Sydney Sweeney: Courtesy of HBO; Getty Images / Design by Bella Geraci
For three years, in the middle of heartbreak and a close friend’s life-altering injury, the writer Maggie Nelson found herself drawn, obsessively, to the color blue. As later detailed in the pages of Bluets, she saw it in blue tarps flapping in the wind, in dark circles that had developed around her eyes from weeping, and in the “blue rush” of a man who did not love her back. Nelson was hardly the first to contemplate the emotional significance of the oft-mythologized color, nor will she be the last: Writers spanning continents and centuries have near incessantly published musings on their insatiable desire to collect, move towards, or ingest shades of blue. Recently, the blues in my own world began to sizzle and crack. Pulled into the blue glow of an iPhone, I found myself intoxicated by images of blue-dusted lids belonging to women I do not know.
In one corner of the internet, where the performance of ingénue-branded girlhood and self-portraits of mental illness border on one in the same, it has become impossible to avoid images of femmes in blue eye shadow, as if overnight. The Mia Goth TikTok filter, featuring Maxine Minx’s aquamarine lids from A24’s X, has been used in 155K posts to date. Over Halloween weekend, Bushwick warehouse parties and literary soirées saw an influx of Interview mag-era Lana Del Rey imitators, eyes painted in mournful, matte turquoise. And for an exhausting year-long trend cycle, trendspotters codified indigo eyeshadow’s omnipresence as the “washed denim” fad, as seen on Chloe Cherry, Kali Uchis, and Taylor Swift on the cover of her 2022 album Midnights.
Not quite the neon exuberance of the ‘80s, but still: After shunning its on-again-off-again darling, the beauty world is awash in dazzling blue once more. Even Pinterest’s forecasters have taken note, naming 2024 the year of “Blue Beauty” and declaring that “aquamarine makeup is back and bolder than ever.”
But the uptick in cerulean-swept eyelids amongst the internet-brained — both innocent and coy, exaggerated and flattened — contributes to a performative image of the self online. Whether mimicking the dazed inner world of Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla or mirroring sadness felt across the planet, femmes online appear set on projecting an image of despair, or something vaguely mysterious, all in shades of blue.
The Sad Girl Blues
However shallow, my fixation with cataloging the uses of blue eye shadow — be it smudged cobalt, aqua, teal, or indigo — veered immediately towards the melancholic, and for good reason. Popular music alone has provided us with enough of “the blues” to soundtrack a lifetime of longing in front of the vanity: Joni Mitchell’s "Blue" (Crown and anchor me/Or let me sail away), Phoebe Bridgers’ "Funeral" (Jesus Christ/I’m so blue all the time), and Lana Del Rey’s “Norman Fucking Rockwell” (Your head in your hands/As you color me blue), to name a few. Often accompanied by haunting minor chords, those repeated references made the idea of blue eye shadow as a sort of morse code for just-wiped tears an easy one to grasp: low-hanging fruit on a blueberry bush.
But it’s the more literal contemplations of blue’s “superhuman sorrow” that prove essential in decoding blue eye shadow’s renewed popularity. Like Nelson, essayist and author Rebecca Solnit has published aching meditations on blue as “the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not…and the color of where you can never go.” Katy Kelleher, author of The Ugly History of Beautiful Things, returns again and again to parse the intricacies of verdigris, prussian blue, and marian blue — the latter of which she ties to 18th century German Romantics and their obsession with “blaue Blume” or the blue flower. In 1800, Kelleher notes, the German poet Joseph von Eichendorff wrote the following about his quest to acquire such a thing: “The blue flower/I’m looking for the blue flower/I am looking for and never find them.” Wanting with no end.
And then there’s literature — stomping grounds for the elusive sad girl. It’s no wonder that a grainy ink blue covers modern iterations of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, infamous for the downward spiral of its depressed heroine Esther Greenwood and, later, its author’s own tragic demise. The same can be said of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s provocative 1994 memoir Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America, the cover of which features a blue-tinted Wurtzel at 27 years old. Name a doomed damsel, and a swath of grungy blue is sure to be plastered somewhere nearby.
As reliable as tragedy in a young heroine’s plotline, blue always seems to find its way onto the lash line of a woman in proximity to a breakdown. Take embattled influencer Caroline Calloway, for one. During the promotion of her memoir, in which she paints a hero’s journey from addiction and mental illness to the completion of the book she’d long promised to fans, the polarizing “scammer” repeatedly donned blue eyeliner and shadow. The previously mentioned Goth, who catapulted to stardom with her portrayal of the blue-lidded Maxine in X, rages, “I’m a fucking star! The whole world is gonna know my name!” just before she murders the film’s villain. Now meme royalty, Sydney Sweeney’s Euphoria bathroom meltdown is also complemented by a pair of baby blue shimmering eyelids.
