Eyebrows have been getting more attention than ever. Bold, thick brows are favored, and today we’ve perfected techniques to deliver the look of lush eyebrows to anyone.
But things haven’t always been this way. When our culture, technology, and fashion were different, this was reflected in eyebrow styles.
In modern Western culture and in other groups influenced by it, eyebrows have been an important beauty statement since the early 1900s when makeup lost its association with the world’s oldest profession. Since then, people have enjoyed experimenting with different eyebrow trends set by entertainers, models, and other style icons. Thick, thin, arched, curved, angled, or flat: eyebrows have been a way to express one’s unique beauty while keeping up with the tastes of the day.
And fascination with eyebrows goes back even further in time. Ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks, as well as medieval Chinese, Japanese, and European people, used the materials they had available to play with the color, design, and position of their brows. The desire to express and enhance is part of the human experience.
Trends come and go. The only constant in eyebrows has been change. Like hemlines and hairstyles, brow shapes evolve. As we look at the eyebrow styles over the years, some may seem unattractive or even bizarre. But is any style better than another, or were they simply suited to their times?
In ancient Egypt kohl was used by men, women, and children. In a culture spanning 3100 BCE to 332 BCE, people used this black powder (usually antimony or lead sulfide) to define and accentuate their eyes. According to a tradition, the painted eye paid tribute to the god Horus. Other sources suggest eye makeup was used to keep away evil and disease.
Egyptians also used kohl to darken and shape their eyebrows. Egyptian women shaped them into a bold arch, as can be seen in this bust of Nefertiti, wife of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, whose brows seem surprisingly modern.
History records that Egyptians would also temporarily shave their brows while mourning certain people as well as their cats, animals with great spiritual importance.
Throughout ancient Egypt and nearby Mesopotamia, the common practice of the day was to remove all body and facial hair except for the eyelashes and eyebrows. In Egypt head hair was typically shaved by both men and women, and wigs or headdresses were worn. Egyptians were familiar with waxing and sugaring, using oil, honey, and cloth strips to remove unwanted hair.
Purity was one of the ideals of ancient Greece (800 BCE – 146 BCE), and leaving the eyebrows untouched–or only slightly enhanced with black powder–reflected this value.
Natural eyebrows were prized as beautiful.
This attitude even extended to the unibrow look, considered attractive and thought to reveal intelligence, another prized virtue. The large-eyed woman in this ancient painting has the ideal Greek brows.
If not blessed by nature with brows that almost blended together, some women would use kohl to narrow the gap between their brows.
Another trick ancient Greek women used to help Mother Nature was fashioning false brows from dyed goat hairs.
Statues and mosaics from ancient Rome (753 BCE – 27 BCE) reveal a fondness for the unibrow similar to the Greeks’.
Romans preferred large eyes with long eyelashes, framed by thick dark brows. To darken their eyebrows, Roman women used kohl or soot to fill them in and extend them inward. Tweezing began in the 1st century BCE to remove a few stray hairs, but the overall look remained strong eyebrows set close together.
The ancient Greek and Roman preference is certainly different than the more modern American point of view expressed in the following saying:
“If your eyebrows meet above your nose, you’ll never wear your wedding clothes.”
Makeup has a history in China going back many centuries, but the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) stands out as a time of daring and original eyebrow styles. On a canvas of a white face created with a lead-based ointment or rice powder, women would paint bright red lips and, at times, a yellow forehead. Maybe the most striking feature of all was the eyebrows.
Women would shave their natural eyebrows and cover the area with white makeup. They would then apply a bluish black pigment made from charred willow to fashion cosmetic brows higher on the face. As tastes changed through the decades, various colors were used for eyebrows, with greenish blue being popular. At one point, the emperor’s harem reportedly used 27 quarts of eyebrow makeup a day* [see note at bottom].
During the Tang Dynasty, many eyebrow shapes went in and out of style over the decades, much like what happens today. One unusual style was a sad or pensive look created by eyebrows that drooped at the tails, somewhat like the eyebrows that were in style in the West in the 1920s. Another creative brow style of the Tang Dynasty imitated moth wings.
