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The inescapable unicorn trend, explained

We’ve hit peak unicorn. Thank millennials and the current state of the world.

2015 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival - Weekend 1 - Day 1 Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Coachella
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

When a lawsuit involving a Brooklyn coffee shop’s fight with Starbucks over unicorn-themed drinks is more ridiculous than the unicorn-themed drinks themselves, it becomes painfully clear that the horned beast has had its moment.

Earlier this month, Brooklyn’s the End filed a legal complaint against Starbucks for the coffee juggernaut’s “Unicorn Frappuccino,” a drink hued like an ’80s prom dress, because it encroached on the End’s own “Unicorn Latte.”

Sadly, neither beverage is made from real unicorns — they are both part of a bigger industry capitalizing on the popularity of the rainbow-clad unicorn aesthetic. There are all kinds of unicorn food, like unicorn noodles and unicorn toast. Vox’s sister site Racked recently reported on a wave of unicorn-themed beauty products, including “unicorn snot” body glitter, “unicorn essence” skin serum, “unicorn tears” lipstick, and unicorn makeup brushes. There’s even unicorn athleisure wear and unicorn workout supplements that are supposed to enhance your “focus, energy, and power.”

The popularity of everything unicorn, and corporate entities like Starbucks jumping on the trend, is a sign that we’ve hit peak uni. The creature’s popularity is a testament to its fantastic appearance and mythical nature.

Hi Saturday we missed you RP: @monbreezy . lattes - so hot rn

A post shared by The End Brooklyn (@thendbrooklyn) on

But that popularity isn’t exactly magical.

The unicorn’s popularity is also about us. The recent explosion of the unicorn trend is what happens when nostalgia collides with social media. It’s inevitable that the social media platforms we’re obsessed with today have become avenues to flaunt our childhood nostalgia.

But there might also something deeper at play — a specific reason we’re clinging to glittery, pastel-hued horned horses. Of all the things people remember from childhood, perhaps many are finding a new fondness for unicorns because they are imaginary, ridiculous, fantastic, and a perfect escape from the confusing times of today.

The unicorn trend is linked to millennial nostalgia

When we and Starbucks talk about unicorns, we’re not just discussing the famed beast of yore that appeared to breast-baring virgins. It’s also not just the metaphorical meaning of being so special and unique, though that factors in too.

The unicorn trend is about a certain aesthetic: It’s characterized by pastel colors, rainbows, iridescent hues, pearly purples, an opalescent sheen, and everything shimmery.

“I think the unicorn trend is a combination of a lot of factors. Not only do the millennials remember the unicorn as a fun, carefree symbol of their youth, but in confusing times, we want things that provide hope and positivity,” Jane Buckingham, founder of the trend forecasting company Trendera, told me. “And nothing symbolizes that more than the unicorn.”

While the unicorn trend didn’t originate from any one specific thing, the popular television My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic may have played a role. In 2014, the show drew 4.3 million viewers for its “My Little Pony Mega Mare-athon.” Though its ratings have slipped since its peak years, from 2012 to 2014, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is still a popular cultural force, and premiered its seventh season on Discovery Family in April. (Discovery Family was originally called the Hub before it was rebranded in 2014.) The seven-year-old series features not only unicorns but also pegasi, regular horses, and winged unicorns known as alicorns or, colloquially, “pegacorns.”

The show’s main protagonist is an alicorn named Twilight Sparkle, but it’s actually a character named Rarity — a glamorous fashion designer unicorn — that embodies the ideal unicorn aesthetic. She’s stark white, with lavender hair and big blue eyes; she speaks with an Audrey Hepburn-ish accent; and she’s telekinetic:

My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic has a strong fan base, complete with fanfic and fan videos and extensive wiki entries. Viewership grew quickly in its first two seasons, a lot of which is attributed to adults watching the show.

Though much has been written about a certain subset of that fan base — male fans of the show known as Bronies, who’ve courted controversy in the past — My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic’s key takeaways are that friendships are transformative, My Little Pony is for everyone, and unicorns are awesome.

My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic also builds on the My Little Pony franchise of the 1980s, which was a part of many millennials’ childhoods, and thrives on the well-documented millennial affinity for nostalgia.

In that same vein, the unicorn trend is likely also connected to another millennial-childhood staple: the Technicolor goddess and unicorn matriarch that is Lisa Frank, founder of the eponymous school supply company.

The Lisa Frank company was founded in 1979, but it really hit its peak in the late ’90s. According to figures obtained by the Tucson Citizen, from 1996 through 2000 the company made more than $60 million per year, topping out in 1999 at $66.5 million. Frank sold a wide range of merchandise — including T-shirts, binders, pencils, pens, stickers, lunchboxes, and more — that featured every shade of neon known to humanity.

Frank dreamed up a world where penguins hugged and emitted a radioactive pink shimmer beneath a many-colored aurora borealis. Her dolphins were the color of bubblegum and Slurpees. And her unicorns were flashy, candy-colored beasts that borrowed their colors from radioactive rainbows:

A Lisa Frank coloring book.
Lisa Frank

The status of Frank’s company today isn’t even close to what it once was. Lisa Frank merchandise can only be purchased via third-party vendors that have licensed the rights to various Lisa Frank designs. The Lisa Frank verified Instagram account directs you to Torrid, a clothing company. And sends you to the brand’s official Facebook page. But Lisa Frank’s cultural impact on children, especially young girls of the ’90s, who are now grown-up millennials, can’t be denied.

