For most of my teenage years, I wore winged eyeliner every day.
It wasn't that I loved makeup—I still honestly have no idea how to contour—but I specifically adored the cat-eye. I can't remember exactly when it started, but most likely it was because I noticed that a lot of my favorite musicians loved to wear winged eyeliner. Lana Del Rey, Amy Winehouse, Adele...all of them rocked wickedly sharp cat eyes.
As it turns out, I wasn't alone in my devotion to this look. Winged eyeliner is one of the most popular, timeless, and enduring makeup tactics of them all.
Eyeliner as we know it originated in ancient Egypt as early as 400 BC, when women would use kohl and other minerals like copper ore and malachite to create their eyeliner wings. In ancient times, kohl was used in the Middle East to protect the eye from the desert climate, and the substance itself actually dates back thousands of years before Christ.
Both men and women wore kohl eyeliner in ancient Egypt, as it was apparently believed to ward off the "evil eye," and Queen Cleopatra is still associated with the look.
Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatraillamasqua.com
Over the years, eyeliner experienced different resurgences across the world. It was common for women in ancient Rome and was used by geishas in Japan. Native American Pawnee people would use paint around their eyes for spiritual ceremonies.
Eyeliner didn't actually make its way to Western culture until the 1920s. Before then, makeup was widely condemned due to its associations with prostitution. But when a bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti was discovered in 1912, it kicked off a new wave of eyeliner obsession that became more extreme with the rise of the cinema and the simultaneous rise of orientalism (AKA the fetishization of Eastern cultures) in America.
During this time, winged eyeliner was also a staple of Bollywood cinema, and in Bollywood's first silent film, Raja Harishchandra, all the characters' eyes were thickly outlined in black.
By the 1930s in America, mass media decided that the makeup styles that had once been equated with prostitution were now mandatory for self-respecting women. Makeup became both a signifier of women's independence as well as their compliance with domestic gender roles, a dichotomy that arguably still exists today.
During those times, brands such as Lash Lure sold products that contained toxic chemicals. By the 40s, the FDA stepped in, and makeup officially made its way into the mainstream. In the 1950s in America, winged eyeliner became a staple among starlets. Alan Snider, Marilyn Monroe's makeup artist, crafted her signature look by using a brown pencil to highlight her eyes.
Greta Garbo, Sophia Loren, and Jean Harlow all took part in the trend.
In the 60s and 70s, figures like Twiggy, Edie Sedgwick, Grace Jones, Pattie Boyd, and Etta James all favored copious, dramatic winged eyeliner. Around the 80s, as androgynous looks became more common, icons like Mick Jagger, Prince, and David Bowie started to riff off the trend, using bold colors and fake lashes to enhance their look.
Edie Sedgwick Medium
Soon, eyeliner became synonymous with grunge and counterculture, and stars like Cyndi Lauper, Joan Jett, and Kim Gordon took to the stage wearing it. It also has always been a staple for drag performers.
Today, the winged eyeliner look is as popular as ever. Everyone from Beyonce to Taylor Swift to rocks it as their signature look. Shows like Euphoria are popularizing the colorful, bedazzled cat eye, and influencers like Michelle Phan and Kylie Jenner have made complex makeup tutorials (and a mind-blowing number of expensive makeup products) accessible to the mainstream.
Eyeliner has a long legacy, and across the board, it seems to be popular with performers and with expressive people in general. It's a staple for Enneagram 4 types, who tend to be sensitive, dramatic, and creative. Considering its associations with royals, rockers, protection, and power of all kinds, it's no wonder that the look has stuck around.
While I no longer wear winged eyeliner except on special occasions, I do think there's one thing that will keep me coming back to it. Wearing winged eyeliner is like having two sharp little knives on the edges of your eyes, and it's the only makeup technique that you can judge by how efficiently it could kill a man. If your eyeliner wings can't pierce right through someone's carotid artery, get the makeup remover out and try again.