Do you know the history of the smokey eye? We’ll tell you about it

Stlet’s make myths and legends about smokey-eyes: here’s the whole truth about what it really is, how it was born and why it’s called that. And 99% everything you think you know is wrong.

There’s probably no woman – and not only that – who hasn’t tried it at least once in their life smokey eye. We show it off on evenings when we want to feel seductive, or simply because it gives a languid and bewitching gaze, or to express our rock soul. What hasn’t changed is the meaning of the smokey-eye, but its birth and the origin of the name might surprise you, as Antonio Ciaramella, make-up artist and make-up historian told us.

How the smokey eye was born

“To talk about the smokey-eye, a historical contextualization is necessary, so as to understand the period in which it became fashionable”, begins Ciaramella. “We are in the 19th century, an era in which female make-up was not seen very well and the nobility and the bourgeoisie were careful not to use it, because it was associated with actresses and prostitutes. Towards the end of the century and until the very first decades of the 1900s, it became fashionable orientalism and everything – from clothing to art, but also in literature and in the theater – was dominated by this Arabic trend. Cleopatra, Scheherazade and The Thousand and One Nights, Oscar Wilde writing Salomé are just a few examples of the importance that the Middle East held. These characters that were represented in the theater could not fail to be made up without the kajal”. The actresses were the influencers of the time.

“Kohl, or kajal, was a powder of antimony which was placed on the eyes and was used for various reasons, such as protection from the sun’s rays or to disinfect the sclera from dust. Vogue he will talk about this crazy powder used by these extraordinary women, Bedouins of the desert, in the early 1900s”.

The smokey-eye, in theater and cinema

”In the theater as in the cinema, the characterization of the actors was fundamental, especially the male characters, where the villains stood out because their eyelids darkened, so that from afar the result was disturbing and fear-inducing, like a skull. At the beginning of the 20th century, the cinematograph was born and actors moved from the theater to the cinema, however bringing with them the same type of stage make-up”, says the expert.

“In 1915 Theda Bara is the star of a film called A fool there wastranslated with the vampire, where the actress plays the role of this female vampire charmer, who hypnotizes men and subjugates them to her will. The role of the vamp is born, which was soon linked to the role of the femme fatale and which was characterized precisely by the dark eyelid. Thanks to the success of these characters, their make-up becomes fashionable (today we would say viral, Editor’s note) and we start experimenting with kajal”.

How the smokey eye was created

If you think that the beauty influencers you see on TikTok are imaginative and have initiative, that’s true, but nothing can beat the actors who over the centuries had to create their own make-up and certainly didn’t have the resources and tools we have today.

“There were different ways to create the kajal that was applied to create the smokey-eyes, but basically they were fatty bases such as petroleum jelly, vegetable fats or animal lard mixed with a black pigment smoke. Nothing to see with the cosmetological knowledge we have today, that’s why there was also this smudged effect which was not wanted, but a natural consequence of the raw materials used to make up. The black pigment was not only used as an eyeshadow, but also on the eyelashes, like a real product multitasking, just like we do today that we use lipstick on the lips, but also as a blush. Fat bases were essential for every actor, because they were also used to remove make-up”.

But the most interesting thing is how the black pigment was obtained and, spoiler, this is where the name of the smokey-eye comes from. “As I said, a smoky black pigment was mixed with the fat bases, which each actor obtained from what he had available. Marlene Dietrich stated that she mixed the ash from her cigarettes with Vaseline, someone mixed incense and resins, or burnt cork. Francesca Bertini, diva of Italian cinema, at the age of 16/17 had to create her own smokey and used a candle and a ceramic saucer which she placed over the flame and finally collected the thickening of smoke that had been created and he applied it to his eyes,” explains Ciaramella.

Smokey therefore does not derive from the diffused and smoky effect of the nuance, but precisely from the burning and smoking processes that are used to obtain the black pigment.

The real smokey eyes

“The actors are the first make-up artists and cosmetologists in history, because they themselves created their own make-up”, says the historian. “Cosmetology regulation began to exist towards the end of the 1930s. Here we still don’t talk about safety and, with the exception of some actresses who were fearful of the hygienic-sanitary part, but they were rare cases, most of the actors were all artisans of their look and were the ones who created their own image. There were no cosmetologist make-up consultants like today: the good actor at that time was the one who knew how to transform himself into various characters, they were all artists and actors. In some cases they also took care of the hairstyles, even if the professional figure of the image of the hairdresser existed, the friseur, as they called him in French, but the make-up artist will not exist for many years outside the cinema. The figure of the make-up artist is a relatively new job: in cinema it was born in 1917, but in fashion, the models of the 50s and 60s still did their own make-up. We have to arrive between the second half of the 70s and early 80s to have the make-up artist come out of the film and television sphere”.

“The smokey-eye was born as a real characterization and is strictly black: nuances have been around since the 80s, when the evolution in cosmetic research created suitable products. Before that, pencils were used instead of eye shadow. Sophia’s Loren wore gray on her eyes and that make-up was done with pencils, which since the 60s and 70s have been able to give that creamy gradualness, but at the same time they were more stable than the mix of powders and vaseline, thus resulting more simple to control favoring a final result much less smudged. Furthermore, since the 2000s we have been talking about blue, brown or gray smoke-eyes: in reality the correct wording is monochromatic makeup”.

Do you know the history of the smokey eye? We’ll tell you about it – The Wom Beauty