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Essay: Doctor My Eyes?

by Rachael Adams on 25 August 2010

Journalist Rachael Adams charts the importance of the eyes through-out fashion history.

Journalist Rachael Adams charts the importance of the eyes through-out fashion history.

Lady Gaga in a red latex Elizabeth I costume; Victorians in booty-beautifying bustles; Japanese concubines dancing on tiny lotus-flower feet. They're all creating myths around themselves through fashion, feeding beholders a story about themselves—Gaga's a much-loved member of the music monarchy (albeit one with a predilection for S&M), the haberdashery-strewn Victorians' dresses conceal perfectly sensual female forms, and those concubines come from affluent families (for who can do any work with bound feet?) 

Fashion lies; big wow. And with the brave new world of coffee-break plastic surgery, faces lie too. But there's always our eyes, the window to the soul. They're exempt from the fashion body, right? Wrong. Submitting our peepers to trends that build myths around us, just as clothes do, has been going on for centuries.

Case one: the Egyptians. Liz Taylor's black-rimmed eyes weren't just for smouldering at Rex Harrison, you know; the Egyptians placed cleanliness next to godliness and perceived appearance as directly proportional to spirituality, i.e. the more slap you had on, the closer you were to immortality. By sporting this early version of kohl (a mixture of burnt almonds, copper and lead), the Egyptians put the eyes firmly on the fashion body, submitting them to appearance- (and so self-) altering trends.

Then there's the Renaissance. That Botticelli thing, all lustful pillow lips, Beyoncé-esque behinds and come-hither eyes, was bang on-trend. The lips could be drawn on; padding and whalebone could give that S-shaped figure. But what about the dilated eyes, that ultimate symbol of sensuality? No problem for the resourceful Italian women. They took extract of the Belladonna plant (itself meaning 'beautiful woman in Italian) and dropped it into their eyes—the atropine in it caused their pupils to widen. No matter that it was derived from deadly nightshade; eyes were already martyrs to fashion.

Cosmetics den The House of Cyclax catered for frantic nineteenth-century women by providing them with burnt matches, which they used to darken their eyelashes to make their eyes pop.

By the time the Victorian era came around, the natural look that women today are still chasing was going full throttle. Cosmetics den The House of Cyclax catered for these frantic nineteenth-century women by providing them with burnt matches, which they used to darken their eyelashes to make their eyes pop, without revealing that they'd given Nature a helping hand. So ashamed were the House of Cyclax customers to be manipulating their eyes so in the name of fashion that they would enter the establishment through the back door, with veils over their faces. 

Fast-forward onto the Sixties: Twiggy, Mia Farrow, Polly Maggoo...that doe-eyed, psychedelic look that permeated the decade centred around over-the-top eyelashes. Burnt matchsticks certainly weren't enough for the Mods and the Dollybirds; falsies and drawn-on lashes made sure that the eyes became a harbinger of youth, allowing anyone with a pair of Eyelure's finest and a tube of adhesive to create themselves as hip, far-out and - most importantly -young.

Finally, the present day. Never dismiss the past as 'ancient history' again—aren't we still working smoky eyes, luscious lashes and seething with envy at Lily Cole's wide-eyed otherness? But true to form, the eyes have staked their claim as the most important part of the fashion body with the dawn of another century—and this this time, it's with an accessory. With the return of geek chic has come the return of the oversized NHS spectacle, and not just in quirky indie circles; Ray-Ban and Chanel have both embraced it in recent years. By literally framing their models' eyes and focusing so brazenly on them as an integral part of the fashion body, it would seem that it's finally okay to admit that our eyes are as illusory as our clothes when it comes to fashion.

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