The allure of the East was a growing influence in Western art and literature in the nineteenth century. The Arabian Nights and other oriental stories conjured up images of harems, flying carpets, deserts and exotic Middle Eastern cities. Veiled women with kohl blackened eyes were part of that atmosphere of exoticism. In the early twentieth century, kohl was used to great effect by the Russian dancers of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes but it was the silent movie ‘Vamps’ like Theda Bara and Pola Negri that generated the most interest in darkening the eyebrows and eyes to produce an image that was mysterious and sensual with a touch of the exotic.

Eye blackeners

Kohl had been introduced into Europe in the eighteenth century but eyelash and eyebrow blackeners had been made in Europe from soot well before that, with numerous recipes in circulation allowing women to make up ‘blackeners’ at home.

To Blacken the Eye-lashes and Eye-brows.
The simplest preparations for this purpose are the juice of elder-berries; burnt cork, or cloves burnt at the candle. Some employ the black of frankincense, resin, and mastic: this black, it is said, will not come off with perspiration.
Black Composition for the same. Take an ounce of pitch, the same quantity of resin and frankincense, and half an ounce of mastic. Throw them upon live charcoal, over which lay a plate to receive the smoke. A black soot will adhere to the plate; with this soot impregnate the eye-lashes and eye-brows, by rubbing them with it very delicately.
This operation, if occasionally repeated, will preserve them perfectly black.
OBS. The above composition may be perfumed with a little of the oil of Benjamin, eau de Cologne, or a little of the juice of elder-berries, and it is fit for being applied to the eye-brows or eye-lashes.

(The toilette of health, beauty, and fashion, 1834)

Powdered kohl

In its simplest form, kohl is a fine black or dark grey powder. In the past, better quality kohl was made by grinding up galena (lead sulphide) or stibnite (antimony sulphide) – both of which are poisons – but it could also made from carbon black or iron oxide – which are harmless. Kohl is therefore a chemically diverse material, defined more by its colour and use than its composition. In Europe, this diversity was magnified by the tendency to call any black eyebrow or eyelash cosmetic a kohl, even those made from materials such as ink – a situation that lasted up to the Second World War.

The kohl or black eyebrow cosmetic is variously prepared. The spirituous: Iampblack 140 is finely divided in simple tincture of benzoin (20 per cent. strength) 210, and there are added 12.5 of gum lac dissolved in 630 of alcohol, 5 of castor oil, and 2.5 of rose synthetic extra or other perfume as desired. The ordinary Liquid Kohl is made from (a) lampblack, ivory black, or drop black 10, with powdered gum acacia 10, rubbed out thoroughly with 80 of rose water or orange flower water; or (b) the acacia in the last example is replaced by 2 of powdered tragacanth rubbed down with 10 of perfumed spirit. Continental forms of kohl are prepared from Chinese or Indian ink, as (a) Indian ink powder 10, powdered gum acacia 1, and orange flower water to 100; or (b) Indian ink liquid 64, glycerine 15, gum acacia 1 in rose water 5, and perfumed spirit 15. Paste forms of kohl are prepared from about 8 of one of the fine blacks, rubbed out fine with 1 of hard and 11 of soft paraffin previously melted.

(Eye Cosmetics, 1932)

Using powdered kohl

In the East, powdered kohl is traditionally used as an eyeliner and eyeshadow but it is not always applied in the way that most people apply these products in the West. In the European tradition it is more common to line the outside of the eyelashes – above the upper lashes and below the lower ones. In the East powdered kohl can be smudged around the eye but it is also traditionally applied on inner surface of the eyelid – known as the conjunctiva, inner rim or waterline.

The technique used to apply kohl to the waterline involves dipping a rod-like applicator into kohl powder and then, after flicking off the excess, passing the rod through the base of the lashes while the eyes are closed. If done correctly, the wet conjunctiva picks up the powder from the side of the rod creating a smooth, even line. Any spots that are missed can then be lightly touched up with more powder applied using the pointed end of the applicator.

Applying Kohl

Above: Applying powdered kohl to the conjunctiva (waterline).

Examination of the photographs of the dancers of the Ballets Russes shows that some appeared to be applying kohl along the waterline of the eye. An examination of the eyes of the silent movie Vamps suggest that they also did not apply kohl in this manner.

Paste kohl

In the East, powdered kohl was also made into a paste by mixing it with fats and oils. The paste was traditionally applied on the eyebrows and around the eyes so was equivalent to Western eyeshadows, eyeliners or mascaras. It is possible that this is what the Ballets Russes dancers and silent screen Vamps used, but it is hard to be sure. Given that stage and screen performers of the time had a wide variety of materials that could be used to blacken the eyes – including greasepaint liners, Indian or Chinese ink mixed into glycerol, lampblack incorporated into a fat or gum, and mascaro/water cosmetique – and the tendency to call any black eyebrow or eyelash cosmetic a kohl, it is difficult to be certain about the cosmetics they employed.

It seems likely that more than one cosmetic was used to achieve the effect they were after and kohl may not have been used at all. Helena Rubinstein – who claims to have been responsible for Theda Bara’s eye make-up – makes no mention of it.

For Theda Bara, the Siren of the Silent Screen, we helped to create ‘The Vamp’ look which became internationally famous. Enthusiastic fans copied her hairstyles, her clothes, and her mannerisms. Her eyes were amazingly beautiful, but camera techniques were not as advanced as they are now and much of her beauty was lost on the screen. She came to me to find a way of emphasizing them.
Eye make-up of any kind was unknown in America. Mascara had been used only in France by a few stage personalities, and not always well. But with my love for the theatre and my insatiable curiosity, I had delved into the beauty secrets of several French actresses. I had also experimented with kohl (the eye make-up invented by the ancient Egyptians and used by Cleopatra). For Theda Bara I made a mascara which drew attention to her lovely eyes so that they dominated her whole face—and the mascara did not streak! I also added a touch of colour to her eyelids. The effect was tremendously dramatic. It was a sensation reported in every newspaper and magazine—only a little less of a sensation than when Theda Bara first silvered her eyelids!

