a brief history of guyliner

A male makeup love affair as old as time.

by Emily Kirkpatrick
15 June 2018, 6:07pm


In 2018, as we see the boundaries of gender, sexuality, and self-expression become increasingly blurred if not altogether erased, a man sporting a full face of flawlessly applied makeup is hardly anything novel. In fact, an increasingly wide array of gentlemen are waking up to the wonderful world of cosmetics from Ezra Miller slaying in a Fenty lip on the red carpet to Queer Eye's Tom learning to successfully apply color correcting concealer at the age of 57. But while men diving head first into the deep end of contouring may be a relatively new phenomenon, it turns out they've been perfecting their cat-eye technique for the last four millennium at least.

A lid thickly rimmed in kohl first appeared in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia as early as 2200 B.C. The powder they used was made of charcoal soot and water and was painted on in an elongated cat-eye to give the affect of lengthening the shape of the eyes. Pharaohs used it not only to help minimize glare from the hot desert sun, but also as a means of communicating power and position. And the trend was still going strong into 330 B.C. when Alexander the Great also lined his eyes with charcoal to ward off flies.

It actually wasn't until the mid-1800s that makeup was relegated to one end of the gender spectrum. Queen Victoria I declared that the use of cosmetics and makeup was vulgar and impolite. As a result, she asserted that only whores should wear makeup. There was one exception, however: male actors. Thespians continued to wear cosmetics on stage, especially as they had to regularly dress in drag to play all the female roles and this exaggeration of their features helped people in the cheap seats better understand the play. This tradition of stage actors wearing makeup was then translated onto the silver screen where the biggest stars of the silent film era, like Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino, used this trick to draw focus to their expressive eyes

Charlie Chaplin in The Kid

While the look fell out of vogue with the arrival of the talkies, it sprung back into fashion in the fifties thanks to rock and roll forefathers like Little Richard and James Brown who paired a crisp swipe of black along their waterline with pompadours and sharply tailored suits. As with everything else, Elvis was quick to follow in their footsteps, picking up on the new style and adding a touch of guyliner into his repertoire thus cementing his sex god status.

But while makeup for men in the 50s and 60s was all about going undetected in order to up the heartthrob factor, by the 70s rock icons were wielding their makeup as a weapon, practically daring the masses to question their masculinity or call them effeminate. These men not only wore makeup, but wore it proudly, and were all some of the biggest sex symbols of the 20th century not in spite of but because of it. David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Steven Tyler, Prince and more all never met an inky black liner, red lipstick, or glitter shadow they didn't like.

David Bowie/YouTube

In the 80s, you can really see how male musician's approach to beauty began to diversify, breaking off into two distinct genres, those who leaned into the femininity and delicacy of it all, like Boy George or The Cure's Robert Smith, versus those who transformed a dark ring of liner and stark stripe of rouge into a statement of rough and tumble machismo via hair bands like Motley Cru and Poison.

But it was Kurt Cobain in the 90s who latched on to those overt notions of manliness and completely subverted them, helping to usher in the era of the Riot Grrrl. As a proud feminist, the grunge star undoubtedly acutely understood the gender roles he was playing with, regularly pairing a smudged smokey eye with a tattered floral dress or lace slip. In this manner, he harkened back to the trailblazing legends of the 70s and once again defied expectations of what a rockstar, especially one who made his name as the face of grunge, should look and act like.

By the late 90s and early aughts, this brand of makeup had become completely coopted by pop-punk and it's younger brother, emo. Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong is, of course, the guyliner poster boy who helped bring this punk staple into the mainstream and his name has become so synonymous with the style that Kat Von D even launched an eyeliner in collaboration with him in January 2018. At the same time, The Killers frontman Brandon Flowers and Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz became perfect representatives of their 00s Hot Topic-shopping fans with powdered porcelain skin and melting eyeliner, while American Idol's Adam Lambert gave America its first taste of just how fierce this look could be. Bad boy actors like Johnny Depp, fresh from his role as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, and newly-minted rock star Jared Leto began to adopt the heavily rimmed style as well, introducing us to the peak of the "guyliner" zeitgeist circa summer 2006 when the term was officially coined.

Which brings us to today, when guyliner is just one of the myriad of legitimate makeup options men have at their disposal. With the popularity of shows like Ru Paul's Drag Race and a new generation latching onto terms like genderqueer and non-binary, men in full faces of makeup are increasingly a fixture of our everyday lives. And beauty brands from Tom Ford to Clinique are taking note, finding ways to market to a new demographic of men looking to enhance or conceal their features. So the good news is whether you fancy yourself a Manny Gutierrez or see yourself more a a Khal Drogo type, in 2018, there's a guyliner out there for literally everyone.

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