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According to unicorn lore, the only people who could lure one of these mystical creatures out of hiding were young, female virgins. Now, however, all it takes is an Instagram account to bring the unicorns running.
We’re in a unicorn moment, specifically in beauty, although 2016 was a big year for unicorn food as well. (For example, unicorn toast exists. When I look at it, all I can think of is unicorn vomit.) You can buy unicorn snot, unicorn essence, unicorn tears, unicorn brushes, and unicorn horn nail polish. Allure has an entire subcategory dedicated to the trend on its website. Nothing written about unicorn beauty is done without the use of the word “magical,” borderline hysteria, or both.
Mermaids are a related beauty fetish touchpoint, though Google Trends tells me that unicorns (specifically unicorn makeup) have overtaken their fishy counterparts in searches since the end of 2016. The aesthetic similarities make sense, though: This trend is all about fantasy, iridescence, glitter, rainbows, shimmer, and creatures that don’t actually exist in real life but that people desperately wish did.
To understand what exactly this unicorn trend is all about, I went directly to unicorn beauty ground zero: the YouTube and Instagram beauty gurus. Michelle Phan’s group of Ipsy “creators” and new Em Cosmetics “muses” were happy to weigh in. “Unicorn beauty is a multidimensional magical iridescent explosion of happiness aka: supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” writes Lynette Cenée. “Unicorn makeup is a fun trend that's taking over the world right now! Think rainbow colors, holographic shades, and lots of sparkles,” Roxette Arisa puts it. You get the idea.
Unicorns weren’t always about rainbows and glitter, however. At one time they were referred to as one-horned “wild asses” and became a symbol of purity in Christianity, according to a 2008 Time article. They became the glittery creatures they are today thanks to good old 20th-century capitalism and pop culture.
“We have Disney and Hasbro to thank for giving us the colorful versions of unicorns we see today,” says Skye Alexander, the author of Unicorns: The Myths, Legends, and Lore. “Disney’s animated film Fantasia featured pink, blue, and lavender unicorns with golden horns, instead of the familiar white ones. The toy manufacturer Hasbro, makers of My Little Pony, gave us Princess Twilight Sparkle, a purple unicorn with a rainbow-colored mane and tail.”
Then, of course, there’s the grande dame of rainbow unicorns, Lisa Frank, who launched her company in 1979. Her designs became ubiquitous through the ’80s and ’90s on millions of tweens’ school supplies. While legal troubles shuttered her company in the aughts, she’s having a bit of a resurrection, at least in the beauty industry, with an impending indie line of makeup that includes, yes, a “unicorn lippie.”
“It’s kitschy, fun, and completely resurrects the 10-year-old Lisa Frank lovers in all of us,” says YouTuber Cenée. Nostalgia is definitely at play here, but the trend can feel infantilizing. This is the aspect that I find most cringeworthy about the fawning, breathless discussion of every fantastical product.
Listen, I had a sticker collection packed with rainbows and unicorns, and, in fact, I have a unicorn sticker on the very computer on which I’m typing this. But the childish language can feel icky after a while, because I’m no longer 8 years old. Puberty changes a person, okay?
Unicorns and young girls are forever intertwined. “These cute, cuddly creatures have been stripped of their powerful, masculine nature to make them suitable as playmates for little girls, although mythology tells us the wild and sometimes fierce unicorns of yesterday were the protectors of young females and that only virgins could tame the beasts,” explains Alexander. (She thinks that unicorns are the victims of “myth mixing” with the leprechaun’s rainbow, both of which represent hope.)
“The unicorn is attracted by the maiden’s innate goodness, purity, beauty, and youth,” reads a 2011 NPR article about why girls love horses, unicorns, and dolphins. Lisa Shen Rastogi, quoted in the article, says “I think for many young girls, there's a fantasy that someday you will be recognized as the secretly beautiful, magical thing that you are.” Reconciling being a grown-ass lady who pays rent and buys her own condoms while also enjoying wearing holographic lip gloss that looks like unicorn tears can be tricky, but who doesn’t want to be recognized as magical, I guess?
Unicorns, in all areas of our culture, have been building momentum for a while now. I suspect it started with the Disney princess phenomenon, best represented by the many, many, many articles written by and for millennials who have strong nostalgic attachments to this particular genre. In 2014, The Little Mermaid celebrated its 25th anniversary, which arguably kick-started or, at the very least, intensified the modern mermaid trend.
Around the same time as the unicorn trend took off, the term was coined in a 2013 Techcrunch article to describe tech startups valued at over $1 billion. I’d also argue that the low point for ubiquitous unicorn imagery came in 2015 with that unicorn poop Squatty Potty video. It now has over 30 million views and was a constant in targeted Facebook ads for what seems like years.
