Work-Appropriate Eye Makeup That Isn’t Totally Boring

Because having a serious 9 to 5 shouldn't mean you're doomed to a life of seriously lame eyeshadow.
Publish date:
September 3, 2013
eyeshadows, cat eyes, work, eye makeup, being appropriate, business lady blazers, thin eyeliner

When I graduated college, I bought myself a respectable blazer and a pencil skirt and went to work in an office in the Loop. I didn’t care much what I was doing, and I didn’t have eyes on my career; I just needed to pay my rent.

I didn’t really care about having to wear clothes that were not exactly me. I looked at it as a costume; the skinny jeans and tank tops went right back on as the sensible semi-opaque black tights came off.

Fast-forward many years later. I work from home 90% of the time while wearing ugly pants and t-shirts covered in dog hair; the other 10% sees me in hair and makeup so comprehensive, I hardly recognise myself. (Hey, it's research.)

But I know that a lot of the more dramatic looks that I write about aren’t exactly something you can wear on the daily in the office. And I’ve gotten a lot of comments and questions about cool makeup that can be worn to work, namely “I LOVE THIS BUT UGH WORK. Am I stuck in beige drudgery forever because of my job?”

Absolutely not. You can still have fun, great eye makeup AND be work-appropriate, and I’m going to show you some cool ways to do it.

First I’d like to acknowledge a mental inconsistency: I really, honestly believe that you should be able to wear whatever you like at work and be taken seriously. In the ideal version of the world that lives in my head, you would ONLY be judged by how well you do your job rather than on how responsible-looking your lipstick is.

You should not have to dress or groom yourself in any particular way to be respected at work. And yet in many jobs, you do. This is a sucky, mostly sexist catch-22, and I cannot see any way around it, other than THROUGH.

So, for right now, we are going to work within the system so that we can ascend to the heights of power and change the rules when we get there. Let’s talk about makeup for work that doesn’t suck, but that still reads as “appropriate.”

I’m going to split this into two categories, so you can take the advice most appropriate to your situation: CONSERVATIVE (the most formal, suits and pantyhose-mandatory kind of workplace) and BUSINESS CASUAL (less conservative but still buttoned up).

If you work in a creative field, or in a super-casual workplace (or maybe you're the boss and you MAKE the rules) you can do your makeup however you want. No rules for you! Maybe this will give you some fun ideas, though.

(I should also mention that if you work in an environment that has rules about makeup for health and safety reasons--like, say, a hospital--PLEASE do not break them because of this article. Those instructions should trump my ideas every time!)


I do quite a lot of research before I write these articles, and I saw many, many things on the internet that basically said “EYELINER: HUGE NO-NO FOR WORK.” I don’t think that’s true. Well-applied eyeliner is totally work-appropriate! And for me, having great eyeliner is a much-needed confidence boost.


This is probably the simplest and best eyeliner ever. It’s great when you want to look awesome and together, but not like you’re trying too hard. This liner emphasises your beautiful lashes and makes them look thicker and fancier.

You’ll need a flat brush with a thin, straight tip, and a gel liner OR dark powder eyeshadow. I’m using matte black eyeshadow because it’s what I have available.

If you’re using a gel or cream liner, you can just dip the brush in and swipe it on the sides of the jar until you have just a little on the very end of the brush. If you’re using eyeshadow, put a couple drops of water onto one part of your shadow, then mix it around until you have a creamy (not runny) consistency.

Now we’re going to do what I call the press and wiggle. Take your brush (with the liner on the very end, not the sides) and, starting from the outer corner, press it down right along your lashline, wiggle the brush a little to deposit the liner, and take it away.

Do this all the way to the inner corner of your eye and then stop. Now you have a very thin, even line all across your lashes, which will make them look thicker and more lovely.

It’s pretty subtle by itself, so I lined my left eye and left the right one naked so you could see the difference.

This looks a bit weird on me with my blonde eyelashes. It's way nicer looking with mascara (and both eyes done, obvs).

If you work in a very fancy office or industry, you can probably get away with a little bit of colour here--as long as you keep it matte and dark. If you used a very dark purple eyeshadow, or even a navy blue, the subtlety and thinness of the line keeps it totally SFW.

BUSINESS CASUAL: The Straight Cat Eye

You guys know that cat-eye liner is part of my makeup uniform. It makes me feel confident and pretty, and I am seldom without it. But every situation doesn’t call for a giant Winehouse swoop, you know? So here’s how I do a straighter, more subdued cat-eye that’s well-suited for office environments.

