As part of the BA (Hons) Fashion Communication course, students take part in a Collaborative Industry Project in their second year. This involves pairing up with a brand and creating a campaign around a brief set by the brand. Students must also investigate the broader themes prevalent within the industry. Here, BA Student Jacqueline Wong, investigates how we see men in makeup in 2020 alongside her project for MAC Cosmetics.
9 minutes read time
Can men really wear makeup?
Society has convinced us that makeup is not masculine. But boys can feel insecure too. Should men have to risk ridicule, just to put some concealer on a pimple?
Powerful men in history have not been shy to enhance their beauty; King Tut famously wore dark kohl eyeliner, inspiring the smokey eye look we have today, and Louis XIV made powdered faces and extravagant wigs ‘trending’. Unfortunately, the makeup they had back then was laced with lead and poisoned its wearers, so cosmetics for both men and women understandably went into decline. By the time it came back in the 1900s, marketers focused campaigns solely on women, and taking care of one’s appearance slowly became a feminine trait. So this culture of gendered beauty is actually only a century old, and was propelled by advertisers simply trying to sell. The world is now ready for gender norms to return to a less segregated state, and the beauty industry has a role to play.
Gender Stereotypes in Beauty
The problem of gender stereotypes not only lies in the perception of men, but our society as a whole contributes to this stigma. From birth, we are bombarded with gender ‘rules’. Blue for boys, pink for girls. Action figures for boys, Barbie for girls. Over time, we ourselves have created a separation and gender definition that shaped our identities. We are taught how to dress, how to act, even how to feel, and deterring from that norm would result in rejection or outcasting.
Enter Generation Z. Growing up in an era of where diversity is lauded, #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are ubiquitous, and same sex marriages are (increasingly) legal, Gen Z represent the generation with the highest level of acceptance in history. Not only would a boy displaying feminine traits be less susceptible to bullying, his outward behaviour may often be celebrated as an act of individuality and bravery. In Sweden, often praised as one of the most equal countries in the world, schools started to drop gender pronouns and ‘traditional’ gender representations in their curriculum. Without being told that boys need to be strong or girls need to be gentle, these children have grown up to be less constrained to culturally-enforced gender stereotypes. Researchers at Uppsala University report that they can already see that these children are more open to unfamiliar experiences than those from ‘traditional schools’.
Gender binaries not only have less influence, but newer views of gender identity and expression are emerging. More than half of older Gen Z’s, who are already consumers of beauty products, say they know someone who goes by gender-neutral pronouns such as ‘they’, ‘them’, or ‘ze’ (JWT Intelligence, 2016). A third of them strongly agree that gender does not define a person. That’s a whole 10% more liberal than how the previous generation feels. The segregation that was instilled in us is slowly disintegrating, and it’s started showing in the way these young consumers purchase. In the same study, many Gen Z’s expressed that they may not always buy products that are specifically geared towards their own gender, with only 39% of respondents purchasing gendered fragrances, compared to 49% of millennials. Given that this cohort will make up 40% of beauty consumers by 2020, understanding their attitudes is crucial for any beauty brand’s success (WGSN, 2019).
Targetting tricky Gen Z
That being said, brands aspiring to connect with these younger consumers need to get it right. Growing up in a world of fake news and dubious advertising, Gen Z’s are a skeptical lot, and will collectively criticise a brand if it doesn’t exude transparency and authenticity. Trying to relate without a deep understanding of their mentality often results in backlash. In 2019, Gillette released a video advert in an attempt to convey diversity, with a set of women including models with tattoos and vitiligo shaving their bodies. But viewers felt that Gillette missed the mark; by showing women removing all body hair (including arm hair), they felt that the brand was enforcing social pressure on women. Marketers need to be weary of all views that resonate with their audience’s mindset.
The industry has made efforts in the past to change the gender constraints of beauty, albeit with little to no traction. Calvin Klein made headlines when they launched the world’s first unisex fragrance in 1994 – CK One, and M.A.C released the Viva Glam campaign with famed drag queen RuPaul in the same year. But it wasn’t until recently that gender-neutral beauty really took off. Aesop, which categorises their products based on skin types rather than gender, has grown 40% year-on-year since 2015. In the fragrance sector, the percentage of unisex perfume launches went from 17% in 2010 to a whopping 51% in 2018. Twenty years after the Calvin Klein launch, consumers were finally ready to see brand identities without gender connotations. As French perfumer Celine Barel aptly put it, “I safely assume that the rise of gender-neutral fragrance isn’t just an ephemeral trend. Rather, it is a societal phenomenon.”
