Shadow play: eyeshadow palettes are making a comeback

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Joanna McGarry
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Eyeshadow is finally having its moment in the limelight, says Stylist’s Joanna McGarry

Photography: David Marghez

You wouldn’t know it just by looking at it. But, beneath its velvety brown casing lies a sea of possibilities. Pull back the magnetic cover and its full majesty comes to life. There, in one long rectangle, like a Rothko painting, sit a legion of shades, tones and textures all waiting for their moment to dance on the eyes. Perhaps the silvery gunmetal grey will win out, a rich mauve flecked with rose gold or a sunbaked peach. Maybe a combination of all three. A passport to a thousand different looks, it is monumental, thrilling and full of promise.

The palette sat before me is the Urban Decay Naked Eyeshadow Palette (£38.50). One sells every five seconds, globally, offering more choice than the average consumer knows what to do with. But, for the first time in history, eyeshadow isn’t predominantly an expendable product used by professional make-up artists and beauty-savvy shoppers to channel their inner artist. It has officially joined the ranks of lipstick, eyeliner and blusher as a legitimate youth-inducing colour tool. Brushes have been replaced by fingers, crumbling powders by silky stay-put formulations, all equating to a modern substitute for the tediously crafted Eighties sculpted eye. As a result, applying shadow no longer comes with a side helping of abject terror and eyeshadow palettes – the ultimate choice for the modern make-up consumer – are flying off the shelves.

Tom Ford’s a/w Soleil collection palettes sold out on Net-a-Porter in 24 hours. Google saw a 5,000% increase in searches for both Morphe and Mac eyeshadows last year, while on the high street, Superdrug sold 50% more palettes in 2016 versus the year before. It’s an upward trajectory that’s set to rise even further, predicts Sarah Gardner, head of beauty at Superdrug. “Eyeshadow is definitely having a moment. While 2016 was the year of the nude palette, 2017 will be all about embracing colour.”

The eyes have it

Even the catwalk – which had previously sidelined eyeshadow in favour of a cornucopia of lip statements and futuristic skin finishes – now pledges its allegiance to the dressed eyelid. From the thick slash of turquoise at Victoria Beckham, to the searing tangerine at Ferragamo, to the dusty lilac drenched in gloss at Nina Ricci and the halo of red at Anna Sui, the spring/summer 2017 shows were a feast for the eyes. So why now? Much like the rise and fall of hemlines, make-up is subject to knee-jerk shifts in the economic climate. The recent downturn led to a rise in lipstick sales, and now – still in the financial mire but with a surfeit of political unrest to add to that – we’re scrambling for a new cosmetic pick-me-up. And what could be more cheering and optimistic than vivid colour for the eyes? It’s an epic triumph, given that eyeshadow used to be the practical joke of the make-up world: who hasn’t exiled palettes, crumbling and unloved, to the bottom of their make-up bags?

It wasn’t so much that eyeshadow was bad, we just didn’t know where to put it. “Now you can watch a video and you know exactly what to do with it,” says Nic Chapman, one half of beauty vlogging powerhouse Pixiwoo. Indeed, YouTube and Instagram have quickly filled the chasm of expertise that separated us from dabbling with eyeshadow. Now, there is a vast wealth of knowledge, artistry and skill, just a mouse click away. Views of beauty vlogger Jaclyn Hill’s smoky eye tutorial have passed 14 million, while there are now more than six-and-a-half million Instagram posts tagged #eyeshadow (twice that of the much-hyped #contour.) Eyeshadow is there for the taking. The only rule: don’t do what you’ve done before. That means abandoning the mission to get five shades of brown on one eye. “Powder eyeshadow in different depths and shades all looks a bit dated now,” adds leading make-up artist Georgina Graham. “If it’s a smoky eye, keep it feeling modern by not making it look too perfect. It should be a bit dishevelled.”

