Like their Persian counterparts, Athenian women favored a combination of antimony, burnt cork, and soot to emphasize their eyes. Eyebrows were also darkened with a soot-based mixture (and, if they met above the nose in a Frida Kahlo-esque fashion, then so much the better, as this was considered a sign of beauty; this was also the fashion for Roman women who used antimony, lead, or soot to color and fill in their brows). The addition of white powder to eye makeup was thought to cure eye disease in Greco-Roman times, most likely as it contained nitric oxide. However, the use of obvious eye makeup in Rome was considered to be the reserve of disreputable women, due to the belief that direct eye contact between a man and a woman was explicitly linked to sexuality and eroticism.
Black eye makeup is so popular today that it’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t used. But despite the fact that kohl was the ancient cosmetic of choice and continued to be used throughout India, South Asia, the Middle East, and parts of Africa for religious, health, and cosmetic purposes the preference in Europe following the decline of the Roman empire for pale, rouged skin with minimal eye adornment was constant from the medieval to the Edwardian age.
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Thus, obviously blackened eyes went out of fashion for well over a thousand years, reemerging as a makeup mainstay in the 1920s. The discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1923 and the fascination with all things ancient and exotic that it provoked played a major part in eyeliner’s comeback (as we shall see), as did Hollywood and the fact that women were beginning to feel comfortable wearing more conspicuous makeup without fear of social disapprobation. Since then, trends and technology have changed, but our love of black paint has stayed constant. In the twenty-first century, you’re as likely to see a graphic black liner on a Bollywood film set as on the streets of Berlin or the catwalks of Paris.
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