BEAUTY’S DARK MARK
Globally today, black makeup is largely used to enhance eyes and eyebrows with a few exceptions (more on those later). Why have we sought to accentuate and draw attention to our features with dark lines and shading? One reason, as the old adage goes, is that the eyes are the windows to the soul. Researching this secret made it clear that although what is considered attractive varies over time and across countries and cultures, the importance of the eyes (made-up or not) remains a constant. Even the Bible alludes to this: The light of the body is the eye: if therefore your eye be sound, your whole body shall be full of light. 1 But why black? Along with ochre, it is one of the oldest colors to have been used in Neolithic cave paintings, in the form of carbon (charcoal) and manganese oxide. Like red, its associations are complicated and sometimes contradictory: It can represent mourning, death, power, secrecy, mystery, and drama among many other things.
Of all the many varieties of black eye makeup that are available now, the one that’s proved the most enduring is undoubtedly kohl. It’s associated with specific periods and cultural movements more than any other type of cosmetic: Even if makeup isn’t your thing, when you think of the silent movie era, the beatniks and hippies of the fifties and sixties, or the grungy look popular in the early nineties, then kohled eyes are one of the first images to spring to mind. Where other types of makeup can be difficult to trace, kohl is recognized as being an ancient Egyptian invention. There’s barely a piece of Egyptian art or sculpture that doesn’t depict a figure with heavily defined eyes and eyebrows: The frescoes that line the interior of the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens show both male and female Egyptians sporting thick eyeliner. And even if you aren’t familiar with the existing art from this period, kohl has been immortalized as the Egyptian makeup item of choice through film and television think of Elizabeth Taylor’s iconic Cleopatra, with dramatically defined and extended dark eyes (as is often the case in Hollywood, the blue sixties eye shadow takes some historical license).
Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra (1963) cemented the image of exaggerated Egyptian kohl in popular culture that has survived to this day.
Of course, it’s possible that the stylized eyes so synonymous with the Egyptians could have been emphasized or exaggerated for artistic purposes, but we know that they used makeup thanks to the discovery of kohl containers and grinding palettes from a variety of early burial sites. These excavations also suggest that, unlike some other ancient civilizations, Egyptian cosmetics were not the reserve of the wealthy or high-powered, as makeup palettes have been found in the most modest of graves and tombs of both sexes. While poorer Egyptians would have used basic, inexpensive containers like jars, shells, or reeds to hold their kohl and other cosmetics, the wealthy housed theirs in carved ivory containers and used highly decorative mixing palettes, spoons, and applicators.
Generally, the kohl used by the Egyptians was a complex blend of ingredients including crushed antimony (a silvery gray metalloid), burnt almonds, lead, oxidized copper, ochre, ash, malachite (a green pigment made from copper oxide), and chrysocolla (a blue-green copper ore) that were combined to create a black, gray, or green pigment. This would then be stored in containers of stone, moistened with water or oil, and mixed in a cosmetics spoon or palette before being painted on with a specially designed applicator to the rim of the eyes and to the eyebrows. A pot in the British Museum from the tomb of a scribe even specifies the periods of use good for every day, from the first to the fourth month of the flood season, from the first to the fourth month of winter, from the first to the fourth month of summer suggesting that different forms of the cosmetic may have been used at different times of the year.3 Amazingly, the kohl available today is not so different from the stuff used millennia ago. The applicators and containers are also eerily similar: Real kohl usually comes in a little box containing a sticklike applicator and a compartment for the makeup itself.
Ancient Egyptian art shows stylized lining around the eyes but, as with all art, historians and archaeologists are unsure how much of this is subject to artistic license.
Certain traits deemed beautiful appear consistently throughout history, as illustrated by these images of Nefertiti (previous) and Sophia Loren (above) taken millennia apart that both feature heavily defined, almond-shaped eyes, high cheekbones, full lips, and a long neck.