The cat-eye flick is undoubtedly one of the most powerful make-up statements of all time. The sultry, feline-inspired beauty go-to has been made a style signature by many, from the queens of ancient Egypt to its modern-day incarnations at the spring/summer 2021 shows of Dior, Valentino and Chloé.
From cultural traditions to famous interpretations worn by screen legends Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor, Vogue charts the fascinating history of the iconic winged-eyeliner look.
The origins of the cat-eye flick
The cat eye is one of the oldest make-up tricks in the world, dating back to ancient Egypt (from 3100 BC to 332 BC). The look was said to have been made popular by the likes of Nefertiti and later, Cleopatra, who used minerals such as copper ore and malachite to create either thick lines etched from the eye upwards to the hairline, or little flicks that stretched out parallel to the brow. The style was also popular among men, as exemplified by Pharaoh Seti I.
According to beauty historian and Makeup Museum co-founder Doreen Bloch, kohl and minerals were worn around the eyes for health reasons. “Kohl had immunological and antibacterial properties that supported eye health and minimised glare from the sun,” she tells Vogue. “So, ancient Egyptians, especially the ruling class, would use this cosmetic for health benefits, and lined their eyes accordingly.” Samples of make-up from ancient Egypt on display at the Louvre were found to contain nitric oxide, which is said to help revitalise the immune system.
As well as for health reasons, women wore a cat eye as a way of warding off evil spirits. “Women used kohl liner for centuries as protection against the evil eye,” says Makeup Museum co-founder and celebrity make-up artist Rachel Goodwin. “But, like most things, the practice evolved into a way of signifying social status, eventually becoming the ultimate sign of beauty for both women and men of all ranks.”
Though the idea of the cat eye is believed to have its roots in ancient Egypt, there were also both subtle and extreme forms seen in men and women in ancient Asia and the Middle East, dating back to 3000 BC. In the latter, for example, crushed-up kohl (made from lead sulfide and other minerals mixed with water) was used around the eyes as a means of protection from the harsh desert climate.
A re-emergence in the 1920s
In the west, the story of the cat eye as we know it began in the 1920s, with inimitable French entertainer Josephine Baker wearing the style during her intoxicating dance performances. Elsewhere, actresses Louise Brooks and Greta Nissen wore it for their red-carpet appearances, teamed with high-volume lashes and skinny brows.
“The discoveries of items from ancient Egypt [in the 1910s and 1920s], such as the bust of Queen Nefertiti, put styles and looks from a bygone era into the public consciousness,” explains Bloch. “Movies such as 1917’s Cleopatra, starring Theda Bara, showed the cat eye worn by a modern-day superstar. As cosmetics became more acceptable for use by mainstream women, eyeliner became more prevalent.”
The look brought about a sense of theatre, mystery and exoticism, which tied in with the rebellious flapper fashion of the time, as women were shedding their restrictive garments and cutting their hair short. During this period, soot and Vaseline were mixed together to create the eyeliner.
Recreated by mid-century icons
The cat eye was the style du jour during the 1950s and 1960s, with women making it part of their everyday style. Less dramatic than that of the 1920s, pin-up icons such as Hedy Lamarr would wear subtle, skinny flicks of winged liner both on screen and off.
The 1950s saw the mass production and commercialisation of make-up, and the invention of liquid eyeliner. “That innovation, plus movie make-up artists Max Factor, Ben Nye and the Westmores using the style on Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner and Audrey Hepburn, helped define a whole new era in beauty,” says Goodwin.
In Italy, some of the biggest movie stars of the 1960s, such as Sophia Loren, captivated audiences with their own version: swiped-on inky black, with heavy lashes and dark brown or blue shadow worn to the crease. “There’s a vintage 1950s advertisement from beauty brand Borghese, which speaks to Italian women about ‘a new eye look called ‘cat’s eye’,” explains Bloch.
Meanwhile, British model Twiggy gave the look a space-age twist with her graphic lines and feathered lower lashes. There was also Elizabeth Taylor, whose turn as Cleopatra in Hollywood’s 1963 epic only reinforced its overwhelming popularity. And, finally, model Pattie Boyd, who in 1965 wrote a beauty column for US magazine 16, on how to perfect the subtle cat-eye flick.
Sweeping through music and youth culture
The cat eye took a turn in the 1970s and 1980s as youth culture exploded, with punks, goths, grunge lovers and metal fans taking the look and making it their own. Blondie’s lead singer Debbie Harry wore a smudgy, messy cat-eye in the 1980s, and her fans followed suit, as did fellow rockstar Pat Benatar.
Style pioneers Grace Jones and David Bowie played with feline shapes and mixed new colours with bolder lashings of blush to amp it up even more. Bowie was known to use Indian kohl around his eyes, often lining the lashes and sweeping up slightly. “I always had a repulsive sort of need to be something more than human,” he once told Rolling Stone of his make-up application.
Elsewhere, Siouxsie Sioux experimented with sharp lines and graphic shapes, as did Robert Smith of The Cure. Egyptian actress Soad Hosny was also fond of a feline flick, as was China-born Singaporean star Gong Li, especially in the early days of her career in the 1980s and 1990s.
By the time the 2000s rolled around, the cat eye was divided into two camps. Amy Winehouse took the classic look and blew up its proportions with a heavy-handed wing that extended past the eyebrow. Other celebs, such as Lauren Conrad on US reality TV show Laguna Beach, went for a much more subtle version.
“The early 2000s became a time in the world where there was suddenly a lot of nostalgia for the Golden Age of Hollywood,” says Goodwin. “Women such as Gwen Stefani and Dita Von Teese began paying homage to their beauty icons. The cat eye was moved forward and reframed through a reverent and rebellious lens.”
Iterations on the runway and social media
Today, make-up artists such as Pat McGrath, Fatima Thomas and Isamaya Ffrench are refining the shape for a modern generation. At Chloé SS21, McGrath lined the models’ eyes in a smoky, sultry, elongated cat eye, which extended from the bottom waterline. Meanwhile, at Chromat, Thomas did duochrome neon in cobalt blue and highlighter green.
For Dior, Peter Philips executed a thick yet minimal look that wrapped around the entire eye. At Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood, Ffrench used exaggerated white-and-black pigment and drew 1980s-inspired winged lines towards the temples. Make-up artists are taking the humble cat eye to new heights, making it both customisable and adaptable to the prevailing mood of whoever is wearing it.
On social media, beauty Instagrammers such as Juliana Horner create works of art based on the simple cat eye, as does directional make-up artist Rowi Singh. A search for ‘cat eye’ on Instagram gets 2.6m results, proof of its popularity, and you’ll see the classic shape covered in rhinestones, red and orange flames, cloud motifs, chunks of glitter and even flower petals.
“The biggest evolution of the cat eye is that unlike past eras where it symbolised social status or conformity, it now symbolises the total opposite,” says Goodwin. “The cat eye of today is much more versatile, and it moves with ease between classic beauty applications and subculture with absolutely no irony.”