Consumers weren’t buying into these brands because they were simply advertising themselves as gender-neutral, they bought their products because they made sense. When you realise that there is no reason why your products should be gender-segregated, the shift seems obvious. Skincare and fragrances are about personal needs; it’s not about male or female, but about you.
But what about makeup? While men have taken great leaps towards personal care, can they comfortably wear makeup to see friends?
Probably not for a while. While male Youtubers and celebrities such as Jeffree Star and Ezra Miller have certainly put men’s makeup on the forefront of mainstream media, men are still hesitant to go to beauty counters. According to The Future Laboratory, only 15% of men in the UK bought makeup in 2016. However, a survey (conducted on November 5th, 2019 on men evenly spaced between the ages of 18 and 54) concluded that 84% of respondents said it’s okay for a man to wear makeup. When asked why they think men are intimidated to wear makeup (and here’s the kicker), a majority said that it’s because makeup is mainly targeted towards women. Essentially, those advertisers in the 1900s really screwed us over.
The same survey also studied the differences in mentality between younger and older consumers. Those above the age of 25 stated that the main motivation for wearing makeup (should they wish to), is to hide imperfections. The younger cohort had a sassier response: “women use makeup, why can’t we?”
Him, Her, Them, Everyone…
The beauty industry has started to respond to these needs. Chanel introduced Boy de Chanel in 2018, a makeup line that directly targeted men. With basic products such as brow pencils and light-coverage foundation to build that “no-makeup makeup look”, Chanel was answering the call of those men aged 25 and up. They cleverly tested their first release on South Koreans, where 75% of men already wear makeup, and spend over US$7 billion a year on cosmetics alone (Leigh, 2018). A phenomenon that was once exclusive to K-pop stars, the trend slowly trickled down to the masses. Now Korean men wouldn’t even bat a primed eyelid at a man wearing makeup, and there’s no reason why this attitude cannot be adopted by the west.
For those “women do it, why can’t we” consumers, niche brands such as Fluide have entered the market providing colourful lipsticks and glittery eyeshadows for “him, her, them, everyone” (their slogan). A quick browse through their fan posts on Instagram, and you will see how popular this brand has become amongst the LGBTQ+ community. However, with product names such as Spectrum and Shades of Pride, those who find it difficult to relate may still feel that stigma put forth by traditional masculinity.
Looking into the future, the same survey did show that most men think makeup should be genderless, and that they would be more comfortable buying from a gender-neutral store than from a male/female-specific store (as most brands are today). Joel Hug, a 19-year-old student, says, “I think it’s a stigma because it is already associated with women. I think making it about everybody would be more accessible.” So if brands are still separating the two product ranges, the stigma may continue to be difficult to shake.
Other current trends in beauty do seem to blend seamlessly into the genderless beauty movement. A report by FutureBrand describes the current beauty consumer as ‘skintellectuals’, people who are hyper-knowledgable about ingredients and demand science-backed formulas. Brands such as The Ordinary have shown that consumers respond well to brands that strip away traditional branding and marketing, allowing consumers to make their own purchase decisions. FutureBrand predicts that this scientific approach to beauty will develop further into personalisation. Shampoo brand Prose has scrapped hair types altogether; by using first-party data made up of over 135 factors from concerns to zipcode, Prose creates a bottle of shampoo that is unique to each individual. Arnaud Plas, co-founder of Prose, even thinks that beauty will see a day when DNA is involved, giving the possibility of makeup that is tailored to your makeup.
“They want tailored help to improve themselves, to find out what works best for them…but on their terms. To achieve that goal, they seek brands which enhance identities both social and genetic.”
If products were personalised to be perfect for each individual, beauty would also come closer to becoming a zero-waste industry, which brings us back to the transparency and authenticity criterion. Even Gen Z’s would struggle to critique a brand that is made for them and sustainable.
Society is ushering in a new definition of masculinity. While half the world’s population is not going to suddenly flock to makeup stores tomorrow, the industry will evolve to become more gender-neutral, from packaging and advertising, to the products themselves. With the male beauty industry set to be worth US$81.2 billion by 2024 (IMARC Group, 2019), brands which give men comfort in exploring beauty may find themselves with a wider audience to play with in the next decade. They must be cautious however; surface-level marketing ploys won’t work on the clued-up consumers of today. Brands which take the opportunity to grow alongside their consumers must truly understand this societal shift, and empathise with authenticity across the board.
Makeup for men is not yet mainstream, but it may be soon.
By Jacqueline Wong
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