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A Full History Of Eyelashes And Their Place In Culture: Why Are We So Obsessed?

Historical Facts | March 6, 2021

Ancient Egyptian women wearing kohl, from a tomb mural in Thebes (1420–1375 B.C.E.). (British Museum/Wikimedia Commons)

Artistic and sensual or barely there, eyelashes have been colored, lengthened, and shortened for centuries. Dating back to Ancient Egypt, eyelashes have played an important function in status and beauty that's never really changed.

Ancient Eyelashes

In Ancient Egypt and Rome, both men and women artificially colored and lengthened their eyelashes with kohl, a black putty made of lead sulfide that was applied to the eyelashes and rims of the eyes. It wasn't all for beauty, however. Kohl has antibacterial properties, so whether they knew it or not, their makeup routine was protecting their eyes from infections that were all too common back then.

Portrait of Elizabeth I of England, the Armada Portrait. (Woburn Abbey/Wikimedia Commons)

Medieval Eyelashes

You might think that thick, abundant eyelashes have always been considered beautiful, but in the medieval era, women removed most of their eyelashes and eyebrows the same way they remove other body hair today. That changed when Queen Elizabeth I took her place on the throne and England became entranced by her natural red hair. People started dying their hair and even their eyelashes with soot and crushed berries to get that fiery royal look.

Seena Owen in Intolerance. (Triangle Distributing Corporation)

False Eyelashes

You might have heard an Internet rumor that false eyelashes were invented in the 1880s by a sex worker to shield her eyes from the bodily fluids often encountered by those of her occupation, but while it's true that false eyelashes were introduced in 1882, they had nothing to do with sex work. They did involve quite a bit of pain: These first false lashes had to be sewn into the skin of the eyelid.

Nearly 30 years later, in 1911, inventor Anna Taylor patented artificial eyelashes, and five years after that, filmmaker D.W. Griffith brought the concept to the masses with the movie Intolerance. He instructed makeup artists to use spirit gum and glue to apply absurdly heavy false eyelashes to actress Seena Owen, and within a decade, flapper girls were copying the look. At the time, false eyelashes incurred considerable backlash from men, who regarded them as little more than a disguise.

Eyelash curler. (Macador/Wikimedia Commons)

20th Century Lashes

Multiple inventors filed patents for eyelash curlers, so it's not entirely clear who came up with the concept, but by the 1930s, the common inclusion of these devices in packages of mascara led to the prominence of curled eyelashes. The next decade was a golden era of eyelash technology, including the invention of waterproof eye makeup and Revlon's spiral-tip mascara wand, the latter of which allowed the wearer to brush on a rainbow of colors. Black was standard, but natural shades of brown and even electric hues became trendy by the 1960s. Models like Twiggy also popularized the spider look in that far-out decade.

In the '80s, a more natural, smudge-free eyelash style came into fashion and stayed that way until the 2020s, when a new kind of eyelash makeup popped up that mimics the look of the Bronze era. Zoomers apply color and accouterments to their lashes with glue and make the eyes pop with colored eyeliner.

Tags: beauty | historical facts | myths

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.