The History of Eye Shadow

By Lisa Russell

From the ancient Egyptians use of kohl to the modern mineral makeup that lines department store shelves, eye shadow has a colorful history. Most women can recall wearing blue eye shadow at some point in their lives and the history of eye shadow is full of interesting stories about protection from the evil eye and social classes made visible by makeup habits.


Kohl was the first recorded eye shadow. Many people mistakenly believe that kohl was just crushed charcoal, but real kohl has a surprising amount of ingredients. Specific formulations of crushed antimony, lead, oxidized copper, ochre, burnt almonds, ash, malachite, and chrysocolla were all part of the popular recipe.

Protective Eye Shadow

The black rim of kohl that the ancient Egyptians wore wasn't just for appearances. Wearing black around the eyes protected them from glare. The ancient Egyptians also believed that the black rim of kohl would restore lost vision and protect their eyes from infection. It's for this reason that eye shadow was worn by men and women of all ages and socioeconomic classes.

Colored Eye Shadows

In ancient Greece and Rome, colored eye shadows were used for decorative purposes. The Iraqis believed that eye shadow would protect them from "the evil eye" but the Greeks and Romans just thought it was pretty. Eye shadow was a luxury limited to use by upper-class women and men, and was produced in several different colors using herbs, crushed minerals and stones as well as dried flowers and crystallized dyes from plants and animal sources.

Blue Eye Shadow

In the 1950s, Helena Rubinstein popularized blue eye shadow for the sock-hopping teens of her decade. In each generation since, there's been a fashionable role model with blue lids. Twiggy in the 1960s, Cyndi Lauper in the 1980s, Britney Spears in the early 2000s and Miley Cyrus in the mid 2000s have all sported blue eye shadow. One journalist even called the blue eye shadow phase a rite of passage for American teens.

Mineral Makeup

In the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, mineral makeup became popular. For a while, chemical ingredients were used in makeup and an increasing level of sensitization took place. Manufacturers who first released mineral eye shadows were greeted with approval from customers, and eye shadow sales showed that women liked the idea of mineral makeup. It should be noted, however, that not all minerals should be near the eyes and that not all mineral makeup is free from other ingredients.