Way back when in the early '90s, Calvin Klein was busy launching the über cool unisex fragrance CK1, as britpop band Blur stormed the charts with their hit "Girls and Boys", the catchy chorus of which went "girls who are boys, who like boys to be girls…" While neither song nor scent were related, both indicated the start of a seismic cultural shift in how we view gender and since then the traditional lines between the sexes have continued to, well, blur. Fast-forward to present day, and gender fluidity has well and truly hit the mainstream. As a result, the shock value that David Bowie’s iconic celestial makeup or Prince’s smokey eye once created has virtually disappeared. Previously viewed as audacious and boundary-breaking, this kind of originality is now far less revolutionary, more mass consumerism. Eyelids are no longer batted when Harry Styles wears nail polish or Ronaldo sports a Korean sheet mask. When MAC’s recent collaboration with Caitlyn Jenner and the Brant Brothers were met with rapturous applause, similar cosmetic giants quickly followed suit. Cover Girl teamed up with James Charles while L’Oreal enlisted The Plastic Boy for their True Match Foundation Campaign.
“I’m worth it, you’re worth, we’re worth it. Our taglines have developed over time but we think it’s all the same message whatever we do, to bring beauty to as many people as possible”, reveals Adrien Koskas, General Manager of L’Oréal Paris UK. If the millions of social media views being racked up by Patrick Starrr, Manny Gutierrez and Jeffree Star are anything to go by then the ‘we’re all worth it’ message is being heard loud and clear. But will people continue to listen? And is gender-blending beauty really here to stay? “We’re seeing the tip of the iceberg,” explains MAC Senior Artist Dominic Skinner. “Its popularity relates to the selfie generation where everyone, including men, are realising the transformative powers makeup holds. For 12 years, guys have asked me for concealer because they had a big work presentation. The difference now, is that while the remit of male makeup remains niche, it’s become wider, and includes men wearing concealer to male bloggers who wear a full face.” Does Skinner believe the trend is helping to break down gender barriers? “It’s the other way around, as society breaks down rigid ideals, we’ve become more accepting of gender fluidity”. A similar sentiment is being echoed in skincare. “My industry is years behind our consumers,” explains unisex skincare founder Sam Farmer. “Millennials living in the West are used to gay marriage and equal rights being part of everyday life, yet we’re still chaining them to outdated and harmful messaging”. Farmer’s tagline ‘bodywashing, not brainwashing’ highlights that scientifically; skin has the same structure regardless of gender. “On a molecular level there are some differences due to ethnicity, however, a moisturiser for example, will only do the job it's been formulated to do. It cannot tell if it's on women's skin or men's skin”. Consultant Dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto, isn’t so convinced, “Men can certainly benefit from different skincare as they have larger oil glands and more testosterone so their skin is about 20 percent thicker”. For her, “unisex skincare is a fad, just like clay masks or antioxidants. Skincare should be tailored to your skin type, with the treatment targeting the problem, whether that’s pigmentation or wrinkles”. Farmer’s overall ethos however is an admirable one, rather than undermining young people, he wants the beauty industry to enable, support and encourage them by creating formulations that do their job brilliantly, rather than by segregating by gender. It’s a message that gender neutral brands such as Aesop, and Malin + Goetz have been successfully churning out for years. “If you were to look at a traditional apothecary from the last century, they would have obviously serviced both women and men. We’re simply creating a contemporary version of a traditional apothecary,” reveals skincare co-founder Andrew Goetz.
According to Sylvie Ganter, Creator & Founder of Atelier Cologne, it's the fragrance industry that were the first to advocate gender fluidity. “For us there are no rules. Consumers are able to disregard traditional gender boundaries because fragrance choice is based on occasion and mood rather than whether it works for your sex”. Yet in the current climate, James Craven, Fragrance Archivist & Creed Specialist at Les Senteurs, believes a backlash is already emerging as people are worried they are in danger of losing their sexual identity, “Society has become so engrossed in the politics surrounding gender neutrality that it’s almost becoming tiresome. There is a rebellion against having it laid down almost by statute that ‘unisex’ is good and must be followed by everybody.” Some argue that, subconsciously, the male grooming beard trend started as a mini backlash against gender blending or metrosexuality, as having a beard allowed men to reinforce their masculinity. Ultimately what’s important about the backlash is that it reminds us that not everyone wants to be lumped together in one unisex category. “The gender fluid trend should be about a shift in choice for the better, not taking choice away,” believes James. While the beauty industry continues to be a powerhouse for championing gender fluidity, a one-size-fits-all approach sounds too much like a generic ‘uniform’ and the moment we all start to wear it, we run the risk of endangering the freedom of expression that we set out to promote in the first place.