From Clara Bow to Cara Delevingne, the bizarre history of brows has defined and shaped modern trends.
While It girls with elevated arches may be raising brows today, an obsession with eyebrows is nothing new. In fact, brows have been an object of fixation in cultures since time immemorial, carrying a particular weight across Arab societies. “Strong eyebrows are something that Middle Eastern women brought to the beauty sphere, drawing the world’s gaze towards the region’s beauty culture,” says global celebrity makeup artist Vimi Joshi. In Iranian culture, the band andazi – ritual eyebrow threading – has been a rite of passage for brides for centuries. For the Ancient Egyptians, the shaving of eyebrows was a display of mourning. But it was the explosion of celebrity culture in the 20th century that led to unexpected brow trends taking hold.
High-impact beauty looks gained popularity in the roaring Twenties thanks to silent movie stars like Clara Bow and Egypt’s Bahiga Hafez. Eyebrows were removed entirely and redrawn as severe, thin lines with a downturned tail for a dramatically pensive look. Under the influence of iconic Hollywood entrepreneur and beautician Max Factor, the Thirties saw the rise – literally – of high, rounded arches. Factor reportedly shaved off Greta Garbo’s eyebrows and drew them on in a pronounced, crescent moon shape which gave the actor her signature shrewd allure, becoming the defining look of the decade. As second world war stars like Lauren Bacall launched naturally thicker eyebrows into prominence, a hyper-feminine look started to take center stage.
The post-war period was defined by Christian Dior’s New Look, a glamorous, modern image that called for equally captivating makeup complete with a strong, defined brow. Boasting lush, perfectly groomed arches, Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor became the icons of the era, attracting beauty mimickers around the world. In Egypt, a young unknown by the name of Zubaida Tharwat was set to win a beauty competition that was to change the course of her life. Unbeknownst to her, Tharwat’s nanny sent in a photo of the teen to a nationwide hunt to find “the most beautiful eyes in Egypt.” Her striking, sea-green eyes framed by thick, arched brows, reminiscent of the Hollywood starlets of the time, immediately caught the attention of film producers and she was soon one of the industry’s most successful performers.
For the swinging Sixties, eyebrows were neat and understated, working to complement, rather than compete with, the bold, graphic eye makeup of the time. The Seventies disco era hailed a return to dramatic, ultra- thin brows with glitzy, iridescent eyelids and bright pink lips seen on style icons like Donna Summer, Sabah, and Souad Hosny. Whilst the 70s was the decade of glam, the 80s were undoubtedly the era of excess. Mammoth shoulder pads, exaggerated makeup, and backcombed hair called for a proportionately dominant brow. Eighties poster girl Brooke Shields was the pacesetter, fluffing her natural caterpillar arches to dramatic effect. Madonna followed suit with a dark brown set that intentionally clashed with her platinum blonde hair.
New Generation Brows
In the Nineties, fashion again turned back to skinny brows with the rise of barefaced supermodels like Kate Moss. The early Noughties stretched the trend to oblivion by pop stars Christina Aguilera and Gwen Stefani, whose brows were approximately two strands wide. Then came new brow icons Cara Delevingne and Lily Collins, sending the beauty world head over heels with their bushy brows. Delevingne’s substantial pair brought about a new genre of products and treatments allowing women to tend to their arches like never before. In an attempt to achieve a naturally thick look on a more permanent basis, treatments like HD brows, microblading, lamination, and eyebrow implants grew the brow industry to be worth tens of millions of dollars. “The full, thick brow look has returned full-force,” says Linda Cantello, international makeup artist for Giorgio Armani Beauty. “Instead of working against the hair and trying to tame it, we are polishing the natural shape without over-plucking.”
Today, with the focus fully on eyebrows, an entire generation of insta- brow influencers with more avant garde looks – rainbow, wavy, barbed wire, and even tree-shaped – are free to run riot on social media feeds. Greek-Cypriot model Sophia Hadjipanteli has attempted to crush the hyper-curated beauty norms and stereotypical ideas of perfection with her extreme black unibrow, but these most recent brow movements haven’t been without controversy. The so-called fox eye trend has gained traction – and debate – with beauty lovers attempting to emulate the lifted eye looks of Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner. Young TikTokers have been pulling their hair back, shaving off the tails of their brows, and using makeup to elongate their eyes and give the illusion of a slanted, almond shape, making some people suggest that this trend appropriates Asian eyes and is ignorant of past racist attitudes. In the Middle East, however, the power brow has always been en vogue. “A beautiful, thick brow creates structure and lifts the face instantly,” says Joshi. “Trends will come and go, but the strong Middle Eastern eyebrow will remain an enduring beauty statement for the region.”
This feature was published in the December 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia.