Eye makeup has had a chequered history, yet how we dress our eyes is more relevant than ever before. Watch and learn…

In terms of facial real estate our eyes may not assume as much acreage as say, the cheeks, yet we’re pre-programmed to find them the most alluring of all our features. Poems have been penned in their honour and songs crooned in their appreciation, so it’s not surprising that we’ve been adorning them since day dot. 

“Our eyes help us to relay how we feel,” says Lee Pycroft, registered psychotherapist and Pro Makeup Artist. “The way we use them to communicate is expansive, conveying information in ways that we still don’t fully understand. So, enhancing them with makeup can add another layer to how we capture attention and express ourselves.”

Interestingly, the way that we’ve been decorating our peepers hasn’t changed much over the course of the last 30-odd millennia, despite the recent plethora of Insta-trends; "There’s been a consistent way that makeup has developed," says Richard Russell, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology at Gettysburg College, who has conducted numerous studies into how makeup changes the way we perceive faces. “Women wearing makeup are generally seen as more competent, intelligent and dominant, and eye makeup plays an important role in this.” While we often think of makeup as a purely cultural phenomenon, Russell notes that it rests on some important biological foundations. For example, human brains crave symmetry so eye makeup is a clever way of cheating mother nature with millimetre precision (depending on your skills at wielding an eyeliner that is). We’re also wired to equate youth with fertility, so increasing the size of your eyes with makeup can make you look younger. Even the bastion of makeup wizardry, the smoky eye, has a little science behind it. Russell and his co-authors found that the more colour contrast there is between a woman’s eyes and her skin tone, the more feminine and attractive she is deemed to be. In short, it’s all in the eyes. 

History In Focus

Since the dawn of time humans have been playing with makeup (hurrah for opposable thumbs!) But it’s the queen of the 69BC cat eye, Cleopatra herself, who’s been our enduring inspiration.

“Eye makeup had several functions back in Ancient Egypt, including acting as a sunscreen for the eyes, with kohl being used to protect both men and women from the glare of the sun,” says Cosmetics Historian Gabriela Besame. “Coloured eyeshadows would be made from minerals like malachite, and the more elaborate the makeup, the higher the social status of the wearer.” 

The Romans also enjoyed a degree of makeup play, using burnt clove to enhance their brows and highlight the eyes, Besame adds, but cosmetics didn’t really have a renaissance until the twentieth century, saving its role in the theatre. That’s a good few thousand years of makeup ‘meh’ thanks to the facial hair-shirking Medieval period and those puritanical Victorians. In fact, good old Queen Vic made a public declaration that makeup was vulgar and improper, thanks to its associations with prostitutes.

1915 saw the birth of the first pre-packed mascara, a new category of makeup, but it was still an inordinately messy affair and eye makeup was almost exclusively worn by film stars and musicians.

“It took until the 1920s, when film really took off, for a shift to occur. Eyes had to be extra expressive to convey emotion on the silent screen – and women sought to emulate their on-screen heroes,” says Besame.

From then on in, eye makeup has vacillated with each decade. The ‘hello party’ smoky eyes of the 20s made way for the war-rationed pencil-thin brows and near-bare eyes of the 30s and 40s. In the 50s and 60s, as youth culture exploded, eye makeup took centre stage with maximal mascara, XXL eyeliner and lashings of lashes. Mass market makeup was born. 

But soon, so too was the Women’s Liberation movement which, in the 70s, implored everyone to reject beauty stereotypes and go au naturel, only for the pendulum to swing back with pure, unadulterated 80s excess – resulting in a kaleidoscope of eyeshadows and bolshy brows.

“But that changed in the 90s,” says Besame, “as women wanted to be taken seriously in the boardroom. Suddenly everything is brown – emulating power and playing down overt femininity by way of neutrals.” Only with the rise of reality TV and more makeup artists joining the fray in the form of YouTube tutorials in the 2010s, she adds, did the mode for exaggeration in makeup return. “The rise of men doing tutorials, with their roots in drag makeup, helped spark this very contoured, exaggerated idea of femininity.”

Eyes Go Viral

Today, like never before, eyes are in the spotlight. There’s nothing quite like a global pandemic to prompt us to reassess the little things in life; namely, our relationship with our makeup and its emotional facility to lend a sense of control in times of uncertainty, as well as boost confidence. But it’s the advent of the compulsory mask that has had the most marked impact; “In a society where only the eyes are on display, using them to radiate our internal world could be what keeps us more socially connected. Wearing a pretty liner or playing up the eyes with colour can add a new playful element to experimenting with makeup and will help people to continue expressing their individuality,” says Pycroft.  

Without sounding too frivolous, eyes are back in style. And while these highly developed sensory organs serve to make sense of a world in flux, they also happen to look rather fabulous with a slick of mascara and a fierce eyeliner flick. So sharpen those eyeliner pencils, dust off your eyeshadow brushes and arm yourselves with your favourite mascara, now, more than ever, is time for a little rock ‘n’ kohl.

If you're looking for a little creative inspiration (don't worry, it's been out of reach for many of us recently, too) then why not eye up a few of the looks our Tropic experts have engineered here?

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