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The Beauty Boys and Changing Gender Fashions

Popular and trendy, "Beauty Boys" are changing fashion's rules. What started out primarily as an urban Western trend is today a global phenomenon.

The singer Boy George, a star of the 1980s

All these changes may seem startling and new, but perhaps this is not quite the way it appears. Louis XIV, king of France, was a man who simultaneously came to epitomize male beauty, elegance, fashion consciousness and power. Trend setter and master strategist, Louis controlled France's political and economic destiny by embodying Adonis for his beauty, Apollo for his art, and Mars for his virile bellicosity.

I have to confess, until recently I had never heard of the “Beauty Boys”.  I now know that beauty boys are males who are makeup artists or who just love wearing makeup. Apparently, they may be straight, gay, gender fluid or transgender.  They have become among the most influential trend setters on the internet. Some of the images of “Beauty Boys” may be surprising, as most of us are not yet used to this new gender neutrality, of “boys” wearing over-the-top  “girls’” clothing and make up, but if we reflect on 21st century trends in gender definition, and indeed on how boundaries of all kinds are being blurred and sometimes burst, we quickly realize that this new gender fluidity may be the reality of the future. In the past we might have used the word androgyny for this development, but that term too, would recall the binary labeling of the outdated past and therefore should be avoided.

A “gender boy”, a man who wears make up

What has caused this new high visibility of the beauty boys? An article in the Huffington Post suggests that with the advent of “Instagram, people who previously didn’t have a chance to express themselves emerged from the shadows because they finally felt comfortable sharing. Maybe it was because they started seeing others like them on social media. Maybe it was because influencers started using the medium to denounce damaging beauty ideals.”
Not only are Beauty Boys such as Jeffree Star, Manny Gutierrez and James Charles extremely popular on the internet, more importantly, they are among the most influential in promoting and selling products.

Arguably this trend started in 1994, when Mark Simpson published an article in GQ that coined a term and made a prediction: “Metrosexual man, the single young man with a high disposable income, living or working in the city (because that’s where all the best shops are) is perhaps the most promising consumer market of the decade…” Twenty years later this same Simpson looks back at the “invention” of the metrosexual male and is surprised that he underestimated its impact. “From the perspective of today’s fragranced, buffed, ripped, groomed, selfie-adoring world, it’s hard to believe that the metrosexual had to struggle to be heard in the early 1990s”.

What started out primarily as an urban Western trend is today a global phenomenon. Practices that used to be strictly identified with femininity and even derided as  utterly frivolous have crossed gender lines and men’s beauty products now account for 20 billion dollars globally, projected to reach 60 billion by 2020. In the Philippines in a recent marketing survey, 84% of men in Manila agreed to the sentiment that “looks are everything.” In Australia the six most popular plastic surgeries for Australian males are nose jobs, eyelid lifts, penile enlargements, ear corrections, face-lifts, and liposuction. The largest demographic of men’s skin care consumers, and by a significant amount, is the Asia Pacific region, making up 65% of worldwide sales.

Through the ubiquity of their images on Instagram and tutorials on social media, the Beauty Boys have vastly popularized gender crossover of all beauty and cosmetic products. This not only gives individuals a new opportunity for self expression, it breaks down barriers and opens up an entirely new consumer base for brands to engage with and teach. In other words, the breaking of gender barriers goes hand in hand with the commercialization, indeed the monetization, of a gender definition.Seeing the new popularity of the beauty boys, Maybelline recruited popular YouTuber, Manny Gutierrez aka Manny MUA as their newest campaign star.  Furthermore, in an unprecedented move, the cosmetics company Illamasque,  appointed transgender model, Munroe Bergdorf as its “face”. Illamasque’s self described mission is as “a brand that promotes the right to experiment and self-express, Illamasqua is proud to support and encourage changing attitudes towards gender barriers within beauty. We encourage our customers & fan base (the Illamafia) to celebrate individuality and go #BeyondTheStereotype”.

All these changes may seem startling and new, but perhaps this is not quite the way it appears. In my opinion  the ultimate “beauty boy” of history  was Louis XIV, king of France who reigned between 1638 to 1715; a man who simultaneously came to epitomize male beauty, elegance, fashion consciousness, and power. Trend setter and influencer par excellence, Louis embodied Adonis for his beauty, Apollo for his art, and Mars for his virile bellicosity. And yet with his long flowing hair, silk stockings, furs, lace, bows and high heels (with red soles, in case you were wondering about the origin of this status symbol)  by today’s standards Louis looks anything but virile in the images that have come down to us. But Louis’s obsession with fashion was more than just esthetic, it was  political and economic strategy for the control of his court and the economic advancement of France.

A portrait of Louis XIV, king of France

Louis XIV’s  shrewd finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, famously said that “fashions were to France what the mines of Peru were to Spain”—in other words, the source of an extremely lucrative domestic and export commodity. Louis XIV ultimately created what today is the haute couture industry, seamlessly joining the esthetic and the commercial, and “combined the incontestable authority of an Anna Wintour with the charisma of a supermodel”. What’s more, another of Colbert’s most effective and far-reaching innovations was to mandate that new textiles appeared seasonally, twice a year, encouraging people to buy more of them, on a predictable schedule, thus insuring an ever-renewable source of income to the industry and to the State.

Further into the reign of Louis XIV, men’s fashions became even more extravagant and in the next century came the dandies, characterized by an obsessive attention to detail in clothing and care of the body. The dandy slept with kid gloves on in order to soften his hands and made sure to educate himself about beauty oils, creams and fragrances. Among the most famous we find Joachim Murat, Beau Brummel and later, Oscar Wilde, while the most famous Italian dandy was Gabriele D’annunzio. The dandy also knew the monetary value of advertisement, as it became common practice for dandies not to pay their tailors, believing that the exposure they gave the tailor by wearing his creations more than compensated him for his work.

As is now evident, the Beauty Boys hardly represent an unprecedented trend. Male adornment has a long established history. In the 21st century we have the quintessential metrosexual and poster boy for male vanity, David Beckham. However, as Simpson noted in his article, the metrosexual is all but obsolete now. We have moved on to what he calls “spornography”, a mashup of sports and pornography.

Anyone who has seen the television commercial in which soccer super star Cristiano Ronaldo gets locked out of his hotel room in his underwear and is rescued by the ogling maid knows what spornography is and realizes that  today both men and women are equally sexualized and objectified, a fact that the beauty industry has lost no time in turning to its advantage.

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