A Definitive Timeline of How and Why the Beauty Industry Reached Peak Unicorn

Unicorns aren’t real, but for beauty brands, they’re still a great investment. Witness the glitter trail of sold-out products inspired by the equine myth: Lush‘s rainbow bath bombs, Tarte’s horn-shaped brushes, a pink face serum that Sephora can’t keep in stock. (Once-free samples have hit eBay for $20 each. They’ve been sold more than 50 times.)

Unicorns frolic through fashion, too—notably on Alexander McQueen’s exquisite beaded gowns—but it’s those who make makeup that seem the most horny. There’s a big resurgence of the ’90s fashion, including pastels and crayon-like colors coming back around,” says Jerrod Blandino of Too Faced, which makes a best-selling shiny lipstick called Unicorn Tears, made “for women who love to dream and have fun.” They’re also made for bloggers to kvetch: after a Unicorn Latte hit the New York Times, Jezebel proclaimed the trend a “beauty industry problem” while Racked called the fad a “borderline hysteria.”

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Thanks in part to Kim K’s strobing, makeup labels have definitely hit peak hologram—but this lacquered legend has been nearly ten years in the making. Unicorns became cash cows around

Unicorns became cash cows around 2010—the same year Instagram was born.

2010—the same year Instagram was born. Just as #tbt became a mandatory Thursday activity, niche beauty brands began mining the nostalgic vibes with small lines of cult hits. Lime Crime’s Airborne Unicorn lipsticks was a pastel favorite, while A Beautiful Life launched its I Heart Unicorns perfume the same year. I Heart Unicorns is an ode to your teenage years,” said founder Anthony Arthur, ”inspired by myth and the power of belief. It’s where Barbie dolls and blacklight posters co-existed in your boudoir.” It smelled like Sweet Tarts, and Urban Outfitters couldn’t keep the $54 bottles in stock. At the time, PopSugar’s beauty blog was incredulous, musing, “I <3 Unicorns may not seem like the winningest handle for a perfume, especially given the fact that most fragrances trade on exclusivity or sexiness to sell.” That lack of sexiness was kind of the whole point—by harnessing memories of childhood play, instead of abstract (and probably unfulfilled) adult desire, pro-pony beauty hauls allowed young women to explore ideas of girlhood and fantasy separate from sex and the traditional male gaze—and more on their own terms.

But Millennial American girls had unicorns in their lives way before 2010. The phenomenon really started for us (and our Gen X babysitters) back in the ’80s, when an animated movie called The Last Unicorn hit theaters, and later, Saturday morning cartoon screens. Starring Mia Farrow and Alan Alda, the cartoon followed a hapless wizard named Schmendrick as he tried to rescue the last unicorn in the world. To protect her from an evil male demon called The Red Bull, Schmendrick turns her (without consent) into an unreasonably beautiful human woman—a totally naked one scrambling to cover her unwanted new breasts with a mane of white-blonde hair. Film critic Britt Hayes likened the scene to sexual assault, and droves of web stories affirm the movie both fascinated and fucked up pre-K girls nationwide. (Several years ago, Soho House LA had a daytime screening of the movie. Ostensibly for children, the event drew dozens of 20-something women trying to confirm the movie really was as bizarre as we remembered. The consensus, as well as the bar tab, was unusually high.)

Unicorns are beautiful and strong and cool with it all, like the women we’re told we can be, but never feel like we are.

Then there was My Little Pony, the cartoon show and toy series that galloped through the ’80s and ’90s with dozens of unicorns in its stable of protagonists—and, as sociologist Ellen Reiter notes, “[a] fictional world in which females are dominant.” In fact, My Little Pony was essentially the first TV show created exclusively for girls, with Rainbow Brite, Jem, and She-Ra coming after its success. And while the original Equestria may have been pastel-shaded and crammed with giggles, Reiter notes its problem-solving strategies were remarkably progressive. Instead of “vanquishing” bad guys, the heroines dealt with their villains (most of whom were also female) by empathizing, aiding, and reforming the pissy pony in question, essentially welcoming her as part of their group. In Reiter’s words, “Rather than reinforcing [violence], My Little Pony emphasizes the importance of a loyal community of females.” Culture critic Peggy Orenstein says unicorns and ponies represent agency for little girls (“they’re active; they’re all sources of power and motion and inspiration”) and, lest we forget, the unicorns in Harry Potter would only allow themselves to be touched by witches. (Sorry, Draco!)

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