Never mind hemlines, you could argue that eyebrows are a far more accurate signifier of the economic rollercoaster that is western capitalism. Historically, they have been dense and hirsute during boom times: the 1960s, the 1980s and the 2000s. And they’ve been plucked into thin arches during recessions: the 1930s, the 1970s and the 1990s. So by rights they should be thin during the current period of economic austerity. And yet ... instead of consensus, these days we seem to be experiencing something of a Great Brow Divide.
“Brows have gone through many fashion cycles but today they are having a ‘moment’,” says Vanita Parti of the Blink brow bars chain. “They are bigger, bolder and stronger than ever.” See, for example, model of the moment (and British Fashion Awards Model of the year for 2012) Cara Delevigne, celebrated for her dark and beetling brows, as well as model/fundraiser Natalia Vodianova and actress Keira Knightley.
“Thick brows are definitely the way to go,” says make-up guru Kay Montano. Sarah Mills, a risk analyst at Barings, concurs: “Thin eyebrows add about 10 years to anyone’s face, not just mine.”
But not everyone agrees. On the cover of this month’s US Vogue, Michelle Obama’s brows appeared notably thinner and more exactingly arched than they did on her first cover appearance back in 2009. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, recently announced as the new face of Bulgari, is known for her thin, delicate brows. Thin, plucked and pencilled brows were also seen at Vivienne Westwood’s AW13 Red Label show on artist and illustrator Julie Verhoeven; on Bérénice Bejo in The Artist; on film-maker and photographer Gia Coppola; on indie chick Beth Ditto; and on Rihanna in the “Princess of China” video. And they were thin, recessive and light in colour at the recent Comme des Garçons fashion week.
Alex Box, avant-garde make-up artist and Illamasqua creative director, has been drawing on very fine eyebrows, à la Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, for several years now, and the look is picking up mainstream acolytes. “I prefer thin,” says Melissa Choi, a businesswoman who has her brows threaded once a month, “even though thick seem to be dominant.”
Not surprisingly, given the differing schools of thought, there has been a related boom in brow products and treatments. Brow bars, where you can have your eyebrows shaped, threaded, bleached, dyed or waxed, are proliferating. In fact, they’ve been one of the major beauty phenomena of the past half decade.
Vanita Parti started Blink in the UK in 2005 with one chair in a Fenwick department store; she now has 22 concessions nationwide and one in the US. “Our clients are embracing fuller but immaculately groomed brows,” she says. Likewise, Benito Brow Bar, founded by husband and wife team Pally and Marco Pagliuca in 2006, now has 27 concessions across the UK and two standalone stores.
In terms of home treatments, Tweezerman is still the go-to name for precision instruments, with various “limited edition” fashion lines available, the latest being Cynthia Rowley slant tweezers (£27) that reimagine the plucking tool in a riot of colour and pattern. Rapidbrow (£37), from the makers of Rapidlash, promises to more than double the thickness of eyebrows within 60 days and sold out in rapid time on the Boots website.
For those willing to commit to permanent alteration, the options have also become more sophisticated. The Harley Street Hair Clinic offers eyebrow transplants (£2,000-£3,000) for those who over-plucked and now want to go back the other way. The process takes more than four hours and involves a patch of hair plucked from the back of the head being implanted, hair by hair, with a needle into the eyebrow area.
Otherwise, Debra Robson Lawrence can tattoo on new brows (£610-£760, with brows redrawn in an hour, including a half-hour preliminary consultation), and new brow bar Browhaus offers a similar new generation of semi-permanent brow reconstruction called Brow Resurrection (£550), which uses a scalpel-like multi-pin tool to produce realistic strand-like “hair” by implanting 100 per cent non-toxic organic vegetable dye into the skin.
All of which suggests that we are in a period of great uncertainty. Or that beauty is less of an economic barometer than we think.
Cynthia Chua, Browhaus founder, has another suggestion. When it comes to economics and brows, she says, the point is not whether eyebrows are thick, thin, or bleached – it’s that they are groomed. “Professional women want well-tended eyebrows at all times with minimal fuss,” she says.