A Brief History of Eyebrows, Their Use, & How to Wear Them

by Elysian Magazine

by Pearl Lustre

EYEBROWS HAVE A LONG AND COLORFUL HISTORY. We all know it started with Eve, but no one knows if, or indeed, how, she might have shaped her eyebrows. After all, there were no pomades or powders, creams, or eyebrow mouses (which begs the question, could she have used apple juice?). If you look closely at “The Fall of Man, the Story of Adam and Eve,” by 16th-century Venetian painter Titian—which I did, at the

A beautician marks the dimensions of the eyebrow with a white pencil to prepare for an eyebrow enhancement procedure. Michelle Aleksa / shutterstock.com

Prado in Madrid—he gave Eve an arched eyebrow, kind of how Hollywood makeup artist William Julian Tuttle (1912-2007) did when he made up Katharine Hepburn for the classic Hollywood comedy “Pat and Mike” in 1952 and that same year Debbie Reynolds in “Singin’ in the Rain.”
But let’s be honest and give credit where credit is due—to Horus, a.k.a. Heru, Her, or Hor, the big cheese among Egyptian gods whose dark eyebrows inspired his mortal followers to paint their own eyebrows and around the eyes with black oxide and carbon paint, Queen Nefertiti among them. And of course, so did Cleopatra, who Elizabeth Taylor portrayed in the major motion picture extravaganza “Cleopatra.” Indeed, it is a little-known fact that Liz applied her own makeup from sketches drawn by makeup artist Alberto de Rossi. Al, you see, injured his back and had to have emergency surgery, so Liz had to do all her own makeup by herself, and a mighty fine job she did, too.


ONE CANNOT GIVE MAX FACTOR all the credit for shaving off many actresses’ eyebrows like he did Harlow’s—and Garbo’s, Joan Crawford’s, Claudette Colbert’s, and Myrna Loy’s, to name but a few. It was the Chinese, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), who deserve all the credit. This new fad caught on in the Japanese court, and they gave it a name—hikimayu—which, when translated, means “pull eyebrows,” or “tweezing,” one would suppose. Only noblewomen and geisha girls were permitted to wear white foundation and pencil-arched eyebrows high upon their forehead as a sure sign of nobility. In fact, hikimayu has been in style among geishas ever since.

Greta Garbo portrait by Clarence Sinclair Bull. courtesy heritage auctions / ha.com

NOW, LET’S GALLOP FORWARD a millennium to Queen Elizabeth I of England. Not only did the Virgin Queen popularize plucking one’s eyebrows ‘til they were pencil-thin, but she advocated rubbing walnut oil onto the brow and, too, the hairline to thwart hair growth. Yes, you heard me . . . hairline. Queen Liz set the style for a hairline that practically began at the crown of her head (not crown, as in gold and gemstones; crown, the top of the head). Of course, what her majesty failed to disclose was that she had lost her eyebrows and almost all of her hair after she survived a nearly fatal case of smallpox when she was 29. Some transformation, eh? One day she’s this gorgeous young woman with a bountiful head of flowing red hair, and the next she’s an unsmiling spinster who wore white cake makeup to cover her terrible pox marks for the rest of her life. When she died in 1603, at age 69, it is believed the cause of her death was poisoning from the toxic zinc oxide and lead that were ingredients in her white foundation cream.

If the eyes are the window to the soul, eyebrows are the window sill.


WOMEN FINALLY EMBRACED their natural eyebrows in the 18th century. This was the age of “big hair,” when coiffures rose to breathtaking heights by attaching fabric or cork heart-shaped cushions to the crown of the head, upon which the woman’s hair was curled, waved, frizzed, augmented with hairpieces, and even with wads of hair collected from hairbrushes, then piled high. And, for the finishing touch, powdered heavily with white flour—which did indeed attract lice and other odious insects. Ah, what price beauty! Eyebrows were a point of pride and were never, or hardly ever, plucked. If a woman did not have sufficiently thick eyebrows, there was a solution that, alas, has not stood the test of time. Mice were trapped for their fur. The fur was trimmed off the carcass, styled into an eyebrow, and attached to the woman’s forehead with adhesive. Voila!