A remarkable beauty feature during the Tang Dynasty was the huadian, a design ranging from a simple dot to a complex marking, which was drawn or pasted between or above the eyebrows. The woman pictured here has recreated a Tang Dynasty style, complete with a huadian.
Throughout historical times in Japan, the eyebrows have been an important feature. They were often fashioned into predetermined shapes, each with a distinctive name. Painted-on eyebrows date back further than rouge in Japan and were more popular.
The color of the brows was usually black, but blue eyebrows are also depicted in art from this era.
During the Heian era (794 to 1185 CE) in Japan, both men and women of nobility would pluck their eyebrows and paint new ones about an inch higher.
In the 12th century it was popular for women to shave their natural eyebrows and create painted ones exceptionally high on the forehead, as recreated in this photo. Another part of this look involved blackening the teeth. It’s thought this practice started because the stark white foundation of the era would make teeth appear yellow by contrast.
The Middle Ages in Europe lasted from the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century CE until the Renaissance in the 15th century.
The eastern reaches of the old Roman Empire continued to hold onto some Roman customs. In the 6th century, Byzantine Empress Theodora (depicted in this mosaic), wife of Emperor Justinian I, had bold eyebrows that almost met in the middle.
But further west in Europe, the amount of hair on the body and face seems to have lost a lot of its former social stigma or status.
Even though history doesn’t track this period in as much detail as some others, we do know that status was conveyed more through the tailoring and fabric of clothing than through eyebrow grooming or cosmetics. Many women seemed to have natural, no-fuss eyebrows and simple or chopped hairstyles topped with a head covering, as shown in this painting).
Towards the end of the Middle Ages, things changed and a bare-faced look with a high forehead became a popular way for women to style the face.
Because the forehead was the focal point, women would draw attention to a high, round dome by thinning out the eyebrows to a wisp of a line or by removing them altogether.
The Elizabethan Era
The focus on the forehead persisted beyond the Middle Ages into the Elizabethan Era (which ended in 1603) and even for some time beyond. Queen Elizabeth I, pictured here, was a style icon of the era. Women tried to attain her pale skin, strawberry blonde hair, and high forehead If not genetically gifted with a high hairline, a woman might pluck or shave hair off her forehead.
Of course, today’s wide selection of beauty products weren’t available in those days, so women would use accessible ingredients.
For example, they rubbed walnut oil on the eyebrows and hairline in an attempt to thwart hair growth there. Even children’s hair and brows were trained in this way.
When the strong forehead finally lost favor, it’s said that women who’d destroyed their follicles by overplucking would make eyebrow wigs from mouse hide. But these reports are disputed.
The Victorian Era
During the Victorian Era (1837-1901), there were two looks for women: painted and natural.
Painted refers to the heavy use of cosmetics practiced by the prostitutes and actresses of the era. Eyebrows were filled in (darkened), eyes were lined, and lips and cheeks were colored with rouge.
A natural look was prescribed for all other women and involved a minimal use of makeup that appeared like no makeup at all. “Respectable” women would use items like clear or discreetly tinted lip pomade to subtly enhance the lips and light powder to cover freckles and skin imperfections. Eyebrows were generally left alone, although they might be slightly darkened and tamed with castor oil. If eyebrows were filled in with any makeup, the work had to be very subtle and skillful to avoid detection.
These guidelines grew from Victorian ideals that women should be virtuous, chaste, feminine, calm, respectable, and devoted to motherhood and domesticity.
The 1900s and 1910s
Eyebrows at the dawn of the 20th century were still influenced by the tastes of the Victorian Era for a natural, minimalistic look. So, there was nothing remarkable or radical happeing in the eyebrow world.
As in Victorian times, it was consideed immodest and risque to noticeably enhance one’s looks with heavy cosmetics or tweezing.
Women still found ways to look better while avoiding a “vulgar” appearance. For example, they would comb their eyebrows and set them with clear pomade or castor oil.
Some women experimented with tinting their brows lighter or darker, but the goal was to look as if no tampering had been done.
Eyebrows were thick and straight in this period. This conveyed the demure and natural style of the time, when many women wore little if any makeup.
Actors in the emerging movie industry were an exception. Makeup was needed that would flatter them in the particular lighting and film processing used in these high-contrast black and white movies. A heavier application was thought to help actors express emotions onscreen in the silent films of the times.
