This Is The Unique History Behind Your Favourite Eye Product


This Is The Unique History Behind Your Favourite Eye Product

This Is The Unique History Behind Your Favourite Eye Product

By Khanak Mehta


There’s one universal truth that every Indian knows – the first makeup product that we all get introduced to is either a kajal or an eyeliner. This ‘eye’conic makeup item has been worn by everyone from our favourite Bollywood stars like Aishwarya Rai, to our mothers and sisters at home, too. Truly the one product that transcends both literal and metaphorical boundaries and differences, it has been a key part of our culture and daily lives for centuries now.


But the eyeliner (also known as kajal or Surma) hasn’t always been accepted so well in history. In fact, there were moments where it was shunned, times when it was embraced, and instances where its usage quite literally defined you. Get ready to step into your beauty time machine with us and take a closer look. 


3100 B.C. - 332 B.C. | Egyptian Innovations 

You can thank the ancient Egyptians for your cat-eye flick – after all, this is where it all began! This practice was done by tracing a thick line of kohl over and under the eyes with a thin stick or needle and popularised by Egyptian queens Nefertiti and Cleopatra. Both men and women wore kohl, and it was used as a marker of your status, too. At that time, kohl was created with lead sulphite and other minerals mixed with water or animal fat. Poorer Egyptians did not have access to these minerals and used fire soot instead, which lead to the creation of a kohl mixture that was matte and did not stay for long, making their status and social class more obvious. Wearing kohl was also considered a way to honour deities and maintain hygiene thanks to its anti-bacterial properties. 


320 A.D. - 550 A.D. | Gupta Age 

While the Gupta period is considered the ‘Golden Age of India’ by historians, it is the golden age of eyeliner in our books, too. This time period is particularly known for its focus on art, culture, and iconography, and this attitude translated into daily life as well. In fact, kajal was not just seen as a cosmetic, rather an essential that a woman’s morning routine was incomplete without. Ayurvedic practitioners also encouraged its use to maintain eye health and there were even special medicated kajals to tackle specific eye issues. At that time, kajal was prepared by dipping a clean muslin rag in a sandalwood paste for its medicinal properties. Once it was dry, it would be burnt in a lamp of castor oil. The remains were then stirred with ghee for easier application. 


1837 A.D. - 1901 A.D | Victorian Values 

Victorian-era cosmetics are known to be toxic and damaging, so it is quite a relief to know that wearing obvious makeup was frowned upon during these times thanks to Queen Victoria declaring it impolite for proper society. Women were encouraged to embrace their natural beauty, as makeup was considered deceptive and fraudulent especially in the eyes of the Church. So, while eyeliner fell out of favour in this era, women still tried to achieve the natural look – think of the ‘#WokeUpLikeThis makeup look but really scaled back. They did this by darkening their lashes with hair pins that were blackened by a fire or dipped in kohl. 


1950 A.D. - 2022 A.D. | The Comeback

What do you get when you mix post-war beauty in the west with Madhubala’s eyeliner look in Mughal-E-Azam here? Hint: It’s the perfect recipe for eyeliners to find their way back into beauty bags around the world. Taken further by the ‘flower power’ movement in the 70s and then supermodels in the 90s, its popularity has now continued into the current decade, too. Bold wings became popular in 2016 thanks to YouTubers and pop culture icons like Kim Kardashian favouring it, and a kitten flick has now become a key component of the barely there, ‘clean girl’ look that is dominating 2022. Safe to say, this is one makeup product that has quite literally lasted the test of time while still being so incredibly versatile.