blue eyeshadow rules pop culture — but who actually wears it?

The shade is simultaneously clichéd and obscure.

by Rory Satran
26 July 2017, 6:55pm

Extrait du film Buffalo 66

In Vincent Gallo's 1998 cult film Buffalo '66, Christina Ricci plays a moody Lolita named Layla, who wears babydoll dresses and bright blue eyeshadow. The movie mixes time periods aesthetically, with a retro Americana feel sitting uncomfortably alongside 90s disaffection. In one famous scene in a photo booth, Gallo's character tells Layla to look, "like we're in love spanning time." Her eyeshadow is perfect. A little weird and definitely spanning time.

Like red lipstick and pearl necklaces, blue eyeshadow is shorthand for the very idea of beauty. It's the make-up kids draw on their paper dolls, and what Disney princesses and villains wear. Cultural icons and filmmakers use it to create stories and tellingly, it's often seen in drag (see: Divine in Pink Flamingos).

The color has made some notable recent appearances on the runway. For resort 17, Alessandro Michele integrated a bright turquoise eye into his kaleidoscope of references at Gucci, and Miuccia Prada brought a blue eye back once again. Pat McGrath has built an Instagram-friendly beauty empire on bold eye shades like her sold-out "Blue 002" pigment.

Make-up artist Emi Kaneko uses blue "all the time. It's one of my favorite colors." She says that it works because it's "familiar." And that the no-makeup look has made way for a resurgence of "everything old is now cool."

But when's the last time you saw a real-life person wearing blue eyeshadow? Why is there such a rift between blue's cultural impact and its actual use?

Eyeshadow's first real heyday was during ancient Egypt, when men and women from all social classes would pile on black and green mineral powders to ward off bacterial infection. When she played Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylor and her make-up artist Alberto De Rossi took some creative license and made that green more blue, likely to play up Liz's magical purple eyes. Because De Rossi put his back out during filming, Liz ended up doing her own make-up. Which is ironic considering that the 1963 flick gave blue eyeshadow (and Liz) a bit of a diva reputation.

Cleopatra's release coincided with eye make-up's second coming in the early 1960s. Youthquakers and the birth of drugstore make-up like Max Factor made shadow suddenly a thing. Especially blue. The very first Barbie made its debut in 1959 with the icy blue eyeshadow that was worn by everyone from Edie Sedgwick to housewives at the time. Make-up historian Rachel Weingarten connects the blue with the Flower Power look, when young people embraced sunnier colors as a rejection of the "rigid 50s." A whole generation changed, explains Rachel, and "color wasn't seen as freaky, it was seen as expressive."

Why blue, rather than, say, purple, or yellow? Weingarten can't be sure. She guesses that it may have been simply what was available, formula-wise. Or that women looked to blue for the brightening quality of making the whites of eyes look whiter. "It was probably a bastardization of a beauty ideal," she says. Like the rest of the first wave of commercial make-up, it was developed by men for women, and part of that development process was random. Why not blue? It became the people's eyeshadow.

But somewhere between Twiggy's optimistic eyelids and Christina Ricci's forlorn gaze in Buffalo '66, blue eyeshadow took a strange turn. It became more of a symbol for make-up than a real thing people wore. By the early 90s, Bobbi Brown-influenced shadows and shimmers in "wearable" neutrals were considered more tasteful. "[Blue eyeshadow has] gone from symbolizing fun and freedom to being crazy lady or toddler," says Rachel Weingarten.

Like any beauty symbol, blue eyeshadow has played an important role in pop culture along the way. It has come to embody a kind of playful, ironic nod to extreme costuming. Think blue lids and some indelible cultural images will pop up. Andy Warhol's silkscreened Marilyn Monroe (who wore exaggerated blue eyeshadow, although Marilyn in the photo the piece was based on did not). Isabella Rossellini's fetishized nightclub singer in Blue Velvet. David Bowie in "Life on Mars." Jessica Rabbit.