In the 1920s, film technology and storytelling techniques continued to advance. Movies became a widespread form of entertainment in many countries. Actors were getting credit for their roles, and stars were born. Women took inspiration from these performers (such as Clara Bow, pictured here), a trend that continues even now.
As the face was beginning to be seen in a new way, the use of makeup in the film industry spread to society at large. Eyebrows were no longer required to be kept in a natural state. Ultra-thin pigmented brows, as worn by the film stars, were accepted as a fashion choice, part of a new look for women that included shorter hair and hemlines too.
Besides gaining in acceptability, cosmetics were becoming more accessible to the general public. Max Factor, who had pioneered the use of makeup in the film industry, came out with products for consumers outside of the industry in 1927. This included the first eyebrow pencil.
With the eyebrow pencil, women were able to adapt Hollywood styles to their own faces. A very chic look in the Roaring ’20s was the pencil-thin, fairly straight brow with a downward sloping tail (shown left), a style that often created a sad, pensive, or moody look. This look was dubbed the “sad brow” or the “skinny brow.” This style of eyebrows was also thought to make the eyes appear larger. Radical plucking and penciling were required to achieve this look, and women sometimes used Vaseline to shape and add shine. Or, brows could be shaved off entirely and recreated with a pencil.
The change in style from natural brows to long, thin, dramatic brows was part of an extreme shift in fashion that intentionally marked a departure with the conservative past. With new inspiration and tools for shaping eyebrows, many women became fascinated with the possibilities for expression. An era of glamour ensued, and the mad cycle of thin vs. thick eyebrow trends began.
Some changes came about in the 1930s. Less eyeliner was used than in the 1920s, but lush lashes were all the rage. More than any other feature, lips were the focus of the face.
The eyebrow plucking continued, with brows getting thinner and thinner. Some women removed their eyebrows entirely in order to have free reign in designing new ones. Advances in makeup allowed eyebrow pencil to be more user friendly. With additional oils and pigment, high precision was possible. The fairly flat shape of the ’20s yielded to the highly curved shape of the ’30s, achieved through tweezing and the use of pencil to accentuate the arch. Depression-era eyebrows were often shiny too, drawing further attention.
This thin, rounded style tended to make a face appear feminine and somewhat aloof. Taken to an extreme, the ’30s style of brows could create a look of perpetual surprise.
Movies provided a escape and a dose of glamour during the Great Depression. By the time of the “talkies,” actors weren’t as reliant on facial expressions to tell a story, which may explain the delicate brows. The ’30’s eyebrows can be seen in photos of well-known women of the era, including Glenda Farrell (pictured here in 1934) Jean Harlow, Billie Holiday, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo, who influenced beauty trends.
After two decades of thin brows, a softer, heavier, more prominent brow came into vogue in the 1940s. This new brow featured medium-to-thick, well-defined arches. Even though the 1940s brow was heavier, it came across as less severe than the skinny brows of the 1930s.
The shift to a fuller, more natural eyebrow coincided with World War II. Many women around the world were supporting the war effort, whether in military service, munitions factories, or traditionally male jobs vacated by men serving their country. Women typically had less time for fussing over their grooming routine, and a natural brow requred less upkeep than an aggressively plucked one.
The ’40s brow still required shaping and grooming, but it was easier to maintain than eyebrow styles of the past few decades. Styling usually included medium filling with a brow pencil for definition and a light coat of Vaseline for shape and shine.
Even though it required less work, the 1940s eyebrow had maximum impact. Combined with the cherry red lips of the decade, it came to epitomize Old Hollywood glamour. In fact, the red carpet looks of today are often inspired by the celebrity fashion trends of the 1940s.
Film actresses of the ’40s who wore the prominent brows of the decade included Gene Tierney (pictured here in the swim suit), Lauren Bacall, and Joan Crawford.
The arched shapes of the ’40s continued throughout the ’50s, with added focus and boldness. In the 1950’s the brows were in the spotlight as the defining facial feature.
Full, dark brows, somewhat wide-set and heavily filled in with pencil or powder, were popularized by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor (shown here), who some considered to have the most beautiful eyes in the world, as well as Audrey Hepburn. Marilyn Monroe’s arches were similar but customized to flatter her features. Heavy makeup was chic in the 1950s.
