The Intriguing History Behind Bleached Eyebrows

From its Elizabethan beginnings to Madonna revisiting a ’90s look in 2021, here’s how bleaching your brows became one of the defining beauty trends of the year.

Celebrities with bleached eyebrows
Photographs by Getty; Collage by Ashley Peña

Before the ubiquitous trends of microblading, brushed-up fuzzy “boy” brows, and the super-skinny eyebrows of Y2K existed, there were bleached brows.

OG models of the ’90s like Linda Evangelista had their eyebrows bleached on avant-garde photoshoots, while New York club kids lightened their brows regularly. Makeup artist to the stars Kevyn Aucoin even wrote up a tutorial on how to get the look in his 1997 book, Making Faces.

And as 2021 comes to a close, it appears lightened, bleached brows have become a defining trend of the year, with everyone from Lizzo to Kim Kardashian, Madonna, Katy Perry, and more recently, Lila Moss for the Richard Quinn show in London, taking part in the look. Last month, Kanye West also shaved off his brows entirely, which provided a similar aesthetic—and it’s impossible not to see fashion kids on Instagram and TikTok sporting bare foreheads.

The bleached eyebrow itself is a relatively new concept in the world of beauty, coming to prominence in the early 1990s, but the look of barely there eyebrows is not. “We see people really starting to remove their brows in Europe in the Middle Ages, and by the Elizabethan era it was popular to completely remove or bleach out the brows,” explains Rachael Gibson, the researcher behind Hair Historian, which chronicles both the highlights and minutiae of hairstyle history. “A very high, wide, bare forehead was the beauty standard, so people bleached out or plucked off their eyebrows completely to achieve the look. People also used walnut oil on their children’s foreheads to prevent eyebrows growing in at all.”

Once the ‘90s rolled around, the bleached brow fell in favor of the aforementioned models and club kids because it gave a distinct look. Club kids, in particular, shaved off their eyebrows or opted for cream bleach to get rid of them: it gave more space for the extreme looks they used makeup to achieve during the time.

There’s been no shortage of experimentation with makeup in 2021—and that may be part of the reason why bleached brows are everywhere right now. “Left bleached, they conjure an ethereal dreaminess, but they’re also a great blank canvas for all of the yassified lewks the kids are serving,” adds Michael Angelo, owner of the Wonderland Beauty Parlor in New York City. “Drag makeup has officially entered the building and it’s changing the way we think of makeup. Bleached brows allow for infinite experiments without the permanence of waxing or shaving them off.”

Madonna, who turned to bleached brows again this year, has always been somewhat of a leader with the look. “​​When Madonna did this in the ’90s to reference the super thin ’70s brow, the world jumped on her case so hard,” Angelo remembers. “‘It’s so ugly, what’s wrong with her?’”

Aucoin, who famously bleached the brows of Evangelista and Kate Moss, wrote in his book, “A great way to change the look of the face, also by altering the brow, is to bleach them. A bleached brow will soften the expression, as opposed to dyeing them a darker color, which can make them look stronger.” He added, “If you feel your brows are too low or too close to the eyes, bleaching them can open up the face.” The trend continued throughout the early 2000s, when Chloë Sevigny and Gwen Stefani wore the look.

But perhaps one of the biggest reasons the look is trending now is because of DIY culture. Since the start of the pandemic, people have shaved their heads, experimented with makeup like never before, and have traded their salon appointments for at-home color. “I believe that it has to do with being at home without being able to go out as much, being on social media longer and seeing all the filters. It opens the possibility and vision that we have about ourselves,” explains the hairstylist Kim Garduno. “I like it because it is as if we remove a mask from someone’s face—and without eyebrows, we can really see the person’s essence in their eyes. It’s crazy how the energy in the eyes changes drastically. People might think it is a stronger look, but for many I have seen backstage without brows, it can also soften their features.”

Increasingly, brands are coming out with their own formulas that give you the look without going full bleach. Sensorium Brow Engineer in Platinum is one of the best options; if in doubt, go classic with a little bit of Jolen Creme Bleach, which you can pick up at many drugstores.

Likewise, Gibson thinks the bleached brow look follows a pattern of history. “After times of crisis, there’s often a desire for looks which are more creative and which make a statement,” she says. “We see this after both of the World Wars with the roaring ’20s and Dior’s New Look – there’s a real human need to do something fun and different, to mark a new era and to tell the world you’re doing things differently to how things have gone before.” A bleached brow, she adds, puts even more emphasis on maximalist makeup—giving people eager to change their look or express themselves in a new way a blank canvas. “Fashion, but more particularly beauty, is a great outlet for this,” Gibson says. “It’s relatively low commitment, but makes a direct, visual statement.”