Picture a woman in a black top, black pants, and black flats, and it’s hard to know whether you’re looking at a scene from the 1960s, the ’80s, or last week. But take a look at her eye makeup. Are the brows thin or full; the eyelids shaded in earthy browns or vibrant blues?

“The outfit would be appropriate in many different decades,” says Lauren Richter-Suriñach, one of seven student co-curators of “The Eye of the Beholder: Decade-Defining Lids, Lashes and Brows” at Steinhardt’s 80WSE Gallery. “But from the eye makeup alone, you can immediately tell whether she’s from, say, the ’50s or the ’90s.”

In their research, Richter-Suriñach and her colleagues—all master’s candidates in Steinhardt’s costume studies program, working under the guidance of professor Mellissa Huber—found that previous studies on the evolution of cosmetics had focused on foundation and lipstick, leaving an opportunity to contribute new scholarship around mascara, eyeliner, and more.

The resulting exhibition, which features vintage cosmetics products alongside advertisements, application manuals, and images of popular style icons from each decade since the 1910s, powerfully illustrates how makeup fads have tracked closely with rapidly shifting American cultural attitudes toward gender, sexuality, work, and self-expression.  

photo: magazine covers, album covers, and cosmetic products from the 1950s

Photo by Leticia Valdez

“Looking at these products alone, it would be hard to guess the social norms of the time,” co-curator Jessica Barker says. But pairing them with everything from magazine spreads (think 1950s supermodel Lisa Fonssegrives looking flawless on the cover of Vogue) to album covers (picture Avril Lavigne in thick, smudged eyeliner) provides a revealing look at what motivated trends in each era. “You can’t talk about makeup without asking who was wearing it, what was inspiring them, and what was being advertised,” Richter-Suriñach says.

While the nearly universal impulse to enhance and accentuate the eyes goes back to ancient times—Egyptians and Mesopotamians rimmed their eyes with kohl as early as 10,000 B.C.—the 20th century brought a commercial explosion of makeup designed and marketed for home use, starting with the formation of companies like Maybelline and Max Factor in the 1910s.

photo: vintage eye makeup products

Photo by Leticia Valdez

“Before then, makeup was geared toward actresses—it was primarily for use on the stage. But moving into the 1910s and especially the 1920s, the message was ‘You at home can wear makeup too!’ ” Richter-Suriñach says. “This was the beginning of making makeup more democratic.” With the rise of film, Hollywood stars teamed up with makeup companies to show off looks fans could emulate at home.  

During the first half of the 20th century, many products, such as “eyelash growers” that promised to make lashes and brows become fuller and longer, sold women on the idea of simply enhancing their features, since “painted faces” were seen as unattractively artificial or even deceptive. On the other hand, those reluctant to embellish at all were told that they wouldn’t ever be seen as beautiful without using certain essential products. As one 1920s guide to eye makeup application warned, “A face that otherwise may be beautiful—perfect features, flawless complexion, rosy lips, and pearly teeth—frequently loses its entire charm because of unlovely eyes.”


The tension inherent in turning to an ever-expanding array of cosmetics to achieve apparently effortless beauty runs throughout the century, with some fashions aiming for a “neutral” ideal and others embracing bold strokes of color. Whereas a 1950s Revlon mascara ad boasted of a “sweet and subtle” effect “so naturally lovely you won’t believe your eyes,” the 1960s brought brought dramatic false eyelashes and bright, playful eye shadow palettes packaged to look like children’s crayons or watercolor sets. Cover Girl ads in the 1970s promised “all eyes, not all eye makeup,” and “your eyes, but bigger, natural,” while the late 1990s embraced technological sheen with a vogue for “Y2K-ready” glitter. 

photo: cover girl ad

Photo by Leticia Valdez

Perceptions of what counted as neutral changed over time, too. In the eye shadow of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, blue and green were favored because they were thought to match and therefore bring out the color of a customer’s iris—a premise that makes assumptions about the wearer’s race and ethnicity. In later decades, such as the 1980s, when multiple colors of eye shadow were often applied in contrasting layers, those colors were just one part of an expressive rainbow that included pastel and even neon shades.  

Other major shifts in how makeup was marketed reflected changing views on who it was for. Because many makeup practices—such as reddening the cheeks and lips and widening and brightening the eyes—are in part designed to mimic biological signs of sexual maturity and availability, cosmetics trends are often intertwined with contemporary notions of sex appeal. Much 1940s and ’50s advertising worked under the assumption that a woman’s goal in wearing makeup was to attract the attention of a potential spouse; Maybelline targeted secretaries with the promise that they could move from “office to altar in three easy steps.” 

photo: museum exhibit with eyeshadow, magazine covers

Photo by Leticia Valdez

But the 1960s and ’70s made makeup an extension of individual personalities, with both female and male trendsetters (like Twiggy and David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust) upending gendered expectations about desirability and self-expression. By the 1980s, men had vanished entirely from an Almay ad targeting professional women who needed “rich eye colors that can work an eight-hour day.”  

“As with any type of fashion, approaches to cosmetics kind of ebb and flow,” Barker says. “In some periods, people argue that makeup is oppressive to women and holds them back, but at other times it’s seen as a tool for creativity and empowerment. For many people today, the message is not ‘I’m spending a hundred dollars on eye makeup this month so that a man will love me,’ but rather ‘I am able to embody multiple versions of my true self.’”

As the exhibition’s 2010s display shows, today’s consumers have an unprecedented degree of choice, with diverse models for a variety of styles. Cover Girl has a male spokesperson, and shoppers need not rely on suggestions from glossy magazines when they can turn to YouTube for reviews and tutorials from their own favorite beauty “influencers.”  

But many old quandaries and contradictions are still with us. Barker points out, for example, that even the beloved Urban Decay “Naked” eye shadow palette—whose name evokes the ultimate unvarnished look—actually produces a striking smoky-eye effect. “It was hard to choose what to represent this decade because we’re still living it,” Barker adds. “I’m sure when we look back in 30 years we’ll have a clearer view on the ideas shaping makeup now.” 

photo: eyeshadow palettes in museum case

Photo by Leticia Valdez

And whatever innovation the future brings, it’s likely to include lid, brow, and lash enhancers in some form.

“Rarely has even ‘natural’ meant going completely bare-faced,” Richter-Suriñach says.  

“Eye of the Beholder” is on view at 80WSE through February 2, but those who cannot visit in person may explore a virtual version of the exhibition here.
The curators will host a January 28 symposium featuring additional research on eye makeup and a keynote address by Kathy Peiss, author of Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture.
Watch an interview with co-curators Lizanne Brown and Laura Gust.