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"The Harem Servant"
Paul-Desire Trouillebert, 1874

Gilded Serpent presents...
Drawing the Line
by Dawn Devine

Known as mesdemet to the ancient Egyptians, kohl or kajal throughout the Middle East, and surma in Pakistan and India, eyeliner is still one of the most essential cosmetics available in today’s wide variety of makeup options.

Along with henna, kohl has been part of the beauty regimens of women since the dawn of history, and an unbroken line connects the eyes of today with those of the ancients.

Queen NefertititEgyptians
The earliest historical record of eyeliner use appears in the ancient Near East and Egypt. Kohl occupied an important social role in the lives of the Egyptian royalty, serving as a cosmetic enhancement, health treatment, and indicator of social rank and achievement. Kohl was so essential to the Egyptians that it was applied before mum­mification and beautiful vials of it were included for the trip to the afterlife, pre­served eternally. From the tomb paintings of the Old Kingdom to the encaustic portraits of the Roman occupation, recipes for kohl were passed down through the centuries.

Ancient Egyptian kohl was made from natural minerals of the region. Black liners were created from either antimony or galena, which produces a lead sulfide. However, black was not the only color available to the ancients; other essential colors in the cosmetic palette included green ground from malachite, blue from lapis, and white from lead carbonate. These minerals were added to a paste that might include frankincense oil, almond oil and goose fat.

Costumi orientali XVII century
After the Ancients

Egyptian kohl jar

Eyeliner today –
Your Options

All eyeliner is not the same and fortunately for us, makeup companies cater to a broad variety of tastes and needs.  From ultra precise liquid to soft smudgy powder there is something available for everyone. Here is a rundown of the most popular styles of eyelining products available at makeup counters today.

Pencil – Eyeliner pencils are a staple in the makeup boxes of dancers everywhere.  They are easy to use, budget friendly, widely available and come in an astounding range of colors from the deepest black to stark white and everything in between. Versatility comes with the quality of the sharpened tip, which can create a line that is either sharp and fine or soft and smudgy. Today, eyeliners can be completely color coordinated with your total look, lifting color from the costume to the face.

Liquid – Although a little more difficult to master, liquid eyeliner has the benefit of providing precise line control.  While most liquids come with their own built-in application brush, many manufacturers are using fibrous applicators akin to a felt-tip marker that is either dipped into a well, or delivers the product through the tip. Liquid liner requires a steady hand and practice to apply, but the results are worth it.

Powder – Originally, kohl was a powdered mineral applied with a moistened stick.  Today’s powdered eyeliners are available in several forms.  Loose powder in the form of eye shadow or eyeliner is applied either wet or dry using a fine pointed brush.  With powder and a brush, dancers can achieve a high level of control of exactly where the product is placed.  Powders offer the broadest range of color, because you can press virtually any eye shadow into duty, however, powders are messier to apply than pencils or liquids, do not always create intense color and are generally not water resistant.

Although the visual records of the history of the Middle East are sketchy at best, images of women with lovely, lined eyes appear periodically in manuscript illumi­nations created for royal courts from India to Turkey. In these images of courtly life, beautiful women with darkly rimmed eyes grace the pages of epic poetry and historical documents. According to these images, women of all ranks, from the highborn to servant classes, wore kohl.

Away from the urban centers, women throughout the entire region used kohl in their daily lives. Although there is little visual documentation of the daily material culture of Bedouin and nomadic peoples, the traditional use of eyeliner continues into the present day.

For desert dwellers, kohl helps to protect the eye area from dryness, cuts down the glare of the sun, and acts as an antibacterial agent; in this role as a traditional remedy, use extends to men and children as well.

Languid and sensual, odalisques and dancers with darkly lined eyes became part of the consciousness of an art-hungry Western world during the late eighteenth century. The Orientalist movement fueled a desire for history, travel, and genre paintings set in exotic Near Eastern lands. Populated with assorted Middle Eastern “types” such as fierce guards, rug merchants and supple harem women, this genre brought images of lovely women with kohl-rimmed eyes to art salons, galleries and museums.

The look and allure of these painted beauties contrasted sharply with the clean-skinned nineteenth-century Victorian ideals.

Orientalist artists relied on dark, kohl-lined eyes to suggest the allure and glamour of this alternative model of feminine beauty. When Oriental dancers arrived on the Western performance scene at international festivals and fairs, they appealed to a middleclass viewer whose taste for Middle Eastern beauty had already been whetted by popular painting. Elaborately staged tableaux and cultural music and dance shows recreated the popular themes and settings of the Orientalist artists.