Starting from the inside and going all the way to the outer corner, line close to your lop lashline with liquid liner. As always I’m using LORAC Top of the Line PRO, because it is the best forever and ever, amen. Them starting about halfway across, make your line thicker. Extend this to the outer end of the lashline. Don’t put any flicks on it yet! We’re getting to that!

Draw a small line straight out. Now connect it to the line you’ve drawn across your top lashes like you’re drawing a triangle. And you thought you’d never need geometry again!

The last step is to colour in your triangle! If it’s all looking a bit too blunt for you, you can fine-tune your flick shape afterwards. Just be sure to keep it even on both sides. Yay, you're done!

Here’s how it looks with mascara:

So easy, right?


I think that for most work environments, keeping it simple is generally best. When I was working out of an office every day, the last thing I wanted to do in the morning was take half an hour blending three shades of eyeshadow. So I’m going to limit this to a couple simple looks that are quick and easy to do, but that are also really pulled together and professional.


If you’re in a fancy-pants job, neon eyeshadow probably doesn’t go with your suit. And a lot of people bemoan that, like “Oh no, I’m stuck with earth-toned eyeshadow for the rest of my professional life!”

And okay, if you’re thinking of that as synonymous with “boring, muddy, uninspired browns,” then yeah, that totally sucks. But earth tones are so much more than that. They’re rich, shimmery red-browns and fantastic bronzes. They’re light washes of gold and an entire pallet full of amazing taupes. They’re silky greys, olive greens and ivorys.

You still have an entire world to play with. “Conservative” makeup just means a slightly different colour pallet...and probably no glitter. Save that for weekends.

The secret to keeping this office-appropriate is keeping the colour sheer. It’s way easier to wear golden eyelids under fluorescent lighting when it’s light. It also helps if the product is slightly shimmery, rather than matte. Matte eyeshadow all over looks a little dated and lifeless to me. Nobody wants Mannequin Face.

So first you’re going to pick a main colour. I’m using the bronze half of a L'Oreal eyeshadow, which has since been discontinued (WHY DOES THIS HAPPEN SO OFTEN, GUYS. I fall in love with a colour, and then it goes away forever!). Bronze shadows look really good on me because the orange in the makeup brings out the green and yellow in my eyes.

Using a clean brush, I’m going to apply a LITTLE bit of the bronze shadow all over my eyelid (here defined as the part under the curve where your eyeball meets the socket). You can always add more, but it’s harder to take it away, so use a light hand. Blend it so that the colour washes evenly across your lid, without streaks or blobs or naked patches.

I would probably leave it like this, but if you want to put a contrasting shade along the crease for depth, that is also an option. I’ve run MAC Glamour Check! along my crease (again, where your eyeball meets the bony part of your socket) and blended it in. I wrote about blending last week, so you can check that out if you need more detail.

Here’s how it looks with mascara and some grey eyeliner!

And as with everything, the sky is the limit here. Pick your colour, keep your hand light and shoot for the moon.

BUSINESS CASUAL: Colourful Accent

The idea for this one came from a twitter friend, who asked me how she could wear green eye makeup at work without looking like an extra from The Road Warrior (I’m paraphrasing). And she asked the right girl, because I love me some green eye makeup.

I know right off the bat that people with green eyes are “NOT SUPPOSED” to wear green eyeshadow, but that is grade-A garbage. You can wear whatever colour eye makeup you like! Ignore these weird, arbitrary rules for makeup use and follow your heart.

So for this look, I grabbed my two favourite greens: MAC eyeshadow in Humid and Bloom eyeshadow in Moss.

First I used a grey smudgeable liner (MAC Technakohl, Greyprint) to draw a loose line underneath my bottom eyelashes.

Using my little eyeshadow brush dipped in the olive green, I drew back over the grey liner and blended well. The key here is to work it into the liner so that the colour isn’t muted, exactly, but the volume is turned down a little.

Then I took my bright green and added a little bit in the outer corner, before blending it into the green.

With a generous helping of mascara and some white liner on my waterline (sorely needed; after doing my eye makeup three times in half an hour, my peepers were CROSS), here’s how it looks!

Annnnd a closeup.

These are obviously not the only ways that you can get creative within the bounds of cool work makeup, but I hope they give you some ideas. I’ve always hated being told what I can and cannot wear (eleven years of school uniforms will do that to you), but sometimes having to work within certain constraints helps make you MORE creative.

What is your go-to work look? Do you have drastically different work week/weekend makeup styles? Is glitter eyeshadow ever appropriate for the office? Tell me all about it!

Oh, and stay tuned: next time we're going to talk about AWESOME WORK LIPSTICK.