Appearance of the eye

How the eye can be made-up or altered cosmetically.

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The museum holds a significant collection of eye cosmetics and make-up. It was even the subject of a temporary exhibition some years ago: From Painted Jezebels to Synthetic Beauty: The Story of Eye Make-Up

Cosmetics can be used to alter, enlarge or enhance the appearance of the eye. They may be applied to the lids, lashes, brows or bags, or to the wider face. The intention may be to add to a person's sexual allure or it may be geared more towards the concealment of a blemish or disfigurement. Their effective application may yield excellent results but they are prone to smudging if they interact with tear fluid or the eyes are rubbed. There are also hygiene implications if eye make-up is shared between users or if it is kept for too long. Eye cosmetics have been used by both men and women.

The appearance of the actual eye itself can now be altered by procedures such as surgical tattooing or through the use of cosmetic shells and contact lenses.

Make-Up Spectacles

Here's a useful device for all the ladies out there. Simply drop-down one lens to apply your mascara, eyeliner or shadow whilst still being able to look through the other eye with a prescription lens.

Make-up spectacles

Make-up spectacles were designed to help women who required prescription lenses to see whilst applying their eye make-up. One rim can be hinged downwards whilst the other rim remains in place for the other eye to look through. Although only designed for use at the dressing table or in front of a mirror, some were sold in fashionable upswept styles. Even whilst ‘dolling-up’, clients wanted to look their best.

Those blue-eyed Viking maidens like their eye cosmetics which is why we've coupled our object with an arresting postcard distributed in branches of Synsam opticians across Sweden in the year 2000. Nej men hej ('surely not?') we hear you cry, but yes we sent our curator to Stockholm to pick one up. Opticians often use images of people wearing spectacles to promote their services. Unusually, this chain of opticians used an advertising image of a female eye, showing the use of eyeliner, mascara and eye shadow but unencumbered by any spectacles.

The spectacle frame is the C-290 model by the Italian company Filos, which also holds the rights to the Revlon and Vivienne Westwood brands. The rims are hinged to a low bridge bar and the mottled grey and brown transparent design is quite fashionable even though such spectacles are only intended for momentary use.

Make-up mistakes

Eye make-up eraser

Revlon Make-up Eraser Pen, 2008
Not all mistakes have results
that are so easily removed!

Research we conducted here at the College of Optometrists in 2007 revealed that women’s beauty habits were putting eye health at risk by using bacteria-infected make-up over four years old. As a result of our campaign to encourage people to dispose of unused eye make-up after six months a palette from the clothing and accessories store Next was handed in. We think it dates from the mid 1990s yet it was still in occasional use over a decade later!  In our survey 92% of women admitted to keeping their mascara for longer than six months, and nearly two-thirds used eye make-up that was over two years old. A quarter of those surveyed also confessed to sharing eye make-up with friends, family and work colleagues, even though 1 in 10 admitted to suffering from unsightly eye conditions such as conjunctivitis.

The irony is that eye infections are not a pretty sight!

Next, let's look at some make-up that is much much older...


As far back as 3500 BC the ancients used kohl, a mixture of malachite and galena (a lead ore) to produce a black line around the eyes, to darken the lashes and the eyelids. The Egyptians and Mesopotamians did this to provide protection against the glare of the sun and as a lucky charm against the ‘Evil Eye’. The tradition was continued in Arabic lands, often using soot as a main ingredient.

Eye Liner

Eyeliner can be used to provide a clearly defined contour or, alternatively, it can be smudged deliberately. Thick eyeliner has traditionally been worn at Japanese festivals. In Britain, liquid eyeliner, applied with a small brush or felt applicator, was popularised in the 1960s by Mary Quant. Other eyeliners come in soft powder form. Kohl (also spelt Kajal) is still used today and comes in pencil form. Johnny Depp wore it to theatrical effect in the Pirates of the Caribbean films.

The late Victorian growth in popularity of portrait photography caused many women to adopt eyeliner. The film camera was described as a ‘permanent mirror’ and just one occasion of not looking one’s best could be captured forever!