Marilyn imitates Theda
Twentieth-Century Fads and Fashion
The first quarter of the twentieth century brought a tidal flood of lovely kohl-wearing performers to the stage and screen. On the stage, numerous Salomes performed their veil dances. Both in wholesome vaudeville shows and on the racier burlesque stages, specialty Oriental dancers appeared in traditional clothes or wearing the newly developed cabaret-style costume. But regardless of their venue or costume style, the ubiquitous kohl was key in creating the standard representation of Middle Eastern beauty.

On screen, actresses embraced the  smoldering blackrimmed eye as part of the iconic look of the exotic Orient. In historical movies such as Cleopatra, starring the infamous Theda Bara, the look of ancient Egypt and contemporary Orientalism fused, creating a look that was mimicked by stylish women of the day. Eyeliner made the leap from artistic Orientalist paintings and stylized stage makeup to the pages of Vogue. For the rest of the twentieth century, eyeliner would follow the vicissitudes of fashion, being reinvented with each season to coordinate with the looks of the day.

The lovely eyes of Setareh!

Today, Tomorrow and Beyond
Women today have thousands of cosmetic options, from natural to synthetic, in a wide variety of colors, application styles, and formulations. We now understand the dangers of traditional kohl recipes, which can rely on poisonous heavy metals to create the matte black powders worn by the ancients. Instead, major corporations have appropriated the word kohl to represent a color, rather than a particular formulation. But no matter what look you prefer—a smudged and smoky eye created with a soft pencil or a thin, razor-sharp line painted with a brush dipped in liquid liner—eyeliner is an essential element in your makeup kit.

What history offers us is plenty of inspiration for different looks and application techniques, as well as an unbroken connection with our past, providing us with endless ways to draw the line.

Eye Safety - Tips for Protecting Your Eyes- Beautiful eyes are an asset for every woman.It doesn’t matter if your style is a smoldering wash of black, a glamorous razor-sharp line, or a more subtle hue for the day—eyeliner is one of the essential components of your face. To protect your eyes, here’s a list of the top tips from a variety of sources including the FDA, health professionals, and makeup artists.
  • If you find a cosmetic irritating, discontinue use immediately.
  • Never use eye makeup if you have an eye infection or if the area is inflamed due to allergies.
  • If you do use a product while you have an infection, dispose of it after you are well to prevent re-infection.
  • Avoid applying eye makeup in a moving vehicle where the applicator wand could injure the eye during sudden stops.
  • Don’t share any mascara or eyeliner products with anyone, ever.
  • Prevent contamination from mouth bacteria by avoiding the use of saliva to moisten eyeliner pencils or eye shadow.
  • Wash your hands before applying eye makeup to avoid cross-contamination with bacteria from the hands.
  • Discard old cosmetics to prevent bacterial growth. Liquid products should be replaced every three months and pencils should be disposed of after a year.
  • Pencils should be sharpened on a regular basis and before each application.
  • If you detect any changes in the color, texture, or scent of a product, discard it immediately.
  • Check labels for potentially dangerous chemicals.
  • Avoid products that contain heavy metals such as lead and antimony, often found in traditional products such as surma and kohl.

Authentic Kohl—Buyer Beware- Today, kohl is a term used by major cosmetic companies to describe not an ingredient but, rather, the color and use of eyeliner products. If you look at an ingredients list, you will not see kohl listed because of the dangers associated with its use.

 Traditional Kohl- As in ancient Egypt, homemade kohl is widely used in rural areas throughout the Middle East. In urban areas, women have access to com­mercially made kohl using traditional ingredients. Lead sulfide, created from ground galena, creates a powder that is deep, rich and black. Antimony, a heavy-metal element, is ground and used as a black pigment either in conjunction with lead sulfide or alone. However, this ebony color is achieved at a high price. Both lead and antimony are toxic ele­ments that cause a host of health rami­fications. Lead poisoning is a common health problem throughout the Middle East and has been linked to the long-term use of lead-based kohl products.

Buyer Beware- The Food and Drug Administration has instituted an official import alert for all cosmetics containing lead-sulfide-based kohl products. Traditional kohl is still being illegally imported and is available through specialty vendors and from Web sites. The FDA requires that all cosmetics sold in the U.S. be accom­panied by an ingredients list. If you are in doubt as to the content or quality of the cosmetic in question, check the ingredients list, and avoid products that include galena, lead sulfide, or antimony. If an ingredients list is unavailable, think twice about purchasing and using the product. When selecting traditional or imported cosmetics, be especially care­ful and only buy from dealers you trust.

Although you may strive to be as authentic as possible, the final look of a dark-rimmed, exotic eye can be achieved using commercially available cosmetics. Be safe and protect your eyes.

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