In many ways, modern eyeliner is a direct consequence of the commodification
of popular culture and media representations. In other words, eyeliner is a
perfect example of how designers were able to turn a pop culture fad in the
1920’s into a multibillion dollar market lasting nearly 100 years. The actual product
originated in ancient Egypt to protect Egyptian eyes from desert elements, regardless
of gender. The practice, combined with other cosmetics such as rouge, was
thought to elevate the wearer’s spiritual worth and thus eyeliner also became a
visual connotation of religiosity.

Artifact showing ancient Egyptian woman with kohl rimmed eyes.

The 3000-year-old tradition ground to a halt in 30 BCE with
the Roman invasion of Ancient Egypt. The Romans sought to eliminate any religious
aspect of the culture that could interfere with Christianity and thus, it
appeared like eyeliner would never be seen in the western world again. This is
where the story gets interesting.

In 1923, Tomb KV62, aka King
Tut’s tomb was opened to the eagerly fetishizing eyes of the west. The most
distinct feature of the enormously popular Ancient Egyptians was their thick, black
rimmed eyes and western women of the Roaring Twenties rushed to copy it.

Elizabeth Taylor as the fetishized Cleopatra in the 1963 movie of the same name.

In the age of increased sexual liberation, eyeliner on these
women was thus given the sultry and distinctly female connotation we give it
today. Cosmetic mogul, Helena Rubenstein, was among the first to create
commercially available eyeliner which began the commodification of the King Tut

French singer, Josephine Baker in the 1920′s sporting an early cat’s eye style eyeliner.

a design perspective, modern eyeliner is fascinating, in that there are five
different forms of eyeliners: powder, wax, gel, liquid, and kohl. Their
applicators have all been designed to mimic other everyday items, perhaps
reflection early producer’s need to market eyeliner as an everyday commodity.
As such, common applicators include the wooden pencil and a felt tip pen.

Types of eyeliner.

personally use the Sephora Retractable Waterproof eyeliner in black, which
mimics a lipstick tube and a mechanical pencil. It minimizes the need to
constantly sharpen the liner and eliminates excess pencil shavings while still
maintaining the convenience of a pencil applicator.

Sephora Retractable Eyeliner in Black.

eyeliner is considered an essential part of female makeup routines. When I don’t
wear eyeliner, my mother jokes that I look like a boy. She unwittingly is reflecting
the relatively recent feminization and even sexualization of eyeliner, a direct result of the successful design of modern eyeliner, which turned a pop culture obsession into a commodity.