto Owen’s own eyelids using spirit gum.

Of course, it was a huge disaster, with Owen’s costar Lillian Gish writing: “One morning she arrived at the studio with her eyes swollen nearly shut. Fortunately, Mr. Griffith had already shot the important scenes” in her memoirs.

Thank heavens Anna Taylor, a Canadian woman, created the original strip lash years before, and they eventually grew in popularity.

Eyeliner was popular and finally came in pencil form, It was used all around the eye, on the upper and lower lids, and smudged to give a ‘smoky’ effect. Poorer women imitated the look with a rounded stick dipped into soot and Vaseline.

As for brows, this was the true birth of the thin, fine arch: brows were plucked into superfine lines, and as many women would later learn, often failed to grow back. Luckily, the style remained fairly popular for a decade or so.

30s Eye Makeup Trends

The Glam ’50’s

This has to be my favourite era for eye makeup! The lovely Rita Hayworth and Audrey Hepburn made thicker brows stylish, and women would fill their brows in with eye pencils or powdered shadows.

The bold brows of the 50’s are still hot! And you can achieve it multiple ways. Micro-blading is the most pricey, but most permanent, option. Not up for that? The iMethod Eyebrow Stamp stencil kit can help you get Hepburn-like brows in minutes.

Also, the eyelash curler, invented back in the 1940’s, finally grew in popularity, allowing women to truth widen their eye without much trouble, fuss or pain.

Eye shadow, if used, was subtle, but not all eye makeup was. After all, this was also the era of the extended cat-eye liner. Which is still much-loved and used today!

History Of Eye Makeup Trends

The Groovy ’60’s

This decade was ALL about the eye makeup! False eyelashes really came into their own, and were finally safer, easier to apply, and more widely available. Models like Twiggy and Penelope Tree wore them not only on their upper lashes, but lower lashes, too.

Eyeshadow was pretty much shovelled on from the brow bone to the lid, and liner was thick – on top and bottom lids, and even on the water line! White liners were popular then. There were often used on the bottom water line to give the illusion of bigger eyes.

Brows moved towards a more natural, less filled-in look. And by the time the late ’80’s rolled around, there was a huge trend towards bushiness, as exemplified by Brooke Shields. But guess what? The dramatic 60’s eye rolled back into fashion in the 90’s when grunge gals sported messier versions of it.

Image source here.

The Naughties (2000’s)

The turn of the millennium saw some embarrassing beauty trends: lower back tattoos, loads of orangey fake tan, and frosted lip gloss, to name a few. But one great thing that came out of this era was the sparking of a new trend that continues today: clean beauty!

Women started questioning the safety of the ingredients of the cosmetics they were using: was it really a great idea to have parabens in products that went on your eyes, for example? But their concerns went beyond their own health – questions were also asked about the ethics of beauty products.

Did they contain animal parts? Were they tested on animals? Whole new ranges of non-toxic, vegan friendly makeup brands were born.

History Of Eye Makeup Trends


Eye makeup has made a huge comeback, mainly thanks to the artistry of many Middle Eastern Instagrammers and YouTubers – not to mention a Kardashian or two – who have popularised graduated eye shadowing, luscious liquid liners, and false eyelashes.

So popular have falsies become, in fact, a whole new trend started up around our desire for longer lashes – now we can get semi-permanent lash extensions on almost any city corner. Human hair, synthetic silk, and even mink (apparently the result of ‘ethical brushing’ of the animal, but I have my doubts) are just some of the fake lash materials available today.

Accompanying these thicker lashes are thicker brows, often achieved through microblading, or even eyebrow extensions.

My only issue with current makeup trends? The micro-pollution caused by glitter.

Image credit here.

microbladed brows


The history of eye makeup trends brings us up to the present moment. Big brows are still, well, big. But they should be slightly bushy, brushed upwards, and more natural looking than a decade ago.

The winged eyeliner that was big in the late 50s and early 60s is making a comeback today. And it’s easier to achieve than ever with tools like the iMethod Eyeliner Stamp. Thanks to modern technology, this vegan product is smudge-proof-and-waterproof.

But that’s not all! Another huge eye makeup trend comes from the show Euphoria. What this means is fantasy. Think: thin ‘brow’ lines drawn above your real ones; neon eyeshadow hues that really pop; stick on jewels to decorate your lids. Anything goes! But since we’ve all been in lockdown, to one extent or another, that either means that you’re spending loads of time playing with fantasy eye makeup looks…or you’ve gone completely to the opposite side, shunning makeup and letting your brows go wild!

Image credit below: iMethod

winged eyeliner

The Future?

Let’s now move from the history of eye makeup trends, and turn our eye to the future. Who knows what the future holds? Will we revive the thin brows of the ’20’s? The monobrow of the Romans? Or will we move onto something completely different?

You’d think we would learn the potential harms of crazy beauty trends (like plucking out your eyelashes, or microbeads, for example!) but it seems that LED lashes are about to have a moment. This is a supremely stupid beauty trend, given that LED lights – even ‘eco friendly’ light bulbs – can do damage to your eyesight.

And if bulbs in the ceiling can do that much damage, imagine what LED lights right on your eyelids can do! It seems we humans never learn….

the future of eye makeup

What was your favourite look in the history of eye makeup trends? Let us know in the comments below!

Additional Sources


Main image: Maybelline Image credit for second image: All other images Wikicommons

Chere Di Boscio
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