From Dior and Chromat to Chloé and Valentino: Curved eyeliners dominated the spring/summer shows 2021 with bright colors, graphic lines, and geometric shapes. Today the make-up classic has many facets, but how did the trend come about?
Cat eyes are without a doubt one of the most effective make-up statements of all time.
The untamed beauty classic has been declared a signature look by many over the years. Starting with the queens of ancient Egypt to their modern incarnations in the spring/summer 2021 shows by Dior, Valentino, and Chloé.
Here we look back on the fascinating history of the famous eyeliner look. We explore the cultural traditions as well as the famous interpretations of the film legends Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner, and Elizabeth Taylor.
Cat eyes are one of the oldest make-up tricks in the world. The origins go back to ancient Egypt (from 3100 to 332 BC). It is said that the look was popularized by Nefertiti and Cleopatra, among others. Using minerals such as copper ore and malachite, they drew broad lines from the eye to the hairline or fine, short lines parallel to the eyebrow. The look was also popular with men, for example on Pharaoh Sethos I.
According to Doreen Bloch, beauty historian and co-founder of the Makeup Museum, kohl and minerals were originally applied around the eyes to prevent eye diseases. "With its immunological and antibacterial properties, kajal should promote eye health and protect against the glaring light of the sun," says Bloch. "So the people of ancient Egypt, especially the ruling classes, saw a health benefit in surrounding their eyes with kohl." Make-up finds from ancient Egypt that is on display in the Louvre show traces of nitrogen, which is said to have served to revitalize the immune system.
In addition to health aspects, the cat-eye look also had another purpose: to drive away evil spirits. "For centuries women have used charcoal pencils to avert the evil eye," says Rachel Goodwin, also co-founder of the Makeup Museum and make-up artist of many celebrities. "But like so many things, this custom developed over time into a status symbol, until at some point it was considered the epitome of beauty by women and men of all classes."
Even if we suspect the origin of the cat-eyes in ancient Egypt, appeared as early as 3000 BC. Partly subtle, partly extreme forms of the look in women and men in Asia and the Middle East. In the Middle East, for example, crushed kajal (made from lead sulfate and other minerals mixed with water) was applied around the eyes to protect against the harsh desert climate.
In the western world, the history of the cat's eyes as we know them today began in the 1920s. The unique entertainment artist Josephine Baker picked up the look for her rousing dance performances, while the actresses Louise Brooks and Greta Nissen took every opportunity to walk the red carpet with cat eyes, voluminous eyelashes, and thin eyebrows.
"The discovery of objects from ancient Egypt [in the 1910s and 1920s] such as the bust of Nefertiti brought looks from bygone times into the public eye," explains Bloch. "In films like Cleopatra with Theda Bara from 1917 you saw modern superstars with cat eyes. The more acceptable cosmetics became for normal women, the more often you saw eyeliner."
There was something dramatic, mysterious, and exotic about the look. He thus tied in with the rebellious style of flapper fashion that defined the era. Women broke loose clothing and cut their hair. At that time the eyeliner was mixed from soot and petroleum jelly.
In the 1950s and 1960s, cat eyes were considered the style du jour. The look had arrived in everyday life, albeit in a less dramatic form than in the 1920s. Pin-up icons like Hedy Lamarr wore a subtle, thin but peppy eyeliner on and off the canvas.
In the 1950s, the makeup began to be mass-produced and commercialized; the liquid eyeliner was born! "It was this innovation, but also make-up artists like Factor, Ben Nye, and the Westmores, who gave film stars like Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, and Audrey Hepburn the look that marked the beginning of a completely new era of beauty," said the author Goodwin.
In Italy, Sophia Loren and other great film stars of the 1960s cast a spell over their audience with their own interpretations: deep black eyeliner, dramatic eyelashes, and dark brown or blue eyeshadow down to the crease. "In the 1950s, the beauty brand Borghese advertised a new eye make-up look called 'cat's eye' for the trend-conscious Italian," says Bloch.
Meanwhile, British model Twiggy gave the look a spacey update with precise lines and accentuated lower lashes, while Elizabeth Taylor only increased the popularity of the look as Queen Cleopatra in Hollywood's 1963 remake. And then there was the model Pattie Boyd, who described how to perfect subtle cat eyes in a 1965 beauty column for American magazine 16.
When youth culture exploded in the 1970s and 1980s, the cat's eye also took on new forms. Fans of punk, gothic, grunge, and metal culture made the look their own in their own way. In the 1980s, we saw Blondie front woman Debbie Harry with wildly blurred cat eyes. Not only her fans but also rock singer Pat Benatar insisted on following her.
As style pioneers, Grace Jones and David Bowie gave the look a huge boost with new colors and generous amounts of blush. Bowie was known for making up his eyes with Indian kohl, often framing his eyelashes and giving them a slight curl. "I always had this terrible need to want to be more than human," he once told Rolling Stone about his make-up.
Meanwhile, Robert Smith of The Cure and Siouxsie Sioux experimented with clean lines and graphic shapes. The Egyptian actress Soad Hosny was also considered a fan of cat eyes, as was the Singaporean actress of Chinese origin Gong Li, who was often seen wearing it, especially at the beginning of her career in the 1980s and 1990s.
Two camps began to open up in the 2000s. Amy Winehouse relied on the classic look but gave it a new dimension with rather clumsy eyelid lines that extend beyond the eyebrows. Other celebrities, like Lauren Conrad from the American reality show Laguna Beach, chose more subtle variants.
"In the early 2000s, there was a sudden surge of nostalgia for Hollywood's golden era," said Goodwin. "Women like Gwen Stefani and Dita Von Teese wanted to pay tribute to their beauty idols. The cat's eye continued to develop and was refocused through a respectful yet rebellious lens."
Today, make-up artists such as Pat McGrath, Fatima Thomas, and Isamaya Ffrench help ensure that the look gains shape and precision for a modern generation. For Chloé's spring/summer show 2021, McGrath gave the models smoky, seductive cat eyes, which were made even more impressive by an extended lower waterline. And for Chromat, Thomas relied on a neon duo with cobalt blue and green highlighter that could be seen.
Peter Philips created a striking yet minimalist look for Dior that completely enclosed the eyes. On the other hand, Ffrench used intense white and black pigments for Vivienne Westwood for Andreas Kronthaler, with which she drew curved lines up to her temples that exuded 1980s flair. Today's makeup artists give cat eyes new wings. This creates a flexible look that adapts to any mood of the wearer.
Beauty Instagrammers like Juliana Horner transforms classic cat eyes into true works of art on social media. We see the same thing with make-up artist Rowi Singh with her extraordinary creations. A search for #cateye on Instagram yields 2.6 million hits, clear evidence of the popularity of cat eyes. Today we see the classic shape, strikingly decorated with rhinestones, red and orange flames, cloud motifs, lots of glitter, or even flower petals.
"While cat eyes used to symbolize social status or conformity, today they stand for the complete opposite. That is their greatest evolution," says Goodwin in summary. "Today's cat-eye look is far more agile. It moves completely freely and without irony between classic beauty applications and subculture."