True colours

Eyeshadow today is “about using colour rather than heavy shading,” adds Terry Barber, director of make-up artistry for Mac. “Your fail-safe brown can be replaced with a soft tangerine or a grey with a plum, or a bronze might now have flecks of red in it.” Meanwhile, better technology has ushered in a new wave of eyeshadow innovation. “Texture has come a long way,” says Chapman. “Eyeshadows are so finely milled now, longer-lasting and easier to use.”

Perhaps most thrillingly of all, brands have finally cracked how to stop that glossy eyelid crawling down your face. “The beauty moment that defines this decade, for me, would be a big old slug of gloss across an eyelid,” adds Barber, of Mac’s new line of Studio Eye Gloss [£16]. For years, make-up artists would smear clear lip gloss across eyelids seconds before a model hit the catwalk, fully aware that by the time she got backstage, it would have slid out of place. Mac’s eye-gloss formula marks a new dawn, with a thick, almost-adhesive texture that drapes eyes in a mirror-like shine. The effect is fresh, athletic and futuristic.

Ultimately, says Barber, the rebirth of eyeshadow is evidence that women crave glamour again. Perhaps we weren’t ready for it before. We are now. Ease your way back into the eyeshadow game with our guide on how to wear it, whatever your eye type, below.

Throw yourself some shade

Learn how to apply the perfect eyeshadow every time with this guide

Large eyes

Your eyes can take a lot of colour. Apply shadow using a soft fluffy brush, like Real Techniques Base Shadow Brush, £6.95, across the lid and up to the socket line. Keep it modern by using Mac’s Tapered Blending Brush 224, £23.50, to sweep and diffuse the edges to get a soft, even halo of colour. “It’s about creating a tint across the eye, not a blended shadow,” explains Barber. “It looks fresh and effortless on larger eyes.”

Small eyes

Embrace an old optical illusion by wearing a contrasting shade to your eye colour, to instantly enhance smaller eyes. Nic Chapman, one half of Pixiwoo, wears warm brown tones to propel her green eyes. Smaller eyes also appear larger with a light-refracting finish. Create depth by applying either a sheeny eye gloss or iridescent lid tint to the central third of the eyelid with your ring finger.

Hooded eyes

Look directly into a mirror at face height. If you can’t see the socket line of your eye, due to the upper part laying over it, you have hooded eyes. They’re perfect for creating a kittenish Sixties look. Build a neutral tone at the lash line and “softly blend upwards to the brow bone – don’t stop at the crease otherwise the hood will hide it,” says Chapman. “Apply with your eyes open, or once the hood comes down, you’ll hide the shadow.”

Sensitive eyes

If you’re among the 62% of women who identify as having sensitive skin, create a barrier between the eyeshadow and your skin by smoothing a dot of hypoallergenic eye cream to the flat of the eyelid before applying make-up. For the super-sensitive, use organic or mineral eyeshadow and apply with a soft fluffy brush a few millimetres from the lash line, to avoid particles getting into the eye.

Super-sized palettes

Keen to start colouring your eyelids? We’ve picked four palettes packed with colour options

i-Divine Eyeshadow Palette in Nordic Skies, £12.99, Sleek (
Icy pastels, cool taupes, warm corals and muted greens: it’s a collection of colours that really shouldn’t work, but absolutely does. And to rapturous effect.

Sweet Peach Eyeshadow Palette, £39, Too Faced (
Eighteen warm, wearable and universally flattering shades. And yes, scented eyeshadow is an actual thing, and it’s oddly pleasing. No, really, it is.

Couture Variation Eye Palette in Underground, £49, YSL (
Just to be absolutely clear, the smoky eye is as perennial as red lipstick. Use this classy, comprehensive palette of silvery greys and blacks to carefully craft yours.

35 Colour Smokey Eyeshadow Palette, £22.50, Morphe (
The cosmetic equivalent of a supermarket ‘big shop’, this palette has a full spectrum of colours, all rendered in long-wearing, highly pigmented formulas.

IllustratIon: @debvandergdraws
Additional photography: GHD for Victoria Beckham