What's Really Behind Unicorn Fever

Illustration by Mallory Heyer.
If you bothered to take a stroll through midtown Manhattan at the end of April, you very likely saw the lines of young professionals in their gray suits and dull heels outside of Starbucks buzzing for their Unicorn Frappucinos. (Hell, you might have been one of them.) But it wasn't just there. On Fifth Avenue, a sign outside a shiny hair salon offered up a special on unicorn hair — for "women, men, bois, and girls." Downtown in Brooklyn, residents curiously popped in and out of a new paraphernalia store with unicorn headband horns, confetti, and sparkly tulle skirts in the window. Over in Queens, a flea market stall featured a table stacked with unicorn-printed T-shirts, a cartoon unicorn smiling down angelically from a poster.
We have officially hit the very peak of the unicorn trend — the tippy top of a vibrant, magical rainbow where Katy Perry songs are on repeat and the clouds are made of dreams and cotton candy. On Instagram, feeds are flooded with users showing off everything from their unicorn body glitter (also unfortunately nicknamed "unicorn snot") to their unicorn bagels, pool floats, macarons, sequined jeans, grilled cheeses, high-top sneakers, iPhone cases, nail decals, and sushi rolls. Facebook? Overflowing with endless unicorn makeup tutorials. Even the highbrow fashion world is not immune: Collection Drake's J. Crew Midnight Unicorn pajama set, a dramatic silky number that cost $396, completely sold out. And last year, Valentino's series of unicorn-inspired items, from a little black dress to a bomber jacket, were seen on the likes of Emilia Clarke and Jennifer Lopez.
Although unicorns were indeed a cultural touchstone of the '90s — thanks to My Little Pony and the vibrant hearts-and-kitties-and-unicorns imagery of Lisa Frank — it wasn’t until recently that the imaginary beings made a comeback. Google Trends confirms that there’s been a steady rise in the search term “unicorns” since 2012, a fascination that, according to their graph, reached hysteric proportions during the five days this April when the Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino was available.
But what started unicorn mania?
This is not the first time we've been infatuated with these beings, of course. The earliest written reference to the blue-eyed animals with horns was way back in the 4th century B.C.E. Over time, they became popular folklore fodder, and as fables have it, they could only be lured by the naked breasts of virginal women. Fast forward a millennia or two, and somehow unicorns evolved from icons of chastity and purity embroidered on 15th century tapestries to the sparkly-eyed, pastel-hued toys that dominated the “girls” aisle in the 1980s.
“This obsession with unicorns is nothing new — with social media, we’ve just found a different way to show it,” says Vaughn Scribner, an assistant history professor at the University of Central Arkansas who studies mythical creatures. “In the 18th century, the smartest men in the world were running around trying to find unicorns and mermaids and monstrosities. Our society has always shared a wondrous hope that maybe a whimsical notion could be proven true.”

Think of unicorns as being this year’s pumpkin spice, a moment that will likely pass rather than last several years.

Daniel Levine
But in 2016, unicorns morphed from a millennia-long symbol revered mostly in smaller superfan groups (shout-out to unicorn historians, erotica writers, and Bronies, aka adult-male My Little Pony lovers) to a full-on cultural phenomenon. According to trend expert Daniel Levine, this is because there are three key elements that create a fad — which, he says is important to note “is different from a trend, with the primary difference being longevity. Think of unicorns as being this year’s pumpkin spice, a moment that will likely pass rather than last several years.”
In today’s age, he says a fad happens when, “there’s an established cultural interest in something that matches up with the current zeitgeist," celebrities publicize it, and "the fad is visually interesting enough to take off on social media." The unicorn has had all three in its favor since 2016, but in this case, the social media part came first. All of the sparkle and vibrancy of the unicorn aesthetic are perfect Instagram-fodder, which is how Adeline Waugh, health food photographer and blogger behind Vibrant and Pure, inadvertently started the unicorn food trend in June 2016.
“I was just playing around with natural pigments and cream cheese on toast because that’s what I do with my time as a food blogger,” says Waugh, who uses elements like beet juice or freeze-dried blueberry powder to create vibrant colors like fuchsia or blue-green for her photography. “I was using pastel colors, and when I posted photos, my followers started calling it unicorn toast. I hadn’t really seen any unicorn food at that point, but by about six months later I was seeing unicorn toast everywhere, and then came lattes and cakes and hot chocolate...”
It’s likely her 76,000 followers already had the pastel-friendly creatures on the brain because of the unicorn beauty products that had also started popping up around the same time. 2016 was when Too Faced launched its since-always-sold-out unicorn tears lipstick, a company named Unicorn Lashes launched a golden horn-inspired set of makeup brushes, and the Etsy shop Bitter Lace Beauty began selling out of its rainbow-themed highlighter. Now there are hundreds of thousands of unicorn makeup tutorials on YouTube; Coachella was a rainbow-hued sea of festival-goers rocking unicorn hair; Tarte recently sold out of its unicorn-inspired Magic Wands brush set, and a Lisa Frank makeup collection will be hitting shelves later this year.
Hannah Dick, a professor in media, culture, and communication at New York University, says the popularity of unicorn food and beauty photos makes sense when you look at the way we currently consume social media. “Our social media profiles are shaped around visual culture,” she says. “Instagram and Snapchat are now more popular than text-based social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, so it’s not surprising that rainbows, unicorns, and highly saturated multicolored representations have taken over the visual field.”
Once unicorns had dominated the food and beauty worlds, products and apparel came next. There's that new unicorn paraphernalia store in Brooklyn (inexplicably titled Brooklyn Owl); a line of “Peen-i-corn” (which is exactly what it sounds like)-printed clothing is now available on RedBubble, and pool float company FUNBOY is stocking up for another summer of rabid consumers of its unicorn float, which the brand says became its bestseller "by far" last summer.
And that wasn’t by accident: The company launched in 2015 with a Pegasus (the unicorn’s winged, less colorful relative); when Taylor Swift took a photo with the float at her now-infamous July 4th party, the pool float game changed entirely.
“We saw that Google searches for unicorn pool floats spiked as people tried to find what Taylor was floating on,” the founders told Refinery29 in a statement. “We knew then that the unicorn would be our next breakout float, so we launched it the following spring. It’s since become our major business success, outselling our second best seller by two times.”

