The Brush Off: A Brief Look at 1980s Makeup Trends -The Toast

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When most people are looking at doing some sort of period-based makeup look, they tend to err towards the 1930s through to the 1950s. This is a time when the looks are clean, classic, simple, and iconic. A delicately lined eye, a dramatic red lip, a light dusting of blush on a flushed cheek (frankly, I’d like for us to try out some more 1850s makeup trends, because who doesn’t want to use a face cream made out of the waxy secretions found in the head cavity of a sperm whale? What do you mean, “everyone”? Goddamnit). What people don’t tend to think about is an era where the blush was loud, the lips were louder, and everything smelled sort of vaguely musky. A time when both men and women could be found wearing eyeliner, where hair was big and flammable and it seemed like all the lipstick ads were uncomfortably sexual.

Yes, it may not feel like that long ago, but the 1980s now count as history (no matter what Buzzfeed says), so we’re taking a leap back of about 35 years, meaning that a whole bunch of people reading this just reared back and went, “Oh my god, it was THAT long ago? I am old, oh god, I am old and I need wine.” Come, join me as we all think about our encroaching mortality and I’ll hold your hand as we discuss fuchsia lipstick, thick eyeliner, and the looming spectre of death that haunts us all (ok, not that last one, but I will see you in the comments to mope). Get your banana clips, slam your fist repeatedly into your keyboard while on this webpage, and douse yourself perfume that makes you smell like a knock-off Debbie Gibson (it was called Electric Youth, if you’re too young to remember it) — it’s time to look back at a time when matching your eye shadow to your blush seemed like a good idea.


While the 1970s oscillated between natural looks and disco (which was very eye-heavy, paired with glossy lips), the 1980s took one look at the “natural” makeup look, decided it wanted none of that, and immediately drove over to the nearest makeup counter in its Toyata Cressida, credit card in hand. The makeup of 1980s can be summed up thusly: Bright, colourful, and global. Thanks to the spread of media, magazines, movies, and various other words that start with ‘m’ (I don’t know, moms? Metropasses?) trends were now able to spread around the world, meaning that people from all races and backgrounds can pull out their old photo albums, flip to that series of pictures someone took at your cousin’s wedding in 1985, and go, “Uggghghhhggg.”

QUICK NOTE: I am not going to get too heavily into subcultures here. Obviously there are things like punk and early grunge and various other kinds of regional subcultures, but if I wrote about all of those then I’d still be writing this as you are reading it QUICK READ SLOWER I JUST REALLY NEED TO GO TO THE BATHROOM.

The 1980s is really an era of “anything goes.” It was a time when people actually went out to find what season they were. Want to wear a lot of blue eye shadow? Go for it! Peach everything? Why not? Are you physically repulsed by blush applied with a paintbrush? GET OUT. For skin, the natural, dewy look of the 1970s was gone. Now it was more about creating a heavier, flawless appearance, meaning liquid foundation was back with a vengeance (one that tended to leave fingerprints on everything). The point of the base makeup at this point was to create a flat canvas that would allow the rest of the face to stand out, and man, there certainly was a lot of face to be had. Power dressing was a trend, which meant that you had to have a POWER FACE to go along with it.

Lipstick at this time was kind of a mish-mash of everything. Shimmer, frost, gloss, and heavy pigmentation where all at play, meaning that lips were opaque, shiny, and bright. Popular colours included bright pinks, oranges, reds, corals, and fuchsias, with either satin or frost finishes, and occasionally topped with gloss. The makeup market in North America and Western Europe was also expanding more for young people, with cosmetic brands such as Bonne Bell (with the ever-popular Dr. Pepper being created in 1975. Fun fact: The first Lip Smacker flavours from the release in 1967 were Green Apple, Strawberry, and Orange Chocolate. This will probably cause some grumbling in the comments, but all of these flavours are terrible), Maybelline, and Avon creating various flavoured and scented lip glosses and balms. This includes the discontinued Maybelline Kissing Potion, shown here in this ad featuring a young lady who apparently assigns a flavor to each guy she’s seeing (what happens if you get it confused? Is he like, “Wait, is that orange? YOU’VE BEEN KISSING DAVE, HAVEN’T YOU?” I like to imagine that when she’s having a spat with one of them that she gets out like, a meatloaf flavoured one or something, like, “Bob’s being such a dick. He’s getting fish lips tonight!”). Over-lining the lips was also a thing, because fuck it, if you’re going to go big, go big. Lip liner may have been out in the 70s, but it definitely made a return in the 80s. Honestly, just watch this weird L’Erin lipstick ad combining the sounds of bombs, women in what appear to be stewardess outfits by way of Benetton, and weirdly phallic lipsticks. It’ll give you a feel for the era (and that feeling is “vague discomfort”).


