In Sept. of this year, Chanel released Boy de Chanel in Seoul, with plans to launch a global release in early 2019. Their inaugural line of men’s makeup is fairly pared down, with offerings of “tinted fluid” in (an abysmal) four different shades, an eyebrow pencil and a matte lip balm. Despite its humble catalogue, the announcement initially felt like a liberating step forward for a beauty industry that is becoming something of a microcosm for the erosion of gender norms. After a little bit of consideration, however, that foundation doesn’t set quite as evenly as one might think. Boy de Chanel is a definitive moment in normalizing the use of makeup for people who present masculinely, but it is also a cry to reinforce the gender binary in a realm already laden with it.
Chanel wields decades of unmatched multinational cache, and the power to set standards in its respective trades. Earlier this year, it exposed the underpinnings of its tweed box jacket, revealing a streamlined overview of its sales in 2017 for the first time in over a century. The lining can stand up to its finely woven shell — clocking in at almost $10 billion in annual revenue, it continues to dominate markets as a luxury brand, outselling more outwardly progressive names like Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Dior. For a venerable force in fashion that can, from a numbers standpoint, walk its talk better than any of its competitors, it’s a mark of something when it engages with a social movement that was once considered deviant, or at least unconventional. Whether or not that engagement is productive is a different conversation.
The gendered designation of cosmetics is a perennial issue that is varied widely depending on its cultural context. Historically speaking, its usage of cosmetics was associated more with class than it was with gender. In aristocratic systems, most notably Imperial European systems in the 17th and 18th centuries, those with inherited power would wear white powder, wigs and rouge as a visual assertion of their status. Ancient Roman nobles would paint their nails with the blood and fat of pigs for similar reasons; makeup was a way of distinguishing oneself as a member of a privileged group. Towards the end of the 19th century, however, a socially conservative wave in religion, championed by Queen Victoria, along with the development of psychology and the study of sex, concurrently placed cosmetics at the cross-section of vanity and a strict sense of devalued femininity. The modern beauty industry, despite the capitalist — duh — concept of being able to make more money marketing a product to a range of markets as opposed to one, still very much adheres to and enforces these norms.
Sexology and psychiatry were the two defining hands in how society has viewed and continues to view gender. Inversion theory, one of the earliest conceptions of same-sex sexuality, was an attempt to put words to and legitimize an identity that, until then, was only thought of as a form of deviant behavior and was often swept under the rug. While noble in its cause, it conflated gender expression and roles with sexuality and failed to separate societal notions of same-sex sexuality from pederasty. Sexual inversion theory and the work of early psychiatrists (see: Sigmund Freud) also placed a lot of emphasis on the environmental factors that might shape sexuality.
The culmination of religious conservatism and conjectures from social scientists of that era resulted in the idea that (A) same-sex sexuality and gender expression that deviated from what was considered “standard” were the same thing, (B) these behaviors were not inherent and, therefore, either a set of reversible choices or a result of something that went wrong during childhood and (C) they were indicative of sickness, sexual perversion and predation of the highest order. The stigma placed on occupying any space on the gender or sexual spectrum that wasn’t rigidly adherent to the cis-heteronormative status quo was subjective and context dependent (as it continues to be), but could be and often was absolutely dire. Notions of what is meant to be a man and what it meant to be a woman at this time were effectively under the purview of medicine, law and religion — and the beauty industry marketed its wares accordingly.
Rigid gender expectations still exist, but they slowly began to erode over the course of the 20th century. The first glint of expressive freedom in America’s eye was during Prohibition, when many urban speakeasies were also places with an anything-goes policy. Harlem ballroom culture exploded in popularity at this time, and artists au courant such as Marcel Duchamp did not shy away from poking fun at gender norms in their work (Duchamp himself very famously had a drag persona called Rrose Selavy). Drag’s relevance in the mainstream consciousness grew over the course of the 20th century and played a part in deconstructing societal expectations by both poking fun at unrealistic gendered expectations and celebrating femininity and freedom of expression. Part of the reason that drag was able to survive in spite of such blatant disregard for an institutionally backed binary was that it was considered performance art. While it still wasn’t treated with the same level of regard as other mediums due to its association with gay culture, it created a space in which the concept of a man throwing on a little pressed powder wasn’t so alien.