Made-up eyes are by no means desirable and, to many, are singularly displeasing. The same, however, may be said of made-up faces generally. Nevertheless it is extensively practised.

                 Mrs. Sarah Jane Pierce
                        Homely Girls, 1890


Gentlemen's grooming kit

Intimate lovers’ mementoes demonstrate that individual eyes were a source of close attention in the 18th and 19th centuries. Only you would recognise your partner from a portrait of such restricted detail.

You could improve the areas around the eye by trimming or plucking the eyebrows with scissors or tweezers. The necessary implements were even included in gentlemen's grooming kits such as this one set into the end of a jealousy glass by the optician Thomas Ribright of London, c.1750.

Eye Shadow

Eye shadow is normally a powder, applied with brushes or the finger, though it can come in liquid form. It gives depth to the eyes and draws attention which is why adherents of the Goth sub-culture wear very dark shadow. Even small sets have a palette of three or more colours; the lighter colours are for highlighting whilst the darker colours like purple are used in the crease. L’Oréal was founded in Paris in 1909 as a manufacturer of hair products but soon diversified into other cosmetics. In 2006 it bought The Body Shop which had begun in Brighton 30 years before. Revlon was founded in the USA in 1932 offering nail care products and began exporting abroad in the late 1950s. In the 1970s it also entered the contact lens solution market.


The eyes could be made to stand out by making the face paler, with make-up applied so thickly it was almost a mask. Indeed our word ‘mascara’ comes from the Italian word for mask, ‘maschera’. In 1834 the French-born perfumer Eugene Rimmel (1820-1887) moved to London and invented the first non-toxic commercial mascara.

Mascara can be used to extend, define, condition and enhance the eyelashes. It comes in different colours and some varieties are described as ‘waterproof’ because they are resistant to tears, sweat and rain. The Egyptians used crocodile dung mixed with honey whilst the Victorians used lampblack. Mascara was first invented by Rimmel as a cake to be applied with a wet brush, the word rimel still means ‘mascara’ in several languages, including Portuguese, Turkish, Romanian and Dutch. Petroleum jelly was also used for this purpose following its invention in 1878.

Mascara applicator

Modern mascara was created in 1913 by the chemist T. L. Williams for his sister, Mabel. He used coal dust mixed with Vaseline, called it Maybelline and sold it via mail order. An American patent for the first mascara applicator brush, based on a boot polisher, was granted to Frank Engel in 1939 (see image to the right) but commercial production of the Mascaramatic was only begun by Helen Rubenstein in 1957 when the patent had expired. These are sometimes called a ‘tube and wand’ applicator.

Mascara can be applied to the top eyelashes for a 'heavy-lidded' look, or to the bottom lashes to widen the eyes. It is usually applied to curled lashes and if you were not blessed that way Kurlash, the first eyelash curling device, was invented in 1923, requiring ten minutes per eye to administer. Some mascara contains nylon fibres that cling to the lashes like mini extensions and them a fuller appearance. Max Factor’s Cosmetic was used by several Hollywood actresses to add fullness. It came in foil-wrapped wax strips that had to be melted over a flame. The Swedish actress Greta Garbo did much to popularise mascara. She already had full lashes, but as a natural blonde needed mascara to make them visible on camera.

In 1933 an American society girl ‘Mrs Brown’ was blinded by an infection that arose after she had used mascara called Lash Lure which contained an aniline dye that had been banned from hair products in Europe since the 1880s. The resulting court case resulted in the formation of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1938. Lash Lure was the first product to be seized by the new agency.


Eyelash curler

Eyelashes may be curled or plucked...or covered with entirely false lashes.

Eyelashes will grow back in about eight weeks if plucked. False (strip) eyelashes have been popular since the 1960s. Note: Prolonged use of makeup has been linked to thinning eyelashes!

Pharmaceuticals and 'Synthetic beauty'

Moisturisers aimed at men and women can lessen the dark patches caused by the fact that the skin under the eye is the thinnest on the human face.

Dazzling eye drops

Despite offering ‘dazzling blue eyes’ the drops displayed here are actually for brightening the white (sclera) of the eye. Many pharmacy chains now sell such products alongside cosmetics.