Nostalgia, whether it’s for My Little Pony or Lisa Frank, is a powerful thing. Essentially everything that was popular with kids in the 1990s is popular again today — ironically and unironically — because ’90s kids are now tastemakers and trendsetters, and essential to the fabric of the internet and social media. We’ve seen this play out with movies like the recent Power Rangers reboot or Kellogg’s cereal bar (where you can order types of cereal you grew up with), or ’90s fashion becoming trendy again.

Unicorns are no exception.

The unicorn trend is a visual one, and social media platforms reward everything visual

Everything unicorn is based in combinations of color, and it really lends itself to how we communicate today. While nostalgic millennials might be the primary consumers and promoters of the unicorn trend, its growth has been further spurred by how visual it is.

“We typically see that on our platform the most popular ideas often lean more toward the ‘doable,’ or everyday manifestations of these trends,” Larkin Brown, the in-house stylist for Pinterest, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “On Pinterest, we’ve seen the evolution of these types of trends over the years, as rainbow food had its moment and made way for this new rush of unicorn food and beauty.”

It’s hardly a surprise that most current nostalgia trends with roots in the ’80s and ’90s — along with the internet articles that fuel them — focus on some of the most colorful and fantastical products and pop culture from those decades, from Disney princesses to Lip Smackers (with one exception being the recent and thankfully short-lived Seinfeldian fashion trend known as normcore). The brighter and louder the trend was, the more likely we are to remember it and feel that nostalgic pang. Not only that, but the more eye-catching something is, the more likely it is to spread on online.

From that perspective, once the unicorn aesthetic started to hit social media, it was somewhat guaranteed to take off. “This very visual trend plays well on Instagram, where #unicornmakeup has almost 9,000 hits and #unicornbrushes has over 12,000,” Racked pointed out, explaining that the major players behind the unicorn trend are Instagram and YouTube beauty tutorials.

It’s on Instagram and YouTube where you can really see the unicorn beauty trend at work. The YouTube makeup tutorial embedded above has more than 500,000 hits, while this video reviewing unicorn makeup has more than 800,000:

After watching these videos, I came away with a deeper understanding of how to contour my cheeks in a unicorn style. But it’s important to note that these tutorials aren’t necessarily for people who want to leave the house looking like a unicorn — they’re perfect for people who want to appreciate the iridescent wonder of the trend without fully participating.

Part of me is convinced that the people in these videos are trend chasers, that their interest in the unicorn aesthetic is as much about following the wave of popularity as it is about earnestly wanting to look unicorny. But the fact that there are people willing to cake on layers of pastel blush and glittery eye shadow to cater to the unicorn desire in all of us speaks even more to the potency of this trend.

Unicorns represent escapism, and that’s an important factor in their popularity

Back in December 2009, Vanity Fair writer Jim Windolf analyzed the inescapable inevitability of America’s obsession with cuteness. He could just as easily have been writing about 2017 in the way he described an adult swooning over birthday cake ice cream and cupcakes (which he found kind of repugnant).

“For generations, kids couldn’t wait until they reached adulthood so they could smoke, drink, eat four-course meals, make money, drive cars, have sex, and, if they were the type to join the military, legally kill other human beings,” Windolf wrote. “Now we would rather log on and tune out, preferably in the womb-like comfort of a Snuggie, which is the perfect thing to wear as we gaze at photos of kittens while gnawing on delicious cupcakes.”

What’s fascinating about Windolf’s analysis is the idea that cuteness and escapism are very often reactions to traumatic or confusing events. He cites scholars who attribute the Japanese concept of “kawaii” to the devastation of post–World War II Japan, and also notes that after 9/11 and the global financial crisis of 2007-’08, Americans began gravitating toward and producing cute pop culture, including this video of a baby laughing, which has amassed more than 25 million views since it was posted online 10 years ago:

With the political turmoil and stress we’ve witnessed in the past two years, it fits the pattern that there’s a desire for escapism. This one happens to coincide with millennial nostalgia, the pervading nostalgia at the moment.

“Unicorns represent the magic of our childhood and that everything is going to be okay,” Jerrod Blandino, the co-founder and chief creative officer of the makeup line Too Faced (which has jumped on the unicorn trend), told Racked. “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.”

Perhaps the unicorn trend it isn’t so much about the lore or look of the unicorns, but rather about the feelings they conjure up. Maybe unicorns represent more of a need (for something comforting) than a desire to look a certain way. If that’s the case, it wouldn’t be that surprising to see other creatures from millennial childhoods, like trolls or any animal from Lisa Frank's radioactive zoo, enjoy the same kind of popularity as unicorns.

Unfortunately for unicorns and their moment in the sun, having a giant company like Starbucks cash in on a trend is often a precursor to the death of said trend. But that doesn’t make unicorns any less beautiful or fantastic. Nor does it take away their power to make us happy — the way many of us may need them to.

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