Blue Velvet make-up artist Jeff Goodwin says that David Lynch's cult classic was his favorite working experience ever. Creatively, it was super unrestricted, and Jeff had free rein to develop the look of Rossellini's nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens. Singing the film's title song onstage, Dorothy's dark glamour is painted in red lipstick and blue eye make-up. Jeff hand-mixed multiple shadows and pencils to get that deep, indigo blue that has been on many mood boards since. "It was something that needed to be a little garish — a little something overdone," he remembers today.

Like Buffalo '66, Blue Velvet mixes time periods: the 50s rub shoulders with the 80s in an imaginary vision of America. Laura Dern's fresh-faced mid-century schoolgirl is the foil to Dorothy's vamp. "I think those qualities help that film have a little longevity and life to it because it's hard to put a date on it," says Jeff. "It's timeless." Blue eyeshadow has always been slightly out of step — it straddles decades and stirs memories.

No one understood blue's evocative power more than David Bowie, who wore it most memorably during his "Life on Mars"period. In the song's Mick Rock-directed video, Bowie's eyes, with their differently sized pupils, are the clear focal points. There's no way not to see his make-up symbolically, particularly the bright robin's egg circles around his eyes. Bowie scholar and author of Future Nostalgia: Performing David Bowie Shelton Waldrep has spent a lot of time thinking about the icon's use of make-up. He tells me that the whitened face and intense red of his hair along with the bright blue shadow may have had something to do with Pop Art and Warhol, but also with Bowie's interest in Asian masks. He used a kabuki mask in the 1974 Diamond Dogs tour. Shelton notes, "In kabuki theatre, you often have red in makeup indicating positive/negative — positive anger the way blue indicates negative anger, so it could have had something to with that as well."

Bowie was an extreme example, but there's still an element of dress-up in blue eyeshadow, as it's such an unnatural look. Which is why the queen of modern dress-up fantasies, Carrie Bradshaw, was able to pull it off without looking completely bizarre. Shelton Waldrop says, "Blue eyeshadow is extremely artificial. I mean, it's the one sort of makeup that doesn't seem to blend in."

As Bowie knew, it's so extreme that it's mask-like. When children draw women or play at make-up, it's often blue eyeshadow that they use. Children's toy make-up usually includes a blue palette. "When you look at a little kid's makeup kit, it's the blue eyeshadow, it's the red for the lips or the cheeks, and I think that's simply because it's really the exaggerated femininity," says Rachel Weingarten.

Blue has always been a tool for make-up artists to use when they truly want to make a statement. Longtime i-D Beauty Director Pat McGrath has used the shade several times over the years on striking i-D covers, from Maggie Rizer in doll-like splendor to Jessica Stam as an Antonio Lopez canvas. And Pat is partly responsible for its recent resurgence with the BLUE 002 Pigment in her PHANTOM 002 kit, and DARK STAR 006 in ULTRAVIOLET BLUE. "In its iterations throughout the decades, blue eyeshadow has always been exotic and crazy sexy," she tells me. "I created some major blue looks for Versace in the early 2000s, and teased DARK STAR 006 with show-stopping blue eyes at Anna Sui's fall/winter 17 show. In its current evolution, blue shadow has completely radicalized the smokey eye."

Pat's looks are helping make blue modern again. But like so many style statements, it's all about context. Says Rachel Weingarten, "If you saw Dakota Fanning wearing some feathery blue eyeshadow, you'd go, 'Wow. That's so fresh again.' Then again, if you saw Katy Perry wearing it, you'd say, 'Hmm, is this a punchline or a beauty statement?'"

Blue eyeshadow's symbolism can feel overwhelming. In 2017, are the connotations too weighty to play with? Or is it time to strip blue of all its pop cultural references and give it new life?

That seems to be exactly what Solange Knowles does in a strange little Instagram video that I can only describe as "anti-beauty." In it, she shows off strong cobalt eye paint in a childlike Rorschach pattern. She makes make-up look fun again — it's electric.


Text Rory Satran
Still from Buffalo '66 via YouTube

david bowie
pat mcgrath
blue eyeshadow