The end of World War II meant the end of employment outside the home for many women, making it possible to go back to a more involved beauty regimen. In the ’50s beauty trends signaled a return to traditional gender roles. Makeup expressed a bold femininity.
With the widespread popularity of movies around the world, makeup trends went international. Indonesian film star Lies Noor (pictured here, 1955) wore the same eyebrow style that was popular in the West at the time.
The 1960s are remembered as a time of change and experimentation. Many folks in the ’60s were re-evaluating their beliefs, lifestyle, and positions on social issues. Fashion and makeup trends reflected this complex decade in their originality and options.
One variety of ’60s style was a continuation of a lot of ’50s themes among more traditional women. Their clothing loosened up in the ’60s, but they continued to wear heavier makeup and have strong, arched eyebrows. Sophia Loren (shown here, 1962), is one example.
Another variety of ’60s style reflected a more experimental attitude. Twiggy (depicted in the illustration) shows off the mod look with a new emphasis on the eyes, accentuated with liner and mascara or false lashes. Her eyebrows were sized down so as not to compete for attention with her eyes. Pattie Boyd wore her long bangs over her eyebrows for the same effect. Lips were pale (again, to keep the focus on the eyes). Even more experimental was the look of Edie Sedgwick, who dyed her hair platinum blonde and contrasted it with blackened eyebrows.
Still another variety of style in the ’60s was a natural bohemian or hippie look. This was adopted by young women who questioned the convention of wearing makeup. Eyebrows were left alone or filled in lightly with short pencil strokes for a natural appearance. Many men and women chose not to remove any body or facial hair.
With the wide range of available styles in the 1960s, the reason for wearing makeup shifted somewhat from trying to look feminine and beautiful to expressing oneself and creating a personal style.
As in the ’60’s, several eyebrow styles coexisted in the ’70’s.
One was a natural style and featured a brushed, slightly tamed version of the eyebrows a person was born with. Stray hairs might have been lightly tweezed. Brows were gently arched, medium width, and filled in subtly if at all.
These eyebrows were part of an overall tanned, athletic, healthy look favored by many ’70’s women.
Little if any eye makeup was worn during the day. Some women would wear bronzer or neutral lipstick. At night, pastel eyeshadow, mascara, and a low-key lip color might be worn. The effect sought was natural with some polish.
Lauren Hutton (shown here) exemplified the fresh-faced look of the times, along with Lindsay Wagner, Peggy Lipton, and Ali MacGraw.
A subset of the natural look was the folk, boho, or hippie aesthetic which tended to reject cosmetics altogether.
While some went natural in the ’70s, others preferred a glam, disco-inspired look. A high, thin brow (as worn by Diana Ross) with heavy lashes and sparkly eyeshadow became increasingly popular as the decade passed. Donna Summer and Pam Grier also chose this style. Some photos of Deborah Harry show her rocking this look as well.
Eyebrow waxing became widespread during the 1970s, setting the stage for home and professional shaping. One popular look (now nicknamed “sperm brows”) involved wide-set brows that were long and thin except for a tuft near the bridge of the nose.
After the thinness of brows in the late 1970s, it’s not surprising that the pendulum swung back in the other direction towards thick brows.
In fact, the 1980s were about bigness in a lot of areas: big growth of the economy, big changes in world politics, big shoulder pads, big accessories, big hair, big nails. (Google the absurd “big suit,” worn by David Byrne in 1986.)
The beauty industry made some steps in recognizing diversity. The women shown here modeled the more refined version of the ’80s brow, created with a bit of filling-in, a brush, and some gel. A strong, full, feathered look, with very little tweezing, was in vogue.
The untamed version of the ’80s brow can be seen in early photos of Madonna and of the decade’s brow icon Brooke Shields. This barely-groomed style was sometimes referred to as “caterpillar brows.”
The 1980s saw a new trend: piercing of the eyebrows, often in multiple places.
Another trend was the emergence of brow stylists who specialized in this increasingly important feature.
Maybe it was the stock market crash of 1989. Or it could have been fatigue over all things big. But the 1990s’ response to the 1980s was in many areas a complete about-face. Fashion downsized from the bigness of the ’80s to such trends as the ultrathin heroin-chic models of the ’90s.