Cinema’s march to ubiquity as the most popular form of entertainment also re-indoctrinated the concept of the idealized male. It was no secret that the likes of James Dean and Cary Grant wore foundation on screen, and while other masculine attributes were reinforced by this medium, gliding in the background of “washing your face makes you gay” culture was an aesthetic standard that could be achieved by wearing makeup. On the other end of the spectrum, stage performers, who were undoubtedly influenced by drag queens and attitude shifts brought on by the gay liberation and feminist movements of the late ’60s and early ’70s, blew the lid off of what the mainstream consumer could expect to see from a visual standpoint.
An entirely separate online drawl belongs to the influence that David Bowie, Prince, Siouxsie Sioux, Boy George and their ilk had on creative expression. Punk, glam-rock and other movements of the time spawned artists that went beyond enhancing their own features or smearing kohl in their waterline for a touch of externalized melancholy. Pigment became a vehicle to forge new identities that could change over time.
Stage personas championed by these idols were about exploration in every sense, often blowing the roof off of gendered norms and creating something entirely alien. They were about materializing ideas and recovering a sense of agency over what people can present to the world around them. Though the concepts put forward by wildly famous artists were tangental at best to the general public, their popularity indicated that people were ready to embrace the idea that visual communication is not attached to sex or gender identity. Though it was motivated by rebellion to his record label, Prince briefly changing his name to a symbol that fused gender together at the height of his fame best encapsulates the collective work done by entertainers of the 20th century.
Entertainment and other forms of media are both institutions of influence and societal barometers when it comes to group dynamics like representation, stigma and realms of acceptability. Time’s arrow has marched forward into the era of information, in which technology has both redefined media and agents of influence to mean almost anything and allowed it to act much more quickly. People with access to the internet are flooded with content on a daily basis and the visibility that content has created has been a huge catalyst for the expansion of what’s considered “normal.” As social networking has become a platform for people to develop their own personas and have a greater impact on normalization, it has enabled brands and other organizations to function in the same way — both influencing and tailoring their products and brand identity according to their interactions with consumers.
Beauty lines like Milk, Fenty and GCDS have facilitated a wave of inclusivity as well as interaction between industry and the individual, reposting selfies they’ve been tagged in and showcasing MUAs across the gender spectrum. Queer-centric Fluide wears their heart on their sleeve — proclaiming themselves as a “celebration of kinship, love and queer glamour,” reflecting that in the models they work with and the organizations they give back to. Brands having the agency to interact with individuals at an immediate level and act as one themselves, their core philosophy and what they do as companies is becoming more and more central to their success. The words and actions of a company’s founders, as well as those that are given the authority to represent it, are now paramount — companies need to be transparent and consistently incorporate their morality into what they do.
The declining reign of gendered constructs indicate that inviting all creatures to experiment with you is a winning mantra for cosmetic brands. As GCDS founder, Giuliano Calza, put it for The Flow House, “Everyone is battling for gender equality and beauty diversity. I just consider it necessary and something that should already exist, something that should be guaranteed. If you handle it normally, everyone will think it’s normal. That’s why I try to push for beauty and unconventional ideas in my communication.”
Quality of the product, the standards of beauty you set and the people you choose to support ultimately manifest themselves in the groups that will spend with you, or whether they will spend at all.
Beauty lines from luxury giants like Chanel have their reputation to rely on, but their respective social market economy is a rapidly expanding current that will move and shift without regard to it. Symbolizing opulence isn’t a big enough balance to cover a dusty move like taking the same formulas and repackaging them to appeal to fragile masculinity. Boy de Chanel symbolizes an earnest effort to democratize cosmetics, but as one of the premier purveyors of face paint, it would carry a lot of weight if Chanel’s focus was a little bit less “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.”