There are some things that, historically, I can never quite fathom the origin of. What circumstances, for instance, would lead to someone to say to someone else, "you’d look more beautiful if you took a strip of fake eyelashes and glued them over your normal eyelashes?" Because that is some the-Capitol-in-the-Hunger-Games stuff. At least at first glance. I use fake eyelashes all the time, I just think it’s weird that I do.
Turns out that it’s less weird than pretty much everything else people have been doing to their eyelashes for all of history.
It’s certainly not weirder than the medieval tradition of plucking your eyelashes out.
It’s certainly not weirder than the medieval tradition of plucking your eyelashes out, which existed around the 1400s. The church linked any display of hair to an erotic disposition, which explains why well-bred ladies would pluck out hair to showcase more of their foreheads, and also pluck out their eyebrows (if every portrait you see from the middle ages looks somehow subtly off, that’s why). Since eyelashes serve an actual function — keeping dirt out of your eye — that look was incredibly painful.
Fortunately, throughout most of history, long eyelashes have been considered more fashionable. That may be because as you get older, eyelashes naturally tend to get a little bit shorter and sparser. In Ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder thought that they were a symbol not just of youth but also of chaste character, claiming that, "eyelashes fell out from excessive sex and so it was especially important for women to keep their eyelashes long to prove their chastity." Pliny the Elder was wrong about all of that, but that didn’t stop Roman women from lining their eyes, much the way we do today.
However, while eyeliner may make your eyes more striking, it doesn’t do a great job in terms of tricking people into thinking you have numerous long, beautiful eyelashes. Which is probably why, by the late 19th century, when long eyelashes were once again in vogue, some absolutely insane treatments were offered. Foremost among them was an operation for transplanting hair from your head to your eyelids — which the Dundee Courier ran a story about in 1899. They explained that the procedure entailed:
You may read that and think, "well, maybe the cocaine made that less like something out of a horror movie" but I don’t think cocaine can relieve that much pain. This was billed as a popular procedure, one that had caught on in cosmopolitan capitals like Paris.
So women who went in for extreme beauty procedures might prefer, instead, to opt for false lashes. They were made from natural hair, generally attached to silk or gauze — though there could be some problem adhering them. The Royal Cornwall Gazette quipped in 1879:
Look, this is still a constant concern if you’ve ever worn false lashes.
While they’d been around in some form for decades, Anna Taylor patented the invention in 1911. However, false eyelashes weren’t really a common beauty tool until 1916, when D.W. Griffith decided that Seena Owen, the actress in his film Intolerance needed to have "eyelashes brushing [her] cheeks." He had his wigmaker glue false eyelashes onto Ms. Owen, using spirit gum. Spirit gum is what you’d use if you need to say, wear a fake beard on Halloween. It’s not for eyelids, and fellow actress Lilian Gish wrote of Ms. Owen that, "One morning she arrived at the studio with her eyes swollen nearly shut." But she looked great onscreen.
By 1921 flase eyelashes were popular among all manner of actresses — some even said that they helped prevent glare from electric lights (though personally I’ve never worn a pair so comfortable that I’d wear them just to avoid overhead glare, so I suspect that might have just been an excuse). Women of all kinds could find them being offered at Charles Nestle’s hair perming salon, prompting one columnist to write, "When a fair young thing looks at you mistily through her long, curling lashes, do not fall for it until you investigate. The long, curling eyelashes may not be hers, except by right of purchase."
As always, men should probably just be okay with women wearing make-up and not spend so much time obsessing over it. If they’re worried a woman is trying to trick them into thinking she’s younger and more fertile than she is I guess they can ask, "are you young and fertile?"
In any case, by the 1930’s, false eyelashes were everywhere, and Vogue promised that they could give ladies lashes of "bewildering length." An ad from the 1930’s, featuring two models posed with eyelashes that were golden or beaded with platinum, showed that they weren’t just intended to look natural. By the 1960s, when Twiggy was wearing false lashes on her upper and lower lids, cosmetic manufacturers like Andrea challengedwearers to find their "eye-dentity!" Which is to say that they made 20 different types of false lashes. And probably sold most of them, as, during the 60’s, 20 million pairs a year were being sold.
It sounds pretty fun!
And then natural trends came along in the 1970’s, and even more so in the 1990’s, and false eyelashes fell — just as they so often had into teacups — out of prominence. Weirdly, they never made a full return, despite the style of cosmetics in the aughts becoming anything but minimal. At least Madonna wore a $10,000 pair, made out of mink and studded with diamonds. Pliny the Elder probably wouldn’t have approved of that particular kind of long eyelashes, but it should give you some hope for their having a comeback.