x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Browing to the inevitable

They are probably there just to stop sweat from dripping into our eyes but eyebrows can mean a lot more when fashion plays a role.

A model wit nearly invisible eyebrows struts down the catwalk during Givenchy's autumn/winter 2010 show in Paris.
A model wit nearly invisible eyebrows struts down the catwalk during Givenchy's autumn/winter 2010 show in Paris.

If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then the eyebrows are the windowframes. Whether you sport the luxuriant swags of a Brooke Shields or the slender modernist lines of a Nicole Kidman, your eyebrows say a lot about your tastes, personality and mood, not to mention emphasising or obscuring your facial structure. Much of what can be read from your eyes is actually down to the movement of the musculature surrounding them. Could any actual words, after all, be as cutting as the sardonic raising of one eyebrow? And what verbal expression of sadness could out-appeal the hangdog look of brows furrowed into a tragic triangle?

For such a very small feature, eyebrows make a huge difference to someone's face, which is why the sudden fad for eyebrow-free faces is so very peculiar. Givenchy's autumn/winter catwalks and advertising campaigns have used models whose eyebrows have been bleached to invisibility, and they're not the only ones: Prada, Rick Owens and Balenciaga also minimised brows with make-up or bleach. It lends a strangely alien look, partly because of the sudden loss of expression caused by the lack of visible movement.

But then that's not so new: the Botox fad of recent years has for many people already removed facial expression from the body-language lexicon. And for true fashion fanatics, that extreme and inscrutable look is what makes this so very appealing. Fashion (as opposed to mere clothing) is, after all, a sort of costume or personal armour, as much a defensive device as the emo make-up of teenagers or the cheek implants and face lifts of ageing actors. Heaven forbid that anyone should see a real, vulnerable and shy person beneath the leather Jean Paul Gaultier bodysuit.

The mask-like effect of removed and redrawn eyebrows has long been tacitly acknowledged, of course. Elizabeth I of England, one of the greatest and most iconic queens in history, is recognised by her barely there blonde brows and lashes, contrasting eerily with her dark eyes. In homage to her, Elizabethan women in Europe not only plucked out all or most of their eyebrows, but also the first centimetre of their hairline, whitening their skin to create a high, blank forehead.

Possibly the most famously brow-free visage is that of the Mona Lisa, whose notoriously enigmatic smile is made all the more blank by a lack of the punctuation that is provided by eyelashes and brows. Why Leonardo da Vinci decided to paint her hair-free has been a mystery for centuries, but in 2007 a researcher discovered that Da Vinci had painted at least one hair, indicating that perhaps the rest of the pigment had faded over the years or been accidentally removed when the painting was being cleaned. Yet would Mona Lisa have been so endlessly fascinating if she had expressive brows?

Star Trek's Dr Spock, too, as played by Leonard Nimoy, could never have been convincingly emotionless with normal eyebrows: his upwards slanting ticks were employed only in an attitude of puzzlement at the mystifying actions of sentimental humans. Still, it seems that after only a couple of months, the browless look has already gone mainstream and thus may soon be over. Kim Kardashian recently posted an image from a photo shoot on her official blog that ditched her normally glossy look in favour of a Twilight-inspired vampire makeover with eyebrows blanked out. Yet eyebrows themselves are still hot property: for confirmation, take a look at the furore caused by the Britain's Got Talent star Susan Boyle when she appeared on the US's Today show with her new look, which basically consisted of having put on a pretty frock and had her unruly brows tamed.

What those neatly plucked, well shaped arches are supposed to tell us is that the formerly fragile Boyle is back on track, recovered from her stint in the Priory Clinic and ready to hit the touring trail again. This is a Susan Boyle who is full of confidence and in control of her destiny. What they actually say, though, along with the glossy make-up, grey-free hair and shapely frock, is that the face fascists have got hold of her. Because although her original breakthrough was absolutely darling, what with her horrid clothes and her embarrassingly thick eyebrows, she couldn't possibly want to stay like that, could she? And we, the public, would never actually want to listen to the singing of someone who looked so very orbitally hirsute, would we? Well, Liam Gallagher and Madonna might have disagreed...