In her book, “Eyeliner: A Cultural History,” journalist Zahra Hankir looks at how the public unveiling of Queen Nefertiti’s bust in the 1920’s made a global splash — and popularized the use of eyeliner. “You would see hair salons in America have replicas of her bust in their windows. You would see fashion houses craft lines that were entirely inspired by Nefertiti,” said Hankir. ” And, of course, you had many women and also celebrities start to wear eyeliner.”
Nefertiti’s status as a fashion beauty icon continues to this day, and according to Hankir, she’s one of the first beauty influencers. “We’re talking about 100 years of infatuation with her looks,” she said. “You had Beyonce who, for example, paid homage to her in Coachella. Queen Latifah has made nods to her, Lauryn Hill has made nods to her.”
The following is an excerpt from Hankir’s book that looks at some of the reasons why Queen Nefertiti’s bust had such an impact when it was revealed to the public.
Before Nefertiti was propelled into the spotlight when her bust was officially unveiled to the public in 1924, Vogue had already taken an interest in ancient Egyptian fashion. “The art of makeup, too, is as old as Egypt and played an important part in the feminine toilette. Rouge, kohl, and a powdered green malachite which was used about the eyes were the chief cosmetics,” declared a 1921 feature exploring the era’s style. “From the Far East comes the true kohl so becoming to brunettes and, in a modified form, to blondes,” reads a November 1922 article.
The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 by British archaeologist Howard Carter affected Western popular culture in its own right, spurring what is commonly referred to as Tutmania or Egyptomania, a period of intense, Orientalist fascination with ancient Egypt in the West. When the pharaoh’s tomb was unearthed, its chambers offered insight into how the man lived and looked and how his wife, Ankhsenamun– the daughter of Nefertiti– did, too. The reveal sparked a publicity rush and an interest in kohl, the mysterious substance that seemingly possessed magical powers. Tutankhamum garnered more coverage than his partner, but she didn’t fall by the wayside– her lined eyes also caught the attention of Vogue in 1923.
In “The Kohl Pots of Egypt,” Dudley S. Corlett asks readers to join him in “softly” pulling back “the tapestry which hangs before the portal of Ankhsenamun’s bed-chamber” as the journalist unsettlingly imagines how she prepares for the day. First, he describes a queen with olive skin “stretching her supple body veiled in gossamer garments.” After taking a bath and putting on a saffron silk robe, Ankhsenamun heads to her vanity to pamper herself. Before tending to her hair, her kohl is the first and only cosmetic she wields. This item of makeup, Corlett writes, exercises its unabated wiles today, for, above the white veil of Moselem women, daring, kohl-rimmed eyes mock at men and keep them guessing at beauty hidden with discretion from their jealous gaze.” Corlett presents kohl and the women who wore it as “exotic” element of the orient that exist only to tease men, especially Western men. The looks of such women, he seemed to say, were untouchable– far away, in a remote land, and of a bygone, primitive era. (He also speaks of women’s sense of hygiene.)