A Brief History of Eyeliner

Beside my laptop are three resources relating to an art form I know relatively little about – I mean, I just scraped a B grade in GCSE Textiles – but am consistently enthralled by: the August issue of Vogue, It by Alexa Chung and 100 Years of Fashion by Cally Blackman. I’d feel like a confused and heavily made-up mess if it wasn’t for the makeup I chose to wear today: defining my eyes so delicately are thick black lines as I, like countless others, have attempted to recreate the cat-eye style of makeup. Eyeliner has a way of adding an elegance to the face, while accompanying a level of drama. It is flattering, hard to master, makes a statement. I feel a thousand times classier whenever I wear it.

“…I know if I’m going out for the day and potentially into the night I add a cat-eye eyeliner… The two problems you’ll encounter if you’re trying to line the top of your lid are finding an eyeliner that doesn’t smudge all over your face and being able to draw in a straight line. I cannot help you with either of these things other than to say practice makes perfect and always think ‘up and out’. The thing you’re trying to fake is making your eyes look wider and more cat-like. Now study a cat’s face. Yeah, that.” – Alexa Chung, It.

Eyeliner is as recognisable as red lipstick but as subtle as a rose-tinted blush. The use of eyeliner has followed fashion faithfully for around 100 years, starting in Western trends in the 1920s. The freedom women obtained in the days of the flapper girl and the suffragette ensured that eyeliner was used in excess, this modern look taking inspiration from the style of the ancient Cleopatra. These looks pioneered later trends in eye makeup such as kohl wings and the smoke of dark eyeshadow. The eyes were defined in the 20s, marking the start in the eyeliner obsession that has since dominated both high fashion and everyday makeup looks.

 Corresponding with the air of austerity and depression in the 1930s, makeup was  refined. Eyeliner, in direct contrast to the extremity of the 20s, was subject to the lash lines only. Delicate, thin lines highlighted the eyes, transforming the high  glamour of the 20s to modesty. The late 30s and 40s were times of war and  ration books became a regular feature in British society. Makeup was limited, as  were stockings, so to create the illusion of tights it was common for women to  save their eyeliner to paint in a black line down the back of their legs. Makeup  companies such as Max Factor were in the forefront of this, transforming  something perceived as generally impractical to a device to depend on.

In 1947, Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ was born. This style changed fashion as clothes worn previously were now dated and archaic next to the elegance of full skirts and a tailed suit jacket. In a rebellion from the harsh, work-centric attire of the war era, this look was adored by many. Paris regained its position as the fashion centre of the world and eyeliner was featured back on the faces of women. Although still refined, this graceful makeup accompanied the silhouette of Dior’s collection, reaffirming the femininity that was seconded, much like everything else, during war.

The ‘New Look’ continued into the 1950s. The haute couture of the day, made iconic by Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe, is classic. Eyeliner was used to change the shape of the eye to one of an almond shape, accompanying deep red lips and arched brows to create the glamour hailing from Hollywood. The eyeliner flick became popular in this era, with a slight wing adding elegance. The use of eyeliner in colours such as grey, brown and even purple became popular as the era continued.

Although a continuation from the high elegance of the 50s, makeup was emphasised in the 1960s. The influence of music and pop culture created a fashion revolution, particularly in the young people of the day. The trend of winged eyeliner triumphed in this decade, only this time wings were extended. The eyelashes on the lower lash line were elongated, with pencil eyeliner being used to define this line – as it had in the 1920s. Twiggy, Mary Quant and Jane Birkin took eye makeup to new extremes in this decade, with Mary Quant’s own makeup line and her era-defining clothes transforming the fashion world.

The haute couture of the 1970s generally featured makeup looks without eyeliner, with makeup artists instead preferring metallic eyeshadows. But eyeliner dominated the faces of many girls and boys in the scenes of punk rock and union flags in the underworld of London. Vivienne Westwood’s collections championed this look, helped by musicians like Siouxsie Sioux, David Bowie and Debbie Harry. This affirmed the use of eyeliner as a fashion statement and rebellion rather than just an everyday makeup look. The androgynous use of eyeliner in this time cemented its use in music scenes even up to today (Harrison Koisser of Peace is very, very cool).

The 1980s birthed a plethora of musical and cultural styles in the UK. The trend of eyeliner transcended all these, whether that was in the thick, messy looks of the skinheads – think This is England – or in the colourful, pop art inspired makeup of Madonna or Cyndi Lauper. The use of bold eyeliner in often bright colours dominated the 80s: eyeliner and eye shadows in the colours of electric blue and hot pink were popular. The use of eyeliner on the lower lash line set the trend for grunge looks in the early 90s. Heavy uses of black pencil liner on the upper and lower lashes were smudged, making smoky lines and defining the eyes impeccably. This look was transformed in the fashion world with thin and smudged lines, adding a delicate definition to the face, but sometimes was seconded to other makeup looks like thin eyebrows, contoured cheek bones and lined lips.

Like the late 90s, eyeliner was missing for most of the entrance into millennia; like the 70s, it was hugely popular in the underground music scenes. With indie music at a high in the years following Britpop, rock and roll redeveloped its own style as the decade continued – Harrington jackets, all Fred Perry and eyeliner joined forces and peaked in honour of the Libertines, Amy Winehouse and early Arctic Monkeys records. It wasn’t until around 2009/2010 when eyeliner was reintroduced into various runway collections after season upon season of sporadic uses of the trend.

In the present day, it’s rare to find makeup looks, figures in the media or models wearing makeup without eyeliner. With new ways to wear eyeliner dominating runway trends – smoky under eye, gold and glitter everything, fine black lines – it looks like the strong influence of eyeliner won’t be fading for a long time. Eyeliner is a statement piece of makeup, adored by many and transcendent of any specified time period. It deserves its place in your makeup collection forever.

Words by Caitlin O’Connor

Look out for our summary of the best eyeliners, out on Tuesday!

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