On a balmy Thursday night in June, Sophia Jaramillo, a recent Los Angeles transplant to New York City who has quickly found herself among a new wave of street style stars, celebrated her 23rd birthday with a “pastel prom”–themed celebration. Jaramillo decorated her fourth-floor Bushwick walk-up with curtains of holographic tinsel and served a heart-shaped cake bedecked with undulating squiggles of creamy frosting. On her nails she wore a rainbow set of press-ons in hues evocative of a bag of Jelly Bellies—piña colada for the ring finger, cotton candy for the pinkie—and across her eyes, a swipe of sky blue shadow. Jaramillo is into “the Sofia Coppola Marie Antoinette aesthetic,” she tells me. “Everyone’s really liking more soft tones. That’s something that’s just kind of naturally happened.”
Of course, nothing is completely organic. Call it a reaction against the ultra-defined, super-prescribed tutorials that have dominated YouTube and TikTok for years, the intensive contouring that turned us into so many topographical maps. We’re all kind of tired, whether from watching horizons turn an apocalyptic shade of wildfire orange or from having a pile of products pushed on us in pursuit of high-def cheekbones. The emergence of blurry-edged, ethereal makeup offers a break from that particular mode of filtered hyperreality. Give us our Monet moment, the soft edges of Seurat.
The desire for a shimmery visage is not exactly new, however. Early Victorians might have asked for a powder made of seed pearls dissolved in acid to achieve their desired gleam. After World War II, the introduction of an inexpensive “synthetic pearl” ingredient known as bismuth oxychloride helped deliver shimmering beauty products at massive scale. According to London-based makeup artist Phyllis Cohen (who applied pastel shadows on Tina Turner and Annie Lennox decades ago), the color scheme can be traced to a paint-box palette, sold in the ’60s and ’70s by legendary London emporium Biba, that is purported to have shaped the aesthetics of the entire glam-rock era. In the ’70s, the look was embraced by Veruschka, Cher, and Anjelica Huston, who favored an ombré celery green eye; in the ’80s, Brooke Shields, Madonna, and Cyndi Lauper picked up the mantle. Most children of the ’90s had at least one brush with Hard Candy—the line best known for the powder blue nail polish fitted with a matching rubber ring. My own encounter took place at Richland Fashion Mall in Waco, Texas, where I brought my saved-up lunch money to the brand’s makeup counter and obtained a palette whose largest tray was dedicated to a pale lilac shadow with an ultrafine sparkle. I wore it till I scraped the palette clean.
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While many looks of yore required hairline-to-jaw precision, today’s interpretation is quite simple, says makeup artist Sam Visser (a Dior beauty ambassador), who may bear responsibility for kick-starting this iteration of the trend when he sent model Iris Law to her first Met Gala with a sheer, dreamlike gaze last year. The opposite of a dauntingly intricate smoky eye, the look requires little more than an intuitive wash of color. “We’re going to see it a lot,” Visser says of the looser looks. “It’s the natural progression of the way makeup is going.” From Jaramillo’s perspective, resourcefulness is paramount to skill: “Old YouTube makeup was like, ‘You want to get this specific brush that everyone has and is perfect,’ ” she explains.
“I’m doing my own makeup a lot, and it’s the last thing I actually have time to do before a set,” says model and musician Angel Prost, who, along with her younger sibling, Lulu, is known as the electronic pop duo Frost Children. “You don’t know what a greenroom is going to look like: Sometimes it has a well-lit mirror, but sometimes it’s a utility closet,” she says with a laugh. Prost favors Love+Craft+Beauty products developed by makeup artist Francelle Daly to “copy” quick tricks she learned backstage at shows like Marni (the first runway show she walked). “Frosted lids really pop, like, these are eyes,” she jokes. It’s something Turner, the single-name stylist to Kim Gordon and Grimes, has spotted too. At a recent Blonde Redhead show at Los Angeles’s Zebulon venue, the youngest in attendance were “expressing themselves with highlighter everywhere,” says Turner of their bright, beaming eyes.
And therein lies the appeal of the new pastel palette: It’s one part baby, one part club kid, innocence dipping its toes into the cosmic swirl of psychedelia. A portal—or, an escape hatch—to a different reality. Not quite sure if it will open up my mind or simply evoke my own mall-rat era, I apply lavender Nars shadow as I’m rushing to an afternoon appointment in SoHo. The one-minute application isn’t perfect—kind of translucent and smudgy—but I remind myself it’s not about precision. A woman standing on the street with a clipboard in hand calls out, “I love your eye shadow!” as I round the corner at Greene and Broome Street. I’ll take it.