2.1 The history of brows

You only need to look at historic pieces of art or photos from the 1920s until now to see that eyebrow shapes have come a long way, and from 2010 onward, the brow industry has experienced a literal growth spurt! Some beauty trends will make a return whereas others stay in the past – which is a good thing. Eyebrows are an essential part of framing our face, and the shape, length and colour can make a person look constantly sad or forever fab! Every expert in their respective industry should have a firm understanding of where their craft originated and the progression of trends and styles through the ages. Let’s take a closer look.

Historical eyebrows across the globe

Back in Ancient Egypt, both men and women wore makeup in a ritualistic way to imitate the gods, protect their skin from the sun and for hygiene reasons. The Ancient Egyptians were sophisticated chemists in their time; it wasn’t until 2010 that scientists discovered the antibacterial properties in Kohl! Some historians say that the reason everyone wore makeup in ancient Egypt, including those in the lower classes, was that they thought it helped protect them from the gods Ra and Horus.

If you look back at Egyptian artworks, you will see that black eyeliner, which was made from galena (known as kohl), featured prominently on both men and women. The smoky eye look is said to have originated from Ancient Egypt, with Queen Cleopatra being an iconic symbol of beauty for this era. In terms of eyebrows, the Ancient Egyptians preferred darkened, arched, and elongated shapes as a way to pay homage to the God Horus and to channel protective powers.

Ancient Egypt

Women in Ancient Greece women who were unmarried would often darken their brows with black incense, whereas married women would leave their brows natural and untouched – uni brows were in! In Ancient Rome, a unibrow was also considered to be a marker of freedom and beauty, and women would actually create faux unibrows with black paint.

Ancient Greece

Ancient Chinese definitions of beauty changed depending on the dynasty. During most Chinese dynasties (Han, Wei, Qi and Liang), thin and long eyebrows were on-trend. To put this into perspective, check out a range of differences below:

Ancient China

As you can see in the image, brows changed drastically across time periods. During the Tang dynasty, eyebrows tended to be thicker and shorter, and women were also encouraged to paint their eyebrows a shade of blue-green rather than the traditional black of previous dynasties.

During the Nara period to the Edo period in Japan, Hikimayu (Hiki means “pull” and mayu means “eyebrows”) was the practice of removing the natural eyebrows and painting smudge-like eyebrows on the forehead. From the 17th century onward, the practice became restricted to married women only, and then it became customary only after the birth of the first child.

Ancient Japan

In Elizabethan times, women would actually paint on blue veins to emphasise the paleness of their skin or would apply lead paint to try and cover up pesky freckles! During this time period, high brows and high hairlines were a symbol of being upper class. In fact, many women shaved their eyebrows and hairline to make their foreheads appear larger.

Elizabethan times

The types of brow trends differ depending on geographical location, who was ruling and peoples standing in society. So far, after a period of overplucking and removing brows altogether, the subsequent era has reverted to trying to get the hair back. For example, in the 18th Century (following the Elizabethan era), eyebrow wigs were on-trend to try and form artificial brows after years of shaving them off. As disgusting as this sounds, people would actually trap mice and make the wigs from their skin – yikes!

History repeated itself as proven in the 1990s when thin brows were fashionable (we will look at some famous thin brows in the next section!). Less than a decade later, a fuller brow was on-trend. Thankfully these days, there are other options available for those of us with sparse eyebrows that don’t include mouse skin or other deadly products such as lead paint! If you had a time machine, which period do you think you would want to revisit? If you love a bold look, perhaps Egyptian times would be suitable, or if you like different shapes, lengths, and colours, then Ancient China could be a great source of inspiration!

If you would like to learn more about the history of brows throughout the ages, you may like to access the resources linked:

The 1920s to the 1950s

Now that we have looked at historical brow trends across the globe let’s fast forward to the twentieth century. In each decade of the twentieth century, as cosmetics and products developed, so did styles and trends! Earlier in the 20th century, product lines were limited to very few shades and colours, and the formulations are no way near as fit for purpose as they are today. Over each decade, formulations have continued to improve, and now there are colours and products for every skin tone and type. Let’s take a quick look at the key trends and styles for each decade in the 20th century:

1920s to 1950s
– Era of the ‘flappers’
– Smoky shadow
– Thin brows
– Bow shaped lips
– Lighter makeup
– Thin brows
– Natural looks
– Fuller lips
– Arched brows
– Prominent red lip
– Retro pin-up trend
– Thicker, natural brows
– Pink lipsticks
– Winged liner

The 1920s were renowned for pencil-thin, rounded eyebrows that had over extended ends at a downward angle. The ‘It Girl’ of the time, Clara Bow, rose to stardom during the silent film era and leveraged this style of eyebrow to help better express emotions – essential for silent films! In the 1930s, an upward rounded arch was the new eyebrow trend, and many women shaved their brows off in favour of drawing a more rounded brow shape.

In the 1940’s fuller, more natural brows became more prominent, and this was largely due to World War II. Many women had taken on more masculine roles, and there simply was not enough time in the day to dedicate to regular brow maintenance! A famous Mexican Painter, Frida Kahlo (pictured), is another icon during this time, and she rocked a full unibrow that is still considered to be a feminist icon. In the 1950s, thicker brows were still on-trend, and icons such as Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, and later, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor influenced trends with their dramatic arched brows.

The 1960s to the 1980s

From the 1960s onward, the use of colour and experimentation took off. Style icons of these eras included Brigitte Bardot, Twiggy, Bianca Jagger, Liza Minnelli, Donna Summer and Diana Ross, to name a few!

