How Rock and Roll Made Kohl Cool: This Is the History of Guyliner

Men who wear eyeliner throughout time

By Erika Stalder Jun 02, 2015 1:28 AMTags
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In today's culture, makeup isn't often considered a masculine thing—unless you're talking about rock stars, of course. Since the inception of rock and roll, men have worn everything from a smoky eye to tightligher as part of their edgy stage personas.

On the heels of HBO's broadcast of the 2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, in which liner-wearing troubadours like Lou Reed and Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong and Tré Cool were celebrated, we take a look back at the rule-breaking menfolk who have kept it cool with kohl.

2200 BCE
In ancient Egypt, both men and women rimmed their eyes with kohl made from finely-ground kohl. When worn, the substance was thought to help minimize glare. Millennia later, not much has changed: football and baseball players sport eye black to help achieve the same thing.

330 BCE
Like the Egyptians before him, Alexander the Great was also a fan of kohl. The ancient Greek king lined his eyes in the substance to help ward off flies, whose bites could cause inflammation.

Like many great rock-and-roll traditions, the modern-day guyliner phenomena started with black artists in the ‘50s. In a groundbreaking move, Little Richard and James Brown paired sharp suits with pompadours and a smooth visage achieved with pancake makeup and tightlined liner to frame the eyes.

Where pioneering rock-and-roll musicians went, Elvis followed. Though drawn on more discreetly, Elvis's guyliner was firmly in place—not that many screaming teens noticed; much to the dismay of their parents, the crooner's hips often caught all the attention.

This decade marks manly makeup's great comeback, as guys from nearly every iteration of rock embraced the look with abandon. Acts like Alice Cooper and Kiss wore liner as part of bigger stage makeup looks. But soulful rockers like Keith Richards, metalheads like Ozzy Osbourne and androgynous boundary pushers, like David Bowie and Lou Reed all emphasized eyes like the ladies did, with more precise liner styles.

Groups like Mötley Crüe and Poison may be remembered as "hair bands," but we like to credit them for keeping the smoky man-eye look alive (along with man spandex—mandex?).

Dave Navarro's recipe for hot? Pierced parts, edgy kohl, painted fingernails and leather pants. While it went against the grain in the stripped down ‘90s, the look was strong enough to make him one of the decade's biggest rocker sex symbols (and Carmen Electra's main squeeze).

The turn of the century marked another strong decade for men in makeup. Thanks to the stylings of emo man-boy Pete Wentz, comedian Russell Brand and newly-minted rock star Jared Leto, the term "guyliner" was coined to describe the storied look. Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong and Tré Cool ditched the electro-bright hair-dye jobs they donned in the ‘90s and started lining their eyes instead.

Along with K-pop stars, gender bender Adam Lambert and Yoshiki Hayashi of X keep the look alive, proving as long as music rules youth culture, men in makeup will remain.