That lobotomy T-shirts, crying makeup, and teary selfies have weaseled their way into the same trend era as blue eye shadow is unsurprising. Reminiscent of Tumblr-era depictions of female suffering, we’ve circled back to an online environment where sadness is an aspirational gendered aesthetic. And in some cases, these images have enabled us to conflate the idea of a tortured young woman with beauty itself — as if the best way to make light of distinctly feminine pain is to insist that we looked pretty while enduring it.
But to insist that blue eye shadow is only a signifier of anguish would be a disservice both to the wide-ranging color family of blues and to the complexity of its wearers. Perhaps, then, blue’s inherent melancholy isn’t the destination, but a fleeting wave of emotion on the path to something far more compelling. Tears aren’t blue, anyhow. That’s an illusion. They’re transparent.
The History of Blue
If one were to ask for blue’s origin story, you’d be treated to a thousands-year old history of digging and searching and finding nothing in the soil that resembled the piercing color of the sky. Desperate to bottle the shade of the heavens, ancient Egyptians resorted to extracting blue — lapis lazuli, along with malachite and turquoise — from mines in Afghanistan. Those minerals were then pulverized to create the synthetic pigment “Egyptian Blue.” Sprinkles of that very lapis lazuli would go on to line King Tutankhamen’s funeral mask and, as is common lore, the eyelids of one Cleopatra.
Well, two Cleopatras: In 1963, in the middle of drugstore beauty’s heyday, Elizabeth Taylor created an ultramarine phenomenon when she portrayed the Egyptian queen with blue eye shadow caked from eyebrow to lash line, flanked by thick kohl wings. But as culture writer and the author of Eyeliner: A Cultural History Zahra Hankir tells Allure, that portrayal wasn’t entirely accurate. In line with her own research, Hankir says historians doubt whether Cleopatra ever wore lapis lazuli shadow. “Greens and grays would have been more likely due to the composition of the materials at hand, such as galena and malachite,” Hankir notes. “Nevertheless, blue eye shadow would become Taylor’s shade of choice, in part because it enhanced her eyes.” At the center of blue eye shadow’s rise to infamy: deception. Aesthetics over accuracy.
Long downplayed as “old-fashioned,” Pantone Color Institute’s Executive Director Leatrice Eiseman notes that blue eye shadow was one of the very first to hit the market in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s — even the first Barbie doll, released in 1959, featured alluring frosted lids. The revivals it has seen throughout the decades — including this current iteration — represent “a certain passage of time,” Eiseman tells Allure. This is the trend cycle — dollar signs in its eyes — working as intended: an antique hits shelves once more just as those very products have been cleared out of makeup bags and tossed in the trash. The shades of blue cluttering your eye shadow palette are, in one regard, capitalism doing its thing.
From a pigment-creating perspective, Euphoria makeup artist and Half Magic Beauty founder Donni Davy adds that blue is a financially feasible color family to work with. It’s much easier to create shades of blue that are vegan (as her brand requires) and FDA-compliant than it is, per se, with pink or purple. Blue’s ease in courting consumers is also a simple matter of color theory: “Blue is the opposite of a skin tone. It's literally on the opposite side of the color wheel from brown, tan, peach,” Davy says. For this reason, it’s particularly striking when applied to the skin — no matter how advanced your makeup skills.
“There's something about blue that just feels very common,” Davy adds. “It has that amateur, accessible quality to it where it doesn't need a lot of thought behind it.”
When asked what she makes of the so-called blue beauty trend, Eiseman seems less convinced about the connection between the blue family and the aesthetics of sadness. In her color association studies, Eiseman finds that pale blues mostly arouse positive emotions in participants, like calm or comfort. “But when you brighten your blues, when you add a little more intensity to them, then you really are dramatizing the blues,” she says. “The very term electric blue tells you something: It's like an electric current, a charge that allows blue to rival red in excitement value. Not all blues are tranquilizing or serene.”
A bolt of lightning. The Aurora Borealis. A “bright star shining in the heavens.” These are the memories participants call upon when asked of the resonance of bright blue, Eiseman says. Naturally occurring but rare, these associations represent jolts of emotion and flashes of clarity, or, as she wrote in a piece titled “Bedroom Blues,” a “wake-up call.” The electricity of “Dazzling Blue,” the rebellion of turquoise, the effervescence of cobalt — all united by the sting of wanting, or something of similar shock value.
“We don't see that particular shade every time we look at the night sky, but when we do see a fabulous electric blue across the heavens, you absolutely can't ignore it,” Eiseman says. “Some respondents might call those brighter blues scary, even…but that's part and parcel of what the color means, too. If it’s scary, it calls your attention. It makes you stop and look.”
A Shade of Contradictions
Perhaps what most allows blue, and by proxy blue eye shadow, to stand the test of time is its enduring duality. Ever in a state of disagreement, neighboring blues can at once evoke the natural (robin’s eggs, bluebirds, Menelaus blue morpho butterflies) and the artificial (a bodega orchid dyed blue-violet, blue raspberry cotton candy). Davy’s Half Magic Beauty offers eye-catching blue glitters and shadows in shades named Neptune Daddy, Daydreamies, Off the Deep End, and Fairies are Real, packaged in boxes littered with electrified pearls and unicorns. That temptation of fantasy is then offset by the ability to own it: Magic you can purchase for $22.