At the end of the day I'm just a girl who wants to ride unicorn floaties with her friends ??‍♀️

A post shared by Dana Patterson (@danaisabellaaa) on

All of the rainbows and sparkles and shine all over social media do raise the question of whether or not unicorns are just infantilizing us all — transforming adults into women who titter in baby voices and take business meetings over multicolored coffee drinks topped with dollops of sprinkled fluff. In other words: exactly the stereotype many of us are trying to escape.
But brand strategist Jess Weiner, CEO of Talk To Jess (she’s the one who helped give Barbie a more realistic, body positive makeover) says that while she can see the various issues unicorns can raise for women — the horn could be interpreted as a psychosexual phallic symbol, and there’s that whole come-hither-virgin-situation — she thinks they are actually empowering.
“Women are in need of fantastical magic in their lives right now, because we’re surrounded by culture and politics that are very bleak and dark and oppressive,” she says. “Unicorns are rare, they’re powerful, and they’re imaginary, so they’re capable of anything. And they do have a certain girly undertone because many of us associate them with our childhood, so they’re unapologetically feminine. Why wouldn’t we own something that’s just for us and inspires us to believe in our otherworldly capabilities? We’re being faced with some dire messaging around being female. Unicorns are our chance to escape and have some fun.”
Aha. So that’s the second, capturing-the-zeitgeist portion of Levine’s three parts of a fad theory: We’re craving brightness and happiness during a dark time, so the bright, bubbly, social media-created unicorn frenzy helps offset how we’re all feeling as a culture right now — versus the ominous werewolves and vampires and zombies that were popular when times were more hopeful.
It also makes sense when you consider that the actual word unicorn has taken on new, more positive meanings: Merriam-Webster will tell you it’s either “a mythical animal typically represented as a horse with a single straight horn projecting from its forehead,” or “a start-up company valued at more than a billion dollars, typically in the software or technology sector,” a term coined by Tech Crunch in 2013. On Pinterest, there are thousands of inspirational quotes in favor of wild individuality, like “Be a unicorn in a field of horses.” And by the way, “unicorn” is also the nickname for a bisexual woman who joins a straight couple for a threesome. From the bedroom to the boardroom, the word has come to symbolize someone or something that is unique, rare — exceptional. In other words, someone or something who is a unicorn is someone or something special. And don’t most people want to feel special?
As for the third part of Levine’s theory of what makes a fad — celebrity publicity — unicorns have plenty of star power behind them. Miley Cyrus began performing and dressing up in unicorn onesies in 2013, a look fellow pop star and friend Ariana Grande continued into 2015. This year, Katy Perry joined the trend by Snapchatting herself trying the Unicorn frapp, as did Channing Tatum, whose wife Jenna Dewan threw him a unicorn-themed bowling birthday party in April. (FYI, Dawan also dressed up as a unicorn for Halloween.) Shay Mitchell, Olivia Palermo, and Zendaya have all rocked some form of unicorn hair in the past year, and in October, a My Little Pony movie voiced by Zoe Saldana, Emily Blunt, Kristin Chenoweth and more will hit theaters.
“You can easily turn anything or anyone into a unicorn,” Levine says. “So unicorns are great for celebrities, for Instagram, for dark political times. Unicorns were made for us and this current moment.”
So for those of you who are anti-unicorns, beware: It doesn’t seem like this trend is going anywhere any time soon. It is, however, just a fad, a fleeting moment in popular culture guaranteed to eventually fade in a burst of shimmery oblivion.
But for those of you who are clinging on to all the rainbows-and-sparkle-and-sunshine for dear life, not to worry: The beginnings of the mermaid trend are already in full force.
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