I will remember you: '90s prom makeup
June 17, 2021
I really enjoyed the shorter bits of history that appeared between chapters in Lisa Eldridge's Face Paint. I liked the idea so much, in fact, that I decided to steal it and use it for my '90s makeup history book. Prom makeup is just one of the many featurettes I want to include. And I realize that prom season has come and gone by this point, but I'm still thinking how crazy it is that I graduated high school and attended my senior prom 25 years ago this spring! So with that, let's see what pop culture and magazine editorials were recommending in terms of prom makeup. Obviously this isn't meant to be an exhaustive list of every '90s prom look ever and how they compare to today's styles, nor is it a philosophical examination of prom and its greater cultural or social significance, especially for teenage girls. This post is really more of a nostalgic snapshot, especially since sources were hard to find. There are tons of vintage prom photos online but the makeup is barely visible, either because analog photos rarely translate well to digital images or because they were taken at a distance. Very few clear, closeup images of old prom makeup exist, so I had to rely mostly on magazines, movies and TV episodes and they weren't great quality either. Also, I credited where I could, but not all information was available for every photo.
Overall, the decade followed the general makeup trends of the time. As a sort of backlash to the bright colors and general excess of the '80s, from about 1990-1994 the majority of prom looks featured minimal, barely perceptible makeup.
Are these girls even wearing makeup?! I guess they are since the credits list a makeup artist, but it's nearly invisible.
Julia Stiles's character in 1999's 10 Things I Hate About You opted for a minimal look for prom, but this might have been more of a stylistic choice to go match her personality rather than a reflection of late '90s trends. Kat Stratford would never go for the glitter, frost and pastel colors that were popular towards the end of the decade.
Another trend early on was a return to old school glam. Red matte lips, with or without a winged liner but always keeping the rest of the face neutral, was a popular choice.
Again, as with 10 Things I Hate About You's Kat, I think Heather's (Mena Suvari) red lip more a stylistic choice to better suit the character rather than part of a real-world trend. (Sorry about the lack of quality in this photo, I couldn't find a decent shot anywhere. Also, no fewer than 7 makeup artists for American Pie are listed at IMDB so it's not clear who chose her look.)
Just based on these candids from YM's prom issues, it seems like a lot of girls opted for a red lip or the minimal look for prom for 1993 and 1994.
There was also a somewhat odd combination of soft smoky matte grey or brown shadow and a desaturated but noticeable lip color. I don't really remember this look, probably because I can't say that the early '90s take on a smoky eye is a look I enjoy. It just looks flat and muddy, plus very amateur despite the professional application. It's like someone dipped their fingers into shadow, swiped them across their lids, added a touch of mascara and declared their eye makeup finished. Which would be fine with different textures and shades, but matte shadow in these colors requires some definition.
My opinion is that it suits nobody, not even Heidi Klum.
A monochromatic face is surprisingly artistic and flattering if there's variation in textures and finishes between eyes, cheeks and lips. Matte brown shadow with seemingly no other eye makeup besides a hint of mascara and paired with a warm, orange-brown lip isn't great on most people. Case in point: these prom looks from the March 1994 issue of Seventeen. I know they were really meant to show the hairstyle, but they are so boring! Plus it looks awful on the skin tone of the particular model that was chosen - the poor thing looks like the life got sucked out of her. This combination only works on very specific coloring.
Matte, one-dimensional shadow works if the eyeliner is noticeably darker and there is a contrast in tone for the lip color, as in YM's 1993 prom editorial.
But there is hope. Around 1996 is when we start to see a move away from matte textures and neutral shades. Bring on the metallics, the frost, the GLITTER!!
There were literally dozens of makeup artists who worked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so I'm not sure who was responsible for Buffy's prom makeup, which consisted of a soft silvery grey eyeshadow and pearly pink gloss.
Complexion-wise, foundation was less heavy and flat. Even though the early '90s embraced the minimal look, skin still looked a bit dull. There were also few glossy lips to be found. The later part of the decade witnessed a shift towards fresher-looking skin (perhaps more blush added to this effect) and the rise of super shiny lips, which would continue into the early 2000s.
Also, there was interest in color again - no longer was the palette limited mostly to red, pink, grey and brown. Blue, peach, yellow, violet and green peeked their eager little faces out for the first time in what seemed like ages.
I really wish I could have found better photos of the makeup in prom scenes from movies and TV. (Seriously though, what was up with all the prom sequences in films from 1999? It seems nearly every teen movie made that year had one.) In these stills that I screenshotted and tried to brighten from She's All That you can sort of make out Laney's violet eyeshadow and browbone highlight.