In the fictional world of Euphoria, too, high school girls peacock in the hallways, using shades of blue to exaggerate their inner desires in contradictory fashion. Davy, who serves as the head makeup artist on the series, often used striking cobalt blue or warm cyan on Kat and Maddie’s eyelids to suggest a willingness to experiment, edginess, and “a more overt and confidently sexual undertone.” Meanwhile, for Cassie’s infamous cry baby scene, Davy chose a “baby blue shimmery cool tone, almost periwinkle shade.” The color visually contrasted the flushed peach of Cassie’s face and the pink of the bathroom walls, Davy notes, but it also suggested the performance of innocence — inspired in part by Christina Ricci in Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66. “Cassie’s looks are always through the male gaze, really trying to be soft and baby doll-ish,” Davy says.
Male auteurs have similarly used blue eye shadow as a siren song of sorts: symbolizing either a virginal innocence (as with Ricci) or a distaste for women who weaponize their sexuality, often associated with white trash, sex workers, or lower class women. In French new wave filmmaker Jean Luc Goddard’s first foray into color film, the 1961 Une Femme est Une Femme, he chose bright blue eye shadow for Angela, a stripper who desperately wants a child. In David Lynch’s cult classic Blue Velvet, Isabella Rossellini plays a blue-lidded nightclub singer who unwittingly drags a man into her world of sexual abuse and violence. And in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, Liza Minnelli takes on the Kit Kat Club’s seductress and “devastating tragedienne,” Sally Bowles.
Again and again, blue eye shadow hints at the lustrous and the lowbrow: a ‘90s Pamela Anderson pegged by the media as a “bimbo,” Margot Robbie’s portrayal of the desperate Tonya Harding, and the girlish, freckled pornstar Minx. But The Love Witch director Anna Biller inverted that trope in her 2016 film by using turquoise shadow as a signifier of heroine Elaine’s agency and deadly power — a witch who lures men into her trap, coloring them objects of her own desire and later, vengeance. “...the witch is a very loaded female image, as she stands for both female power and the male fear of female sexuality,” Biller has said of her character’s blinking vamp routine. Not sadness or weakness, then, but defiance.
For Chappell Roan, the drag persona of 25-year-old singer-songwriter Kayleigh Rose Amstutz, blue eye shadow’s associations with drag, tackiness, and hypersexuality are its superpower. Roan adopted the cerulean “garage door” look, painting her eyes from brows to lashes, in part because she wanted to bottle the luminescence of famous drag queens (like Divine, who later inspired Disney’s cartoon villain Ursula) and their effortless rejection of gender’s status quo. It’s subversive femininity so over-the-top, it’s kitschy: “When I put on blue eye shadow, it's like I'm undeniably in character…undeniably a drag queen,” she tells Allure. “It’s so camp and clown-like, but that's why I like it. It's a very performative color for your eyes because it's so far from being natural.”
When we chat over Zoom, Roan is fresh off a photoshoot and still in full character with a white powdered face and her signature blue cut crease. She points out each feature, clacking her Dollar Store press-on nails with pride as she talks: “I love to do baby blue with some sparkle on top, then a deeper blue in my crease that's a little bit more cobalt.” Before 2018, she adds, “no bitch was doing blue eye shadow. It just looked dated.”
On tour for her debut studio album, The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess, applying blue eye shadow is an integral step in her process of unbecoming before sashaying onstage, transformed. The glittering blues layered above her eyes offer a way out of Kayleigh, the girl still parsing out her queer identity and her “repressed Christian trauma” and who wants desperately to be loved (a sorrow that can be heard bubbling up in ballads “California” and “Coffee”). In front of a crowd, the presence of the blue Roan so adores signifies she’s crossed over into a dreamstate — a mythical place full of gay clubs and sequins, far from the reality where she’s obligated to commodify her image and her music. There, she can escape herself in favor of something grander.
As Roan has discovered, in powder form, we can extract power from blue. We can own it, dictate its shape, apply it to our bodies, and manipulate it to fashion ourselves the object of someone’s wanting. In an era of disclosing all our personal details online, we can paint the ocean on our eyelids to obscure our true inner lives, and assert the idea that one can never truly be known — that we can keep ourselves like a lifelong secret. Besides, for TikTokers flooded in a sea of snappy content, is it any wonder some might use blue eye shadow, as Eiseman notes, as a “showstopper”?
If this color is indicative of an inherently female sadness, it is only in the way that sadness begets euphoria. Blue is the color of melancholy but also of its mortal enemy, the very thing that follows the storm clouds of loneliness and despair: which is hope, which is the chance to begin again, which is a clear, blue sky. The center of the rainbow where, as Nelson writes, the blue is beating.
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Originally Appeared on Allure