Eyeshadow Trends of Past Decades

Love retro? We've got a treat for you. Learn about eyeshadow trends of past decades

Take our tour of eyeshadow trends through the ages

From the natural, “no makeup” eye makeup look of the 1910’s, to the extreme opposite of dark, smudged, smokey eyeshadows of the 1920’s, eyeshadow looks have come and gone, and then come back again. But what were these trends, and what inspired them?

History of Eyeshadow

Like mascara, eyeliner, and tattoos, the history of eyeshadow dates back to the early Egyptians who used eye makeup first as a way to ward off evil. Both men and women wore eye makeup made of oxidized metals, ochre, acrimony and crushed nut shells. Eye shadow of the ancient Egyptians of 12,000 years ago consisted of crushed minerals such as green malachite, a beautiful green banded mineral made of carbon hydroxyl carbonate. Eventually, it was believed that the beauty enhancing effects of these ancient cosmetics made humans appear more god-like, and they began to be used for cosmetic purposes, as well as religious.

Ancient Mesopotanians used crushed semi-precious stones such as amethyst, aquamarine, and lapis lazuli as a glittering eyeshadow over 5,000 years ago. Upper-class Romans used both minerals and plant-based dyes to decorate their eyelids.

For the most part, eyeshadow and other makeup disappeared from civilized society, with the exception of actors and prostitutes, until around 1910, when it began to make a covert comeback.

Eyeshadow Trends Through the Decades

In the 1910’s, eyeshadow and other cosmetics began to be worn by many women who were not actresses and prostitutes, but it was purchased in secret from behind the closed doors of local apothecaries and herbalists. Women didn’t want it to be at all obvious that they had any cosmetic enhancements, so eyeshadow shades were very sheer tints of natural looking browns, grays, and golds to enhance the eyelids, while faces were powdered white, and lips were subtly tinted.


In the 1920’s, women became much bolder. Along with voting rights and shorter hemlines, women no were no longer hiding the fact that they used cosmetics. Women chose to emulate the fashionable looks flaunted by actresses in moving picture shows which were at that time filmed in black and white. This led to the popularity of dark, smoky eyeshadow looks using gray and black, and applied with a heavy hand. This was paired with thick layers of black mascara for a bold, dramatic effect.

In the 1930’s, along with the depression, came a much less flamboyant look. Women adopted a spare, china-doll makeup up look, which included light pastel, or neutral-toned eyeshadow under arched, pencil-thin brows.

In the 1940’s, a shortage of products in general because of war and rationing, meant that women’s eye makeup took on a natural look. Along with women venturing into the workforce came eyeshadow in natural tones of brown and beige under naturally shaped eyebrows. Eye makeup took on a barely-there look, as the focus was meant instead to be on the iconic “victory” red lipstick trend.

In the 1950’s pastel eyeshadow returned to match the pink or red lipstick and winged eye-liner look made famous by Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn. The popularity of colorized films meant eyeshadow looks became more colorful as well, with ice blue, violet, and light green becoming popular. Eyeshadow tended to match either eye color itself, or a chosen outfit for the day.

In the 1960’s it was all about eyelashes, with false eyelashes and layers of mascara on upper and lower lids. Eyeshadow was meant to better show off the lashes, so it tended to be pale and frosted, favoring icy pastels or even white.

In the 1970’s looking completely natural and earthy came back as the new generation rebelled against the culture of their baby-boomer parents. With the war in Vietnam and the prevalent culture of the hippie generation, eyeshadow, if worn at all, was neutral and barely there. However, by the end of the decade, the disco movement brought neon eyeshadows, metallics, and glitter into the eyeshadow scene.

In the 1980’s, the disco look, along with an increasing materialistic culture, meant “the more the better” was the makeup look of the times. Eyeshadow was bright, vivid and bold. Blue eyeshadow became a go-to look, but also popular were bright greens, pinks, and purples. This colorful look went well with a lot of blush and lipstick and big, highly styled hair.

In the 1990’s the new generation rebelled against the vivid makeup of the 80’s and along with the grunge-look, came the return of barely-there makeup. Eyeshadows appeared in clean, neutral colors like beige, brown, nude and sandy tones. This was paired with straight hair and pale, natural lip colors.

In the 2000’s social media and selfies made big makeup return. Though not as vivid and brightly colored as the eighties, a lot of eyeshadow became a good thing again, but more eye-color enhancing natural shades became the rage.

In the 2010’s it has become all about the brows, and eyeshadow was chosen to enhance the eyebrows. As we’ve moved further toward the 2020’s, eyeshadows are generally chosen from a palette of colors meant to enhance our own eye colors, often whatever is the opposite on the color wheel.

It’s clear that each decade zig-zags back and forth from heavily made-up looks, to the natural look, perhaps as a way to rebel against the previous generation’s favored look.

So what comes next? You can probably bet that tomorrow’s teens will look very different from today’s.

Resources — History of Cosmetics, Breaking News, Elle