Meanwhile, mean girl Taylor Vaughan (Jodi Lyn O'Keefe) rocked a monochromatic gold look, complete with face and body glitter. Peak '90s!
And let's not forget Courtney's epic frosty blue eyeshadow in 1999's Jawbreaker. Once again there was a huge makeup department so whose idea it was I'm not sure.
Now there were some trends that appeared in various iterations throughout the whole decade rather than being confined to certain years. Pink reigned supreme for prom makeup in the '90s. Whether it was full-on bubblegum or a more natural, "romantic" look, rosy hues were a staple.
Sixties-inspired makeup also seemed to be a popular pick in both the early and later parts of the decade.
The most outrageous example is possibly from 1999's Never Been Kissed. It's like '60s mod meets Evening Gown Barbie, Disco Barbie and Malibu Barbie, respectively (at least, according to the characters).
Yours truly opted for the more subtle look. Yup, that's the Curator at age 17, doing her best impression of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's for her senior prom. I eschewed my usual dark plum lip in favor of Holly Golightly's pale pink, and though you can't make it out in this old picture, I also had some pretty serious feline eyeliner. (I actually am a disaster at winged liner; my sister's friend did my makeup). Too bad I had to ruin my updo by adding the ever-present '90s tendril...then again, the bangs were already atrocious. But I loved my makeup, gloves, jewelry (shout-out to Y necklaces!), and dress. I really regret getting rid of those last two.
Finally, grunge, goth and punk influences occasionally emerged from subculture status on a decade-wide basis.
The models aren't named in these next two photos but I'm almost positive I spy Alexis Bledel.
There were a handful of exceptions to all the usual looks. In one feature from YM's 1993 prom edition, a red lip was paired with a pale gold shadow rather than brown or grey and it actually looks like some blush was applied. I would absolutely wear this today (minus the skinny brows, of course.)
These next two looks had some appealing contrast between eyes and lips. While the eyebrow shapes are firmly '90s, the mix of either cool purple or silver shadow with a satin-finish plum or pink lip falls outside the usual trends from the era.
And here's another monochromatic gold look, but it's several years ahead of its time.
But there weren't really many outliers. Overall, prom makeup in the '90s seemed very much a microcosm of the larger trends of the decade. It was a little disappointing not to uncover any totally atypical looks (although I do think the late '90s was way more fun than the start of the decade). But I'm guessing the big magazines and movie studios/TV shows weren't going to push much unconventional prom makeup or feature anyone who wore it, and those who would opt for more daring looks on a regular basis probably weren't going to prom. Fortunately, mainstream media has somewhat caught on to a new aesthetic. The styles are very safe in most magazine covers and online content. The looks are nice and definitely updated from the '90s, but they are, shall we say, basic, or mimicking "Instagram" style makeup. However, a closer look suggests there is experimental, Euphoria-type makeup being recommended, such as the incorporation of embellishments (flowers, gems, etc.), graphic liner in a bright color, or creative use of glitter. For example, compare several of Seventeen's recent prom covers with their online recommendations, or the fairly unremarkable cover look on Teen Vogue's 2014 prom issue with the far more interesting editorial inside. (Diversity in terms of race and body shape/size still needs work.)
(images from seventeen.com)
(images from streeters.com)
I was very relieved to see these looks, as I was horrified at the possibility of Gen Z'ers receiving the same advice that me and my fellow Gen X'ers did, i.e., to play it safe. In my day prom was akin to one's wedding in terms of makeup (which is another whole disturbing can of worms that I don't want to open right now.) The most common tips for both occasions were to play up one feature only, stay away from using multiple colors, and don't deviate much from your everyday look, along with a bunch of tricks to help one's makeup last longer. Ho-hum.
Not surprised by Bobbi advocating for safe makeup.
If simple and natural is your style, or you don't want to try anything too wild for a big occasion, great! But I'd like it if makeup that actually takes risks were as normalized as looks featuring minimal makeup.
While this hasn't been the most insightful post, a glimpse of '90s prom makeup serves as a good refresher on the decade and helps give more context to the trends. Plus as a print junkie, it was insanely fun to flip through old magazines. (The movies did not hold up well..although honestly even at the time they were fairly problematic.) It kind of makes me want to do a whole book or exhibition on prom makeup from all decades. ;)
Any favorite looks here? Did you attend any proms or formals in high school and if so, do you remember your makeup or have any photos you'd be willing to share?