1960s to 1980s
– Pale pink lips
– Experimental colours and false lashes
– Eye contouring
– Winged liner
– Fresher natural look
– Natural brows
– Bronzed layers
– Pale pink lips
– Disco makeup
– Experimentation with bright colours
– Pink blush
– Pink lipstick
– Coloured mascara

During the 1960s, women switched from thick and bold eyebrows to spiky and exaggerated lashes. Given the focus was on big and bold eyes and lashes, eyebrows tended to be thin and refined with a little bit of rounded arch near the tail end. There were a few exceptions in this era, though – Audrey Hepburn still continued to rock a fuller brow even with more graphic eye makeup (pictured).

The 1970s were a funny decade – you had the Disco era as well as the hippy movement, both of which had starkly different styles. All of the Disco legends such as Donna Summer, Farrah Fawcett and Aretha Franklin had barely-there brows. In contrast, 70s icons Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks and Janis Joplin all rocked thicker, more natural brows.

The most iconic brows of the 1980s belonged to Brooke Shields. This was a decade when people dropped the tweezers and embraced natural brows to the fullest – literally! Unkempt and bushy brows were the rage, although some 80s icons still kept their thin brows going (think Cyndi Lauper).

The 1990s to the 2010s

A major faux pas of the 1990s and 2000s was the thinning of eyebrows – many women over plucked and waxed off their brows to follow this trend, which is a big regret for many now that natural brows are back. In fact, based on what we have learned so far, it seems as though we keep switching from full brows to barely-there brows every couple of decades!

1990s to 2010s
– Thinner brows
– Shimmer eye shadows
– A few styles – natural, grunge and punk
– Dark liner on lips
– Sunless tanning was popular
– Thin brows
– Black eyeliner and shimmer shadow
– Lip gloss
– The introduction of 4K cameras means less product
– Instagram makeup takes off
– Highlighting and contouring
– Overdrawn, plump lips

In the 1990s, thin was in! Model Kate Moss and rapper Lil Kim donned thinner eyebrows throughout this decade. The thin brow trend continued in the early 2000s, and the pencil brow became popular. In this decade, eyebrow waxing and at-home plucking were popular, and many women today are still suffering the consequences. From the mid-2000s onward, the arch of the brow became more distinct. From 2010 or so onwards, thicker, bolder brows became popular, and model Cara Delevingne and the Kardashian clan are still rocking fuller brows to this day! To see some brow transformations for yourself, check out some then and now transformations:

Then and now

Looking at the pictures of Angelina Jolie and Mila Kunis, which style did you prefer? Do you think they look better with thinner brows or more of a natural look? Before we move on to a brief history of hair removal, we cannot learn about the history of brows and beauty without paying homage to the drag community.

Drag influence darling…

Historically, Drag Queens have been men dressing as women, whereas today, the drag community includes people from all genders and sexual identities. Below are some famous Drag Queens for their time:

Julian Eltinge (May 14, 1881 – March 7, 1941), born William Julian Dalton, was an American stage and film actor and female impersonator.

Danny La Rue, OBE (born Daniel Patrick) was an Irish singer and entertainer, best known for his on-stage drag persona, which spanned four decades.

Paul James O’Grady MBE is a former drag queen. He achieved notability in the London gay scene during the 1980s with his drag queen persona Lily Savage.

RuPaul Andre Charles, known simply as RuPaul, is an American drag queen, actor, model, singer, songwriter, and television personality.

Prior to the world of Instagram and YouTube, techniques such as contouring, highlighting, cut creases and eyebrow blocking were not commonly known in the wider beauty community. However, these techniques were commonplace in the dressing rooms of drag queens and in theatre makeup. Unfortunately, due to the subculture status of the drag community in the early 20th century, there has been minimal acknowledgement with regard to the origin of these techniques.

In 2009, RuPaul’s Drag Race first aired, which centred on a competition whereby Drag Queens would compete to be America’s next drag superstar. If you have ever watched an episode, you will see that drag makeup varies greatly, and it is a form of creative expression. The brows, in particular, create some interesting looks and variations, depending on the persona. Check out some distinct brows of Drag Queens who have been on Drag race:

Sasha Velour | Lawrence Chaney | Kita Mean

Drag makeup is all about creating a persona and embodying whatever characteristics you choose, forming a new identity of sorts. In addition to Drag Queens, there is also a Drag King community which are mostly female performance artists who dress in masculine drag and embody male gender stereotypes. As a brow artist, you might like to dabble into creative spaces and learn how to create different shapes and looks using makeup. While this course focuses on traditional brow shapes and techniques, it is always useful to be aware of what is happening in the Drag community, as you might pick up some cool techniques!

If you would like to learn more about the history of drag and drag culture, you may like to access the resources linked:

The history of hair removal

The final part of history that will be useful for you to know is the history of hair removal! By now, you will have a solid understanding of the styles and shapes over the years, but are you curious to know how our ancestors got rid of their hair? The timeline below provides a visual snapshot of hair removal:

Back in the 1960s, hair removal devices targeted individual follicles through a wire-thin fibre-optic probe but were ineffective at breaking the hair follicle. These days, developments in hair laser technology mean that lasers can now treat varying skin types and hair colours. In the 1930s, the first commercial waxes were manufactured in France to be sold to the public, and in 1987, the Brazilian wax became mainstream. Since the late 80s, wax formulations have been refined and improved, and today, there is a large range of soft wax and hard wax that we can use. Given how far we’ve come and how varied our hair removal choices are today, it’s not surprising that specialised brow bars are becoming more popular!

Did you know… As human beings, in our case, the eyebrows give us a special edge over all the other mammals as we can help express our feelings and emotions better with the help of the pair of brows that are visible on the forehead. Expressions like happiness, a frown or anger, easily find expression in the diverse shapes and depiction through the eyebrows.

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