Eyebrows went from superthick to superthin. And not only were brows thin, but they were also fairly short in length.
This look was achieved by extreme plucking and usually not much filling in. Some women were more cautious with the tweezers, while others (like Drew Barrymore, pictured here) wholeheartedly embraced the trend. Other style icons from the ’90s who adopted the skinny eyebrow were Pamela Anderson, Kate Moss, Ginger Spice, and Gwen Stefani.
As often happens, celebrities inspired millions of women to try a style. The skinny brow of the ’90s may have been fun while it lasted, but the aggressive tweezing caused quite a few women to lose brow hairs permanently, making it harder for them to switch to the different looks that came along in the future.
People had a hard time letting go of the thin brows of the ’90s. Eventually the skinny curved brows of the 1990s morphed into the only slightly thicker arched brows of the 2000s.
The brows of the ’00s were a little edgier and a little longer and also had a little more sex appeal, reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe’s 1950s arches but not nearly as prominent.
Eyebrows reflected the provocative fashions of the time, which included thongs, ultra low-rise jeans, tube tops, and low-cut tops.
Celebrities whose brows in the early 2000s were typical of the era included Angelina Jolie (shown here), Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Lopez, Mandy Moore, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, and Lara Stone.
Besides skinny brows, other popular makeup trends in the 2000s were glossy or frosted lips, purple or white eye shadow, and rosy cheeks.
This is the decade when the big brow finally made a comeback. Many people credit Cara Delevingne’s amazing set of brows for inspiring the return to luxuriance. Lily Collins (pictured here) also does a great job of representing this decade’s trend, as do Kim Kardashian, Hailee Steinfeld, and Camilla Belle.
As in the 1980s, brows are kept natural and encouraged to grow. The 2010s style is long, thick, flat or gently arched brows set fairly close together.
Many now consider these “statement” or “on fleek” brows to be one of the most important parts of their look.
If someone’s natural brows are thin or have been overplucked in the past, there are quite a few treatments available nowadays to make eyebrows grow. This include Latisse (a prescription medication), eyebrow growth serums, and microneedling.
Pencil can fill in and magnify weak brows. Gels and waxes can darken and shape them. Eyebrow extensions can thicken them.
For people willing to commit to a longer-lasting fix, today’s technology can offer solutions that weren’t available in the ’80s. Nowadays we have semi-permanent cosmetic techniques like microblading that can help eyebrows look full and remarkably realistic for a year or more. Eyebrow transplants are available for a truly permanent fix.
There’s no way of knowing how much longer thick brows will be in vogue or what will eventually replace them. There’s a sense that we’re not quite ready to give up the luxuriant look just yet. Rihanna appeared on the cover of British Vogue in September 2018 sporting 1930s style brows, and an outcry ensued from folks who hoped they wouldn’t have to start shaving their eyebrows anytime soon.
With the rise of social media, users compete for viewers by creating “Instagram brows” and experimental brow art. Bleaching, shaving, tinting, and painting are used to create unique otherworldly styles that we’re unlikely to see on Main Street, but then, who knows? Fishtail and halo brows may fascinate and inspire us, but we may not want to be first to adopt one of these looks.
Let’s Hear What You Think!
We’ve seen an dazzling parade through time of eyebrow styles. But I don’t want to end without mentioning that to me, the most important thing is that the eyebrow shape flatters the face and expresses the style of person who wears it. Trends are fun and fascinating but we shouldn’t forget that any style can be customized for an individual.
Now it’s your turn: What’s your take away from this trip through the history of eyebrows?
If you can’t decide, at least tell me your favorite style of all time. Don’t be shy!
*Image of Greek Woman By Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany – Mummy portrait depicting a woman with necklace and Medusa pendant and golden ear-pendants with pearls, 161 AD – 192 AD, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Austria, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45895997
*Medieval Painting By GFreihalter – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10146969
*Twiggy By Failuresque – Flickr: Twiggy, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30590745
Image of Angelina Jolie By Stefan Servos – CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1394213
*Salisbury, J. E., (2004), The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Daily Life: The Medieval World, Greenwood Press, p. 263.