We’ve already explored the origins of ever-popular kohl and eyeliner, but the eye shadow trios, quads, and palettes we carry around in our bags today have a relatively recent history compared with other essentials. The Romans used ash and saffron to color their eyelids, and the Egyptians used malachite to give their lids an iridescent green shimmer, but these early examples didn’t continue, and colored eye shadow effectively went out of fashion for almost two thousand years.
As with most makeup, the theater played an important role in introducing the idea of colored eye makeup to the masses. The Ballets Russes and their eye-popping productions had a particularly important influence on people’s perception of color and how it could be used. Diaghilev’s Scheherazade in 1909 in London is a notable example: Both Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, arguably the most influential women and tastemakers in the makeup world of the time, have written of being influenced by the eye makeup worn by the Ballets Russes dancers during this production.2 In 1914 Elizabeth Arden introduced eye makeup, including eye shadow, into her US salons,3 though it would take a while for the trend to trickle down and become something found in regular women’s handbags. It’s worth remembering that the world was very much still in black-and-white at this point, which would have undoubtedly played a part in the slow growth of colored eye shadow. Films, movie magazines, and advertisements were mainly monochrome until the end of the 1920s (the United States introduced color advertising slightly earlier), and Technicolor didn’t really take off for another ten or so years.
Pre-color Hollywood undoubtedly played a part in the growing popularity of eye products, with the heavily made-up eyes of vamps like Theda Bara and, as mentioned previously, the newfound popularity of exotic locations and desire for all things Egyptian, which had reached its peak with the excavation of Tutankhamen’s tomb, encouraging a craze for kohl. But like colored eye shadow, heavily made-up or smoky eyes were not immediately embraced. The stigma that went hand in hand with wearing visible cosmetics would take a while to be overcome. The stage and screen may have made eyes more visible, but these were still actresses and performers playing a role. What’s more, the fact that the vampy look was often paired with risque costumes and characters of questionable morals created a connection in people’s minds between this look and the type of person who would wear it.4
Though color eye shadow was around in the thirties, it was all about single colors. A Maybelline ad from 1930 (a year after the company first started producing eye shadow) describes how, of the four shades offered, œBlue is to be used for all shades of blue and gray eyes; Browns for hazel and brown eyes; Black for dark brown and violet eyes; Green may be used for eyes of all color and is especially effective for evening wear.5 As this makes clear, the way in which eye shadow was worn was incredibly prescriptive and not very sophisticated it was all about matching with your eyes or your hair or your clothes. It wasn’t until the winter of 1949 to 1950 that fashion really began to turn to the eyes, focusing on shadows, eyeliner, and mascara, with greens, blues, and violets suddenly beginning to emerge (a major technological advancement that helped to enable this was the introduction of artificial pearl into cosmetics following the Second World War).
In January 1950, Life ran a fascinating section on the new eye makeup, calling it the œbiggest beauty news since lipstick. The piece breathlessly proclaimed, œWhen word came from Paris this winter that French models were wearing exaggerated make-up on their eyes even with street clothes, the U.S. cosmetics industry realized that here was a chance to exploit a comparatively untouched region of the American female face . . . Hollywood, which resisted short haircuts until defeated, insists that doe eyes will set things back fifty years, but cosmetics men disagree. Recalling that the first use of lipstick in the twenties caused a furor but soon made women feel undressed without it, they predict an equally essential future for drawn-on eyes.6 Cosmetics man Charles Revson must have been pro the new eyes, as Revlon launched their Dreamy Eye makeup in 1950.7 Again, though it was definitely out there, the trend was slow to spread to the average woman: Richard Corson notes that a survey of US university students in 1957 revealed that very few young women were wearing eye shadow, though most of them wore lipstick.8 And though color was on the rise and compacts with two different eye shadows (such as blue and green) were available, they were still clearly designed to be worn separately. The concept of blending shades was a long way off: It would take the revolutionary sixties to move away from the matchy-matchy style that had been prevalent for so long.
Dramatic eye shadow really came to the fore during the filming of Cleopatra in 1962. Liz Taylor in the first throes of her affair with Richard Burton and the paparazzi frenzy that followed the couple’s every move would often go out to dinner at various Rome hot spots still wearing the elaborate makeup from the day’s filming. The photos would run in all the gossip magazines the following day, and the trend for heavy Egyptian eye makeup (albeit an updated sixties version) was created. Revlon jumped onto the trend and began advertising their Cleopatra-look products, including a trio palette of eye shadow and cake liner, in 1962, a year before the film was even released.9 In 1962, Max Factor also released a jade-green eye shadow called Mermaid Eyes (œthe most exciting look your eyes have ever seen)10 and Blue Mist Powder Eye Shadow (œit gives eyes the same exciting matte finish as today’s lips and complexions are wearing!).11
Famous for her iconic eye look, British model Twiggy partnered with Yardley to create a range of eye makeup products (including this black-and-white matte eye shadow duo) and false lashes for sale in the US.
By the mid-1960s, as women became more liberated and the old rules began to seem less relevant, colored eye makeup was everywhere from Coty’s five eye shadow number complete with brush to Gala’s Pick and Paint Eye Palette (shaped to look like a painter’s palette, containing four shadows, an eyeliner, and two brushes), which all encouraged the consumer to have fun, be creative, and make their own rules. Yardley enlisted British model Twiggy to promote (and put her name on) an eye range of graphic mod-style black-and-white eye paint, which they sold in the United States.12 The seventies saw the launch of a surge of trio palettes in previously unseen shades. In a complete about-face from the lurid mono brights of the fifties and the graphic monochromes of the sixties, sophisticated seventies eyes (exemplified by Biba) were all about dark, earthy colors russets, browns, metallics, maroons, and bruised fruit shades in mattes and pearlized shimmers. The wider variety of colors and textures available in the palettes meant that shading and blending was not only possible but necessary. The work of makeup artists in editorials and advertising helped further this development, as it inspired more œprofessional looking eye makeup, something that really grew during the œanything goes eye makeup of the eighties. Since then, eye shadow has become hugely sophisticated and technical in a way it had never been before. These days making up your eyes with shadow is as much about highlighting and shading and sculpting and defining as it is about color. You don’t just whack on one eye shadow you blend three! Using eye palettes artistically and cleverly to make small eyes appear larger, or close-set eyes more wide set, is the norm. Eye makeup application now takes great skill and practice and good brushes and technique and the beauty business is only too happy to provide us with thousands of palettes to choose from.
The moon manicure and a version where only the tips were left unpainted as seen here on Joan Crawford were considered a classy alternative to a fully painted nail in the 1920s and 1930s.