(Rubinstein, 1965)

Rubinstein, Arden and kohl

Rubinstein had previously sold eye cosmetics in London and Paris – an eyebrow pencil and a cake mascara – but I have no evidence of her including a traditional kohl in her eye make-up range.

Valaze Eyebrow Crayon is especially adapted for the beautification of the eyes and for the aesthetic accentuation of any of their parts. It gives the eye more depth, and also that languishing appearance so much admired. It is of convenient consistency, and composed of carefully selected ingredients.
Valaze Tablette Indienne is another eye-beautifying preparation, of perfect consistency, and guaranteed to do all that is promised for it. It is applied with a soft brush, and is intended to emphasize and extend the eyebrow arches, as well as to delicately darken the eyelids and eyelashes.

(Rubinstein London Catalogue)

Elizabeth Arden on the other hand did introduce a product in 1955 that was more like a traditional kohl. The superfine powder came in a little glass flacon shaped like a miniature urn complete with a tiny wand applicator in shades of brown, blue, grey-black and green. The wand could have been used to apply the kohl to the waterline of the eye but suggestions are that it was used primarily to darken the area around the eye, something that could have been more easily achieved with eyeliner or eyeshadow. The product was not a great success and advertising for it drops off rapidly after 1956.

In France … where beautiful makeup is an art called “Maquillage” … the Elizabeth Arden Salon is famous for the talented staff who specialize in this delicate skill. Now, a new Eye Makeup created by Miss Arden … based on an ancient secret of the long-eyed queens of the Far East, Nicolet will show you how to outline your eyes delicately with Kohl-Arabia … a superfine powder applied with a tiny wand … how to draw and arch your brows and he’ll complete this new Oriental Makeup with Pure Gold Eye Shado or Shimmering Silver … Don’t Miss It.

(Elizabeth Arden advertisement, 1955)

Later use in the West

Although films like Cleopatra (20th Century Fox, 1963) generated a renewed interest in heavy eye make-up in the 1960s – in the same way that the Ballets Russes and Vamps had done years before – as in earlier times most people achieved the effect with eyeliner and eyeshadow. If kohl was used, it was only rarely applied along the waterline of the eye.

In the 1970s, the Middle Eastern oil crisis and a rising interest in ‘traditional’ and ‘natural’ make-up, saw references to kohl appear once again in beauty articles but this usually occurred without much reference to application techniques so the products were largely kohl in name only.

Current usage

Looking back it is easy to see why traditional forms of kohl never achieved the widespread use in the West that they enjoyed in the East:

Colour: Western complexions are generally lighter than those in the East. Black kohl suits certain skin colourings but could not hope to match the myriad of colours and colour styles found in Western eyeliners, eyeshadows and mascaras.

Technologies: The pencil was a Western invention. Eyeliner and eyebrow pencils made applying eye make-up relatively simple, cheap to make, and could be safely carried around in a purse. Powdered kohl requires more skill to apply, costs more to package in a bottle, has the potential to spill, and requires a separate applicator that can be easily misplaced.

The introduction of Western cosmetics into those parts of the world where kohl has a long tradition of use has affected developments there as well. Products sold as kohl in the Middle East are now found in a wide variety of colours and can be bought in powder, cream and pencil forms. Many of these current day products are therefore ‘kohl’ in name only and show few differences to similar cosmetics used in the West, making many modern forms of kohl synonymous with mascara.

Although a few companies like Guerlain have introduced traditional powdered kohl into their product lines it would seem that this eye cosmetic will remain on the margins for most Western users, particularly as the introduction of modern day Eye Markers has made the application of dramatic eye make-up even easier.

See also: Water cosmetique (Mascaro) and Cake Mascara

Updated: 13th March 2016


Cartwright-Jones, C. (2005). Introduction to Harquus: Part 2: Kohl as traditional women’ s adornment in North Africa and the Middle East.TapDancing Lizard Publications.

Eye cosmetics. (1932). Perfumery and Essential Oil Record. November, 373-374.

Kempson-Jones, G. (1947). Mascara: A simply prepared cosmetic. Manufacturing Chemist and Manufacturing Perfumer. XVIII(2). 73-74.

Poucher, W. A. (1932). Perfumes, cosmetics and soaps (4th ed., Vols. 1-2). London: Chapman and Hall Ltd.

Rubinstein, H. (1965). My life for beauty. Sydney: Bodley Head.

Sagarin, E. (Ed.). (1957). Cosmetics: Science and technology. New York: Interscience Publishers, Inc.

The toilette of health, beauty, and fashion: Embracing the economy of the beard, breath, complexion, ears, eyes, eyebrows, eye-lashes, feet, forehead, gums, hair, head, hands, lips, mouth, mustachios, nails of the toes, nails of the fingers, nose, skin, teeth, tongue, &c. &c. Including the comforts of dress and the decorations of the neck; also the treatment of the discolorations of the skin, corns-eruptions-spots-pimples scorbutic or spongy gums, tainted breath-tooth-ache-carious or decayed teeth-warts-whitlows prevention of baldness, grey hair, etc. With directions for the use of most safe and salutary cosmetics-perfumes-essences-simple waters-depilatories, and other preparations to remove superfluous hair, tan, excrescences, etc. And a variety of select recipes of the dressing room or both sexes. (1834). Boston: Allen and Ticknor.