For anyone who has ever read any other makeup piece I’ve written, you’ll know that the thing I end up screaming the most about is LIPS, LIPSTICK, PUT MORE ON, PREFERABLY RED. This is basically true for a good portion of the 20th century, but not the 1980s. I mean, lipstick is still definitely popular and bright, but right now the big thing is CHEEKS and BLUSH and MORE BLUSH. Rather than the subtle application favoured from the 1930s onwards, the 1980s is one of the few times were strong blush application is actually a viable trend (the last time this was a thing was the 1920s, back when rouge was also used to hide under-eye bags. I mean, I say “hide” but really it just makes you look like you’re dying). The most dramatic version of this is the iconic stripe application, where the blush acts more like a bizarre contour than a flush of colour, using the blush to create the illusion of cheekbones by keeping the placement stark and linear. Blushes were generally pink, berry, red, or peachy, and would sometimes be topped with a shimmery white finish as sort of an early version of highlighting. Now when people say that they’re contouring, you can tell them that they’re doing a great job of bring back 1980s trends! That will certainly kill the mood.


While lips and cheeks were strong and defined at the time, eye makeup was much more subtle. Hahaha, just kidding, it was also completely insane. While day-to-day looks tended to stick with shimmery eye shadows (pastels were big again, because of course they were), one trend that really grew during this time was the look of liner all around the eye. Outside of looks involving kajal or kohl and that period of time in the 1960s when graphic eyeliner was less of a statement and more of a war cry, most looks prior to the 1980s involving eyeliner tended to keep it on the upper lash line and relatively subtle. Well, the 1980s made sure that the idea of keeping your eyeliner and shadow on the top lid were crushed into a fine powder and then applied generously to your face. Liner went all around the eyes (and on the waterline), tails were flicked further out than ever before from the corner of the eye, and multiple colours of shadow were layered on. Colour-wise, basically any colour was fair game at this point, but the iconic colour of this era is bright blue as far as eye shadow is concerned (check out this L’Oreal ad for some great 80s eye shadow application). Eye shadow was applied not just to the lid, but also all the way up to the brow bone and on the lower lash line as well, and occasionally extended out from the eye in a sort of thick cat-eye. Multiple (usually contrasting) colours were also a popular choice. As for brows, this was the era of the POWER BROW, with brows grown out, groomed, and penciled in for the full Cindy Crawford effect. They were softer than the power brow of late (aka the “Instagram brow”), but were still quite thick and heavy.


Globally, the trends at the time leaned towards a “more-is-more” aesthetic. From South America to parts of Africa to Europe, the world at large saw a return of big hair and loud makeup. Now, I know I said that I was mostly going to avoid subcultures, but please note that I said “mostly” and also that I do what I want and no one can stop me (NOTE: the lovely editors here at The Toast can, indeed, stop me), there are a few areas worth taking a quick look at now: First, while the overarching trends for Mexican (and Mexican-American) women were basically the same as those in the US and Canada, one of the other main subcultures in the region at the time were the cholas. Although the history of the pachucas/cholas stems back to as early as 1922 (during what is known as the Mexican Repatriation) and the chola-style as we know it now truly started to evolve in the 1960s/1970s, the style emigrated from the US to Mexico mostly in the early 80s. Photographer Graciela Iturbide’s photos also helped to bring the chola look into the public eye. While the look itself is quite different from the standard 1980s trends, the style is another form of saturated femininity, contrasting the harsh, traditionally masculine clothing with plucked brows, darkly lined lips, and thick black liner.

In China, makeup was becoming available to the masses for the first time in almost 30 years (with makeup being treated as a bourgeois luxury in Maoist China prior to this). By the 1980s, with makeup now much more accessible, the looks became heavy, with dark eyes and deep red lips becoming one of the predominant trends.

For women in Japan, the 1980s were an economic boom time, and while previous trends tended to emulate Western looks, there was actually a move away from West-inspired looks during the 1980s. The makeup looks are relatively toned down in comparison to the trends happening basically everywhere else, but – to be honest – that didn’t take much. The gyaru (or gal) subculture also came onto the scene, which is what would eventually become the incredibly distinctive ganguro look in the late 90s/early 2000s (something that I would like to get into in a later article).

The 1980s is this sort of insane, over-saturated version of femininity. Everything is just too much and it acts as a wild backlash to the soft, natural looks of the 1970s. It’s an era that tends to get shit on a lot (for obvious reasons) when it comes to looking back on era-appropriate looks, but the trends are truly a product of their time. The world is growing both bigger and smaller at the same time, people are richer and things are slicker and crazier than ever. The kids of Baby Boomers are now old enough to make terrible decisions and this is what happened. They wore a lot of blush, used a lot of hairspray, and created a lot of the people currently reading this article (hi!). At it’s worst, it was an overdone insane blue eye shadowed romp, and at its best, it was an era that gave us things like MAC Cosmetics.  It may not always be pretty, and it may not always be practical, but man, it looked like a lot of fun.

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