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By : Jay Fawzi   
An Unbroken Connection. The History of Eyeliner

Used to define the eyes for more than just aesthetic appeal, eyeliner has made its way from ancient rituals to the 21st Century runways and looks set to continue to be big news throughout the future.


Ancient Origins

Eyeliner dates back to ancient civilizations and has been worn by both men and women alike.  Over time, the ingredients have changed but the basic styles and purposes remain the same.
Known as mesdemet to the ancient Egyptians, kohl throughout the Middle East, and surma in Pakistan and India, eyeliner is still one of the most essential cosmetics available in today’s wide variety of makeup options.  
The earliest historical record of eyeliner use appears in the ancient Near East and Egypt. Kohl occupied an important social role in the lives of the Egyptian royalty, serving as a cosmetic enhancement, health treatment, and indicator of social rank and achievement. Eyeliner is said to have been worn to protect the wearer from the evil eye and at that time, Kohl was often painted around the entire eyelid to create an almond-shaped effect and was used by both men and women. Furthermore, Ancient Egyptians were known to add lead salts to their black eyeliner to ward off bacterial infections.
Kohl was so essential to the Egyptians that it was applied before mum­mification and beautiful vials of it were included for the trip to the afterlife, preserved eternally. From the tomb paintings of the Old Kingdom to the encaustic portraits of the Roman occupation, recipes for kohl were passed down through the centuries.
Although the visual records of the history of the Middle East are vague at best, images of women with lovely, lined eyes appear periodically in manuscript illuminations created for royal courts from India to Turkey. In these images of courtly life, beautiful women with darkly rimmed eyes grace the pages of epic poetry and historical documents. According to these images, women of all ranks, from the highborn to servant classes, wore kohl.
Away from the cities, women throughout the entire region used kohl in their daily lives. Bedouin and nomadic peoples’ traditional use of eyeliner continues into the present day. As for these desert dwellers, kohl helps to protect the eye area from dryness, cuts down the glare of the sun, and acts as an antibacterial agent; in this role as a traditional remedy, use extends to men and children as well.

Recreating the Egyptian eye

Twentieth-Century Fads and Fashion

Changes in women’s fashion took place in the 1920s, and women started applying makeup more liberally. The first quarter of the 20th Century brought a tidal flood of lovely kohl-wearing performers to the stage and screen where the omnipresent kohl was key in creating the standard representation of Middle Eastern beauty. On the other hand, the discovery of King Tut’s tomb fascinated the world with the Egyptian queen’s beauty and more specifically American women who had finally won the right to vote and wanted to assert their independence more freely. These latest started recreating the Egyptian eye by using eyeliner without any restrictions - dark, thickly lined eyes became very trendy.
In historical movies such as Cleopatra, the look of ancient Egypt and contemporary Orientalism fused, creating a look that was mimicked by stylish women of the day. Eyeliner made the leap from artistic Orientalist paintings and stylized stage makeup to the pages of Vogue.
For the rest of the twentieth century, eyeliner would follow the vicissitudes of fashion, being reinvented with each season to coordinate with the looks of the day.

Eyeliners before and after

Ancient Egyptian kohl was made from natural minerals of the region. Black liners were created from either antimony or galena, which produces a lead sulfide. However, black was not the only color available to the ancients; other essential colors in the cosmetic palette included green ground from malachite, blue from lapis, and white from lead carbonate. These minerals were added to a paste that might include frankincense oil, almond oil and goose fat.
Women today have thousands of cosmetic options, from natural to synthetic, in a wide variety of colors, application styles, and formulations. Makeup companies cater to a broad variety of tastes and needs and have appropriated the word kohl to represent a color, rather than a particular formulation. Today, eyeliners can be completely color coordinated with a total look, lifting color from the clothes to the face.
Easiest to use are the eyeliner pencils which are affordable, widely available, and come in an astounding range of colors from the deepest black to stark white and everything in between. The quality of the sharpened tip can create a line that is either sharp and fine or soft and smudgy. A little more difficult to master, liquid eyeliner has the benefit of providing precise line control.  It requires a steady hand and practice to apply, but the results are worth it. Originally, kohl was a powdered mineral applied with a moistened stick.  Today’s powdered eyeliners are available in several forms.  Loose powder in the form of eye shadow or eyeliner is applied either wet or dry using a fine pointed brush.  Powders offer the broadest range of color, because you can press virtually any eye shadow into duty, however, powders are messier to apply than pencils or liquids, do not always create intense color and are generally not water resistant.

Today, Tomorrow and Beyond

We now understand the dangers of traditional kohl recipes, which can rely on poisonous heavy metals to create the matte black powders worn by the ancients But no matter what look you prefer - a smudged and smoky eye created with a soft pencil or a thin, razor-sharp line painted with a brush dipped in liquid liner - eyeliner is an essential element in any makeup kit.


Kohl has been part of the beauty regimens of women since the dawn of history, and an unbroken line connects the eyes of today with those of the ancients. What history offers us is plenty of inspiration for different looks and application techniques, as well as an unbroken connection with our past, providing us with endless ways to draw the line.