The History of Women and Their Eyelashes

We've batted 'em since the beginning of time.

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On the heels of a relatively groundbreaking study that found that 1) Eyelashes are always about one-third as long as the eye is wide and 2) This is the ideal length for diverting air flow to keep eyes from drying, our main takeaway is that they're just as consequential to our health as they are, ahem, important for our vanity.

To celebrate the role they've played in the latter for women since day one, we're looking back on how eyelash trends and treatments have evolved through the years. But be forewarned, they range from impressively crafty to just plain dangerous.

Ladies, if you've ever caught your man reaching for a mascara wand—fear not. In Ancient Egypt, men used to style their lashes just as often as women. They used kohl and ointments to darken the lashes, which also served as protection for their eyes from the sun's harmful rays. Not to be outdone, women also used malachite on their lashes as they believed it worked as an aphrodisiac. We'll stick to oysters, thank you.

In Rome, eyelashes that were long, thick, and curled were a sought-after beauty trait. Women used kohl and burnt cork to darken their eyelashes. Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote that lashes fell out from excessive sex—yes, seriously—so women would also look after them to prove their chastity.

During Medieval Times, the forehead was considered to be the most beautiful and erotic feature of a woman's face. To further emphasize them, women often removed either most or all of their eyelashes and eyebrows. That's certainly a look.

When Queen Elizabeth took the throne, her reddish-golden hair was instantly en vogue and women dyed their eyelashes to match. However, this proved very dangerous, as certain toxic substances used resulted in hair loss. (Um, cute?) Since dyeing lashes wasn't a fully accepted custom in society, women would frequently do it in private, secretly using crushed berries and soot from fireplaces.

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Mutnezemt, Ancient Egyptian queen of the 18th dynasty; Unknown woman from Ancient Rome; Unkown woman from the Middle Ages; Elizabeth I, Queen of England

It was during the Romantic era that cosmetics first came into use, although homemade substances and elixirs were still common. The first mascara was developed by Eugène Rimmel (yes, that Rimmel), a perfumer to Queen Victoria, and was primarily comprised of coal dust and Vaseline jelly. His invention caused quite a sensation.

Although alternatives were available, many women were still looking to household products to make their own formulas. It's said that in 1916, fake eyelashes were invented by American film director David W. Griffith to create a fluttering lash effect for silent film actresses. Even so, they didn't become popular until the '30s.

In 1917, a woman named Mabel Williams worked with a drug manufacturer to come up with "Lash-Brow-Ine," a formula made of petroleum jelly and oils to provide sheen. Eventually, their trademark became Maybelline and over the next decade, they became a household name.

While there's discrepancy over who exactly invented the eyelash curler, a 1931 patent claims it was William McDonell who called it the Kurlash. It wasn't too different from the curling wonders of today—made of stainless steel and modeled after scissors. They become very popular as they curled the lashes within seconds and were relatively inexpensive. In 1933, the term mascara came into play and Maybelline designed a 10-cent package sold in drugstores.


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Actress Gabrielle Ray, late 1800s; Gloria Swanson, 1923; Geraldine Brooks, 1940

At the time, makeup was all about emphasizing the peepers—and painting cat eyes on the upper lashline, with fanned-out lashes to match, was a trend. In the early '40s, waterproof mascara formulas were introduced and became very popular. In 1958, Revlon introduced the first mascara package in a tube with a spiral-tip wand.

In 1960, Revlon invented the first colored formula with its "Brush on Mascara," which came in hues like mauve and dark green. At the time, full, dramatic, and slightly-spidery lashes were in and more attention was given to the lower lashes than ever. Women also opted for painted, brush-stroke lashes à la Twiggy. It was in 1971 that cult-favorite Maybelline Great Lash, a water-based mascara, hit the market. It's one of our favorites to this day.

In 1988, Max Factor created No Color Mascara, a clear formula that boasted a smudge-proof finish. Madonna was also at the height of popularity, making full, fan-like eyelashes all the more coveted. In the more-is-more late '80s and early '90s, colored mascara also experienced a revival in Rainbow Brite hues. In fact, women used "hair mascara" to paint rainbow streaks in their hair.

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Elizabeth Taylor, 1950; Twiggy, 1967; Madonna, 1986

Yes, the bigger, the better—but still, the beauty of lashes today is that they can be whatever kind you want them to be. There's all sort of technology at your finger tips, from lash hair extensions to faux fur falsies (a J. Lo signature), as well as a million different mascaras, in every shade under the sun, with wands that will curve, vibrate, taper, or comb to your heart's desire.

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Jennifer Lopez, Kim Kardashian, and Olivia Munn all in 2014.

You should also check out:
Game Over: I Found Literally the Best Mascara Ever

The History of Women and Their Eyebrows

Best Mascara Buys for Spring

Beauty Editor

Lauren Valenti is Vogue’s former senior beauty editor. Her work has also appeared on,, and in In Style. She graduated with a liberal arts degree from Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts, with a concentration on Culture and Media Studies and a minor in Journalism.