a cultural history of the eyebrow

Because Rihanna’s Vogue cover is forcing us to reconsider everything.

by Annie Lord
02 August 2018, 11:54am

Image via Christina Aguilera, Dirrty video. 

Eyebrows have gone through many different shapes throughout history. In Ancient Greece unibrows were prized as beautiful features worn by only the most intelligent and lusted-after women, so if rich women didn’t have one they would paint it in. And in the medieval period, the forehead was the most important feature, so women removed their eyelashes and eyebrows to enhance it.

After years of trying to thicken eyebrows out to mirror Cara Delevingne's lucious arches, Rihanna has caused mass panic after appearing on the September cover of UK Vogue with thin, 90s style over-plucked brows. Before we follow her and wax ours into a barely traceable line, it’s important to understand the eyebrows cultural history, otherwise you might do something you regret.


In the Victorian era, makeup was only for “ladies of the night” and the working classes, but with the 1920s, makeup also became associated with silent movie stars. Beauty products were starting to be mass produced through brands such as Maybelline, thus allowing normal women to model themselves after silent film queens like Clara Bow and Marlene Dietrich. The eyebrow style was severely plucked and penciled in thin and extended into the temples to achieve a dramatic, pensive look, one that would stand out on black and white cinema screens.


Women continued to wear severely tweezed brows, but rather than angular lines, they favoured high round arches which curved downwards. When Hollywood makeup artist Max Factor shaved off Greta Garbo’s eyebrows and penciled them back in, her pronounced crescent moon shapes became the defining shape of the decade. Garbo was notable for a sexy kind of shrewdness. In erasing her eyebrows, she exposed all her facial contours, creating a blank slate for acting. Garbo used her face like a mask to project the subtlest changes of feeling. Roland Barthes wrote an entire essay on her “face-object,” where “something sharper than a mask is looming . . . between the curve of the nostrils and the arch of the eyebrows.”


A softer, more natural eyebrow look came into popularity in the ’40s, with the focal point of makeup becoming red lips and black eyeliner. Women looked to movie stars like Katherine Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Lauren Bacall for inspiration. Bacall brought heavier, prominently arched brows into vogue, celebrating a refusal to pluck them or refine her look. In 2011 she explained: "Howard [Hawks] had chosen me for my thick eyebrows and crooked teeth, and that's the way they would stay."


1950s fashion was defined by Dior's 'New Look', a post-war resuscitation of France’s haute couture culture. With its huge skirts and waspy waists, the glamourous new image called for a full face of makeup, powdery foundation and clean cut lips, topped off by a stronger more defined brow than in the 40s. The Hollywood stars of the time, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, and Audrey Hepburn, all boasted lush, immaculately-shaped brows meticulously pencilled in. The economy was booming due to improvements in manufacturing and so too were the brows.


Eyebrows in the 60s fell out of prominence to clumpy lashes, leaving no single overruling style. Sophia Loren had the most famous brows of the decade. Supposedly her natural eyebrows curved down too close to her eyes and made her look sad. So she shaved them off and penciled in each hair using tiny, precise strokes.


The disco era reverted back to the 20s and 30s ultra-thin arches, the ultra glitzy preened look involved iridescent eyelids and bright pink lips, as seen on screen queen icon Pam Grier. Elsewhere, the hippie movement -- with all its magic mushrooms and naked communes -- looked to an unkempt, shaggy makeup look. One can see this in the unfurling eyebrows of Ali MacGraw and Lauren Hutton.


The 80s was the era of excess. Everyone wore shoulder pads and ankle aching platforms, dusted cheeks with bright pink blush and backcombed hair into huge bouffants, leaving a clouds of L’Oreal Elnett in their wake. Everything had to be heavy and this went for eyebrows. The poster girl was Brooke Shields, who allowed hers to be naturally askew, fluffing them up with powders. While Madonna wore hers feathery and dark, clashing with her platinum hair.


Grunge and Goth-like “heroin chic” followed the lured opulence of the 80s. Women wore lace chokers, silky slip dresses and eyebags which let you know they had been up partying until 6am. Brows were again extremely thin, in fact thinner than ever before. Kate Moss, Drew Barrymore and Pamela Anderson plucked them into slight lines and legions of womankind followed their example, leaving a generation with wobbly, gappy brows that were never to recover.


Wispy brows continued to flourish with Christina Aguilera whose arches were approximately one hair wide. So too were Gwen Stefani’s, who borrowed from Chola culture and its taste for thin, sharp brows, heavily outlined cherry lips and shimmery eyeshadow. This much is obvious when you watch the 2004 Luxurious video which places Stefani as the only white chola at a Mexican-American barbecue. She wears a pink shiny bikini top under a ripped image of the virgin mary, long nails, checked shirts and bandanas. Which is all totally okay for a white woman to do, right?


Cara Delevingne’s thick brows brought in an a whole new industry, which left us tending to them more than ever before. The Delevingne brow sits low on the face, is long, with a shallow arch extending towards the hairline and nose, and darker than your hair. In an attempt to achieve this look women get their brows microbladed, have eyebrow hair transplants, HD brow treatments and wear eyebrow wigs to the point where the eyebrow industry is now worth £20m.

With the focus fully on eyebrows, more avante garde and obscure looks have emerged, often in an attempt to go viral over the internet. There was the wavy brow, barbed wire brows, or even Nike tick brows. Makeup vloggers paste thick concealer around either side of their brows to craft excessively clean and highlighted shapes, fading in ombre from dark outer corners to light and fluffy near the nose. It’s the era of Instagram and so it makes sense that eyebrows would be carved with geometric precision.

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This article originally appeared on i-D UK.