Derek Jarman, Chroma
Whatever the initial reasoning behind the use of kohl, it’s likely that what started out as a basic or practical need later became decorative. Color may have been added as an afterthought to unguents and ointments used to keep out dust, but we know that fashions in kohl application changed throughout Egyptian history. In the Old Kingdom (c. 2686-2181 BC), emerald-green eye shadow and kohl was the most popular combination for eye defining and brow shading, applied from the inner eyebrow to the tip of the nose. Later, in the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1070 BC), black replaced green as the color of choice. King Tutankhamen’s sarcophagus depicts the pharaoh with heavy eyeliner that extends from the outer corners of the eyes to the temples.5
Although there’s not a great amount written about cosmetics in the first Persian empire (550-330 BC), the sculpted eyes of the carvings and reliefs of Persepolis emphasize the importance given to eyes and eyebrows, not only aesthetically but also symbolically as a source of spiritual knowledge. In Persia, kohl was the oldest and most important of the seven items of cosmetics (referred to as haft qalam arayish) and was applied for ritualistic and therapeutic purposes, just as in Egypt. Also known as surma (kuhl or atwad in Arabic), kohl was obtained from a variety of substances, though mainly from powdered iron ore. The Farhang-e Anandraj, an ancient text, describes how surma was obtained by grinding a shiny stone such as antimony until it was reduced to a soot-like powder that could be used on the eyes.7 The trend for this style of makeup persists: Even today, a Middle Eastern bride would be nothing without kohled eyes.
Although the mainstay of Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian makeup for thousands of years, the modern day practice of wearing kohl in the West can be traced back to the discovery of Nefertiti’s bust in 1912, which immediately set a trend for dark eye makeup that spread to many countries throughout the world.