In beauty, unicorns were a slow burn at first. Colorful and controversial makeup company Lime Crime, which launched in 2008, has always had the tagline “Makeup for Unicorns.” Guy Tang, a hair colorist and founder of the #myidentity hair color brand with almost 2 million Instagram followers, started debuting fantastical mermaid and unicorn hair color on his page in about 2014. Jeffree Star released his “Unicorn Blood” lipstick, which constantly sold out, in 2015. While unicorn horn-shaped makeup brushes were likely around before UK company Unicorn Lashes released theirs, that company gets the distinction of being one of the first to be recognized by the mainstream beauty press in 2016, with release dates for its original and then rose-gold versions following closely. (Perhaps in an indication that mermaids will soon surge ahead again, the brand is set to release mermaid brushes soon.) Then came sell-out rainbow highlighters. Glitter, an obvious unicorn embellishment, reached peak relevance last year when Pat McGrath released her glitter lip kit, which was so popular the first time around that she relaunched it last week, only to have it sell out immediately.
Too Faced offered an iridescent “Unicorn Tears” lipstick in January 2016 that hit at the beginning of the zeitgeist. “We were ahead of the unicorn trend,” says Jerrod Blandino, the co-founder and chief creative officer at Too Faced. “As soon as we launched our original Unicorn Tears lipstick, it became an internet sensation, and we’ve been working ever since to catch up with the demand.” It’s also supposedly Ulta’s No. 1 lipstick, according to a recent Instagram post of his, which accompanies a quiz for finding out your unicorn name. (I’m Phoenix Twinkle Toes.)
One cannot discuss unicorns without talking about so-called holographic makeup, because the two go horn in hoof. I’ve already ranted about hating the word in this context because the makeup isn’t really holographic, but an allusion to the products’ 3D quality; an iridescence, a prism effect. Duochrome, a similar pigment that appears to change colors in different lights, was found in nail polish before it hit face products. Chanel’s Peridot, released in 2011, was exceptionally buzzy with its beetle-like chartreuse glow.
Color expert Amy Wax thinks that holographic can be considered almost as a new color in and of itself. “There are not a lot of new colors, per se,” she says. “People love change; they love something new and something they’ve never seen before.”
Now the look has definitely become more popular in face makeup. Milk Makeup’s Holographic Stick is almost always cited in unicorn makeup stories. Urban Decay is releasing a new line of lipstick topcoats that PopSugar heralded as “Unicorn Lipstick Topcoats.” Tarte just released a whole unicorn collection, including a $39 unicorn horn brush set.
Ultimately, the statement is what it’s all about. Obviously, this very visual trend plays well on Instagram, where #unicornmakeup has almost 9,000 hits and #unicornbrushes has over 12,000. You could also argue that it’s a backlash to the natural no-makeup-makeup look peddled on many fashion runways and by brands like Glossier.
There’s also the argument that tumultuous political times call for a dose of glittery escapism. “I think the political climate has created a state of unrest for a large amount of the population,” says Jessica Washick, a color designer at Nike and creative director at Van Court nail salon in NYC. “While there are 'rebel trends' happening, there's also a positive and uplifting trend coming up that's full of pastels and has an offbeat type of positivity. I think that this unicorn trend could very well be kicking that off and highlighting how badly we want something incredible — like a unicorn — to exist.”
Blandino agrees. “Unicorns represent the magic of our childhood and that everything is going to be okay,” he says. “It's about dreaming and believing in the magic of life, plus the rainbow of colors associated with unicorns offers a fantasy world of options. We all need a little more of that today.”
What people told me most frequently, though, is that the unicorn trend is a way to look unique. This seems oxymoronic, because the very nature of a trend is that a lot of people are all doing the same thing. “It's so different than any other trends we've seen because it wasn't made popular on the notion of being ‘perfect,’” YouTuber Arisa clarifies. “On the contrary, it's all about having fun and using your creativity to its fullest extent.”
Tang says of his unicorn-haired clients, “A lot of people want to be unique rather than fitting in.” To Gabriel Zamora, another Ipsy creator, the unicorn aesthetic opens up many options. “I think it's so popular because it has no set look,” he says. “Its final look is left for interpretation by every person.”
“These colors are a gutsy way of thinking outside the box,” Wax says. “It’s very personal when it comes to doing your own makeup. It’s not at an arm’s length distance. It’s what you’re wearing, it’s part of you, it’s your face.”
Your face, covered in “Unicorn Party Glitter.”
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