jean harlow

God created eyebrows to prevent the sweat rolling down your forehead from getting into your eyes when you’re working out at the gym. Max Factor created eyebrow pencil to give Jean Harlow dramatically arched, drawn-in eyebrows after he shaved hers off. cineclassico / Alamy Stock Photo

WHICH FINALLY BRINGS US BACK to the 1920s and 1930s. Renowned British photographer Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) commented on Marlene Dietrich’s famously exaggerated, penciled-in eyebrows after he photographed her: “Instead of eyebrows,” he said, “she has limned butterflies’ antennae on her forehead.” For those women who opted to pluck the hell out of their eyebrows, they gave shine to what hairs remained with a touch of Vaseline.

Again, for those of us with heavy eyebrows and a low threshold of pain when it comes to tweezing, we owe much to Liz Taylor and also to Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, and Marilyn Monroe—and lest we forget, Joan Crawford, who grew her eyebrows back—and was lucky she could. Many women who over-tweezed, like my mother, never could get them to grow back. Beware!

Elizabeth Taylor made thick eyebrows glamorous, sparing grateful women like me from the pain of excessive tweezing. But it was Nefertiti, queen of the 18th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt, the Great Royal Wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten in 1370 BC, who first knew how to shape them.

And then there was Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), who celebrated the unibrow—which, thankfully, never quite took off. And the young Brooke Shields, who barely got away with it.

At last, back to the present with the “fluffy brow,” as some playfully call it, which is both tweezed and made up au naturel, as Lily Collins and Angelina Jolie do. In an interview with the British edition of “Glamour” magazine, Lily “revealed that after she spent her high school years hacking away at her now-infamous eyebrows, she doesn’t let anyone else come near them now. That’s right, there is no threading here, it’s all just personal maintenance. ‘I do it all myself,’ she said. ‘I simply look in a magnifying mirror, get the tweezers and follow the line. I don’t let anyone touch them. I really think less is more and I like to mess them up. But to be honest, I do maintenance every night. They are a work of art, after all.’”
As for Angela Jolie, she recently commented, “I’m getting a wrinkle above my eyebrow because I just can’t stop lifting it, and I love that, you know.”

Closeup of a beautician applying the Japanese method of drawing on eyebrows to a model. MilanMarkovic78 / shutterstock.com Opposite: Elizabeth Taylor as the title character in “Cleopatra,” 1960, photographed by Bert Stern. courtesy heritage auctions / ha.com

AND NOW, FOR A TRUE STORY. Once upon a time, a long time ago, I finally gave in to my mother’s relentless pleas and went with her to Elizabeth Arden’s Red Door Salon, on the tony part of Fifth Avenue in New York City, to get my eyebrows professionally shaped. I was reluctant when I walked in, and when shown to the cosmetician’s chair, frozen in fear. I had heard the stories of women whose eyebrows never grew back! I loved my eyebrows! So what if they were thick! God gave them to me! The eyebrow expert went at it for what seemed like hours, though probably it was only about 10 minutes. And when she handed me a mirror, I didn’t recognize myself. All right, I’ll be honest. I was gorgeous. She explained to me that if you visually drew a line from the inside of your eye at the tear duct, upward to where your eyebrow comes above the bridge of your nose, that is the point where you want to tweeze, between your two eyebrows, but no more. Then envision the same thing from the pupil of your eye directly to the center of your eyebrow: that’s where the eyebrow should come to an arch. Follow the natural line of your brow to the hairline, only removing those hairs that are outside of the line as it tapers to a point about 25 degrees from the outside corner of your eye or wherever the brow naturally ends. As Anastasia Soare, founder of Anastasia Cosmetics, says, “The human eye uses the eyebrow as an anchor point for the rest of the face. This is why a woman can look truly stunning without any makeup but perfectly shaped, full eyebrows.”
And you can, too. ■

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