All You Need to Know Regarding Smokey Eyes

May 25, 2022
Everything You Need to Learn Regarding Smokey Eyes

Smokey eye makeup can highlight the look to make it more intense and deep. But mastering the technique is not so simple. History, techniques, variants… 

We tell you everything about the smoky eye and the art of shaping it in two pencil strokes.

The apostles of the nude may have attacked it for its show-off side, but nothing helped. Ancestral and cross-cultural practice, rock and sulfurous emblem, the smokey eye continues.

An ancestral ritual

Cosmetic brands love to remind you of the facts: in the past, in ancient Egypt, the use of black makeup was aesthetic (it was intended to “make the eyes speak”) but also therapeutic. 

If like Jared Leto or Johnny Depp, the whole of Egyptian society (children and men included) circled their eyes in black, it was above all to protect themselves from eye infections caused by the sandy winds of the desert – kohl, then containing lead in small doses, played the role of eye drops. 

Logically, it was adopted later by the Berber peoples, the Tuaregs in particular, who, veiled, had moreover only the look as a medium of seduction.

Also Read: 6 Best Eye Makeup Tricks

“Black is the shade that holds the most nuances”, states Ludovic Engrand, maquillage artist. “It highlights everything, and it is the foremost to have been employed in makeup.” 

So by applying kohl to the inside of your eye (and even if you don’t think about it every day, between 7:30 a.m. and 7:45 a.m.), you’re not just responding to industry sirens cosmetics and the laws of seduction. 

You are actually taking part in an ancestral ritual, invented on the banks of the Nile and reactivated at the start of the 20th century. We agree that storytelling is effective.

“These are strong references, which have shaped the huge popularity of the black eye since its appearance in the 1920s,” recalls makeup artist Karim Rahman.

The arrival of the modern Kohl

The 1920s… Silent cinema. Discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Bohemian intoxicated with oriental fantasies, Mata Hari looks, images of poisonous post-romantic women. 

At the time, eye makeup was still marginal: “Until the Revolution, when we lived in an orderly society, the eyes were considered a divine creation and the mirror of the soul, explains the historian Catherine Lanoë, author of La Poudre et le Fard, A history of cosmetics from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. 

To make up, to disguise them amounted to denying God and usurping a social role. And at the beginning of the 20th century, eye makeup is still reserved only for courtesans.”

The one who will reshuffle the cards is called Helena Rubinstein, an American passionate about theater and opera, who was then inspired by the trompe-l’oeil makeup of the dancers of the Russian ballets, to develop expressionist cosmetics adapted to life daily. 

It was she who, in 1917, invented a modern version of ancient kohl for the actress and sex symbol Theda Bara, interpreter of the first film on Cleopatra, signed by J. Gordon Edwards.

“Let’s remember the role of silent cinema, in contrasting black and white, in the advent of this fashion, adds morphopsychologist Martine Tardy, author of “History of makeup, from Egyptians to the present day”. 

The eyes had to be stylized to reinforce the emotions.” The media fallout for this ostentatious look is enormous, but it will take a few decades, however, for the smoky eye to penetrate “housewives under 50”.

It was not until the 60s and 70s that the smoky eye (as we understand it today: degraded, very worked pencil) became popular with Helmut Newton, Sarah Moon, or the model Twiggy, who used black in the hollow of the eyelids.

The two schools of the smokey eye

It’s time to distinguish between two schools of thought: nothing to do with the use of graphic liner, the signature of Brigitte Bardot, Audrey Hepburn, and Sophia Loren, and the use of sulfurous smoky (used in the erotic photos of ‘artists like Irina Ionesco) from the end of the 1960s. 

“The way to sculpt the look until then, by working the eyebrow, playing with eyeliner and mascara, was different. With the smoky, it is less a question of sublimating the woman, of embellishing a look, than to invent a new code of beauty, a powerful manifesto in keeping with women’s empowerment over their sexuality, says Karim Rahman. Let’s not forget that these were the Saint Laurent years, those of moral revolutions and the advent of a tuxedo.”

Catherine Lanoë confirms: “Styles are never free. Makeup is consistently the representation of sociable growth, and the smoky eye, in my opinion, has surely accompanied new values.”

Affirmation of sexuality, breaking with the traditional diktats assigned to women, multicultural openness… Then allegiance to the gods of the counter-culture who, from Keith Richards to Kurt Cobain, applied kohl to themselves to celebrate, too, Horus (Egyptian god of fertility and knowledge represented by a falcon – animal totem of the smoky eye). 

Little by little, the ways of interpreting the dark eye have multiplied, superimposed, according to a process of democratization that today no doubt reaches its climax. “There are kinds, but the black watch has dwelled a secure bet” ensures Karim Rahman. 

The sole period when it was set aside in fashion was the 1990s, with the advent of aesthetics “no makeup”, visible than in Marc Jacobs, who valued the absence of artifice, raw beauty. Today it is over, and the smoky eye is used in all social classes.”

Photo: Pexels/ Cottonbro

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Margaud Raynaud is a beauty expert with over 10 years of experience in the industry. She has a passion for sharing her knowledge and tips with others and has a particular interest in skincare and makeup. When she's not writing about health and beauty, Margaud enjoys trying out new products and experimenting with different looks. Follow her blog for expert advice and inspiration for living your best life.

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