Crowd DNA’s Elizabeth Holdsworth considers the cultural impact of men wearing makeup...

In October 2016, CoverGirl Cosmetics signed model James Charles as their first ever male makeup ambassador. Maybelline followed suit in January 2017, announcing YouTube star and makeup artist Manny Gutierrez (also known as Manny Mua) as the latest face of their brand.

These two signings – while a notable innovation for the almost completely female-facing lower price range or ‘drugstore’ makeup industry – not only reflect the persistent increase in the male grooming market over the last decade but also a crucial recent shift in mainstream perceptions of masculinity.

Unilever and Coty (owners of Maybelline and CoverGirl respectively) are making the move toward marketing makeup products to men as well as women. But this isn’t about gender, argues Gutierrez, who has 3.2m followers on Instagram and captions his pouting and perfected full-face looks with statements such as, “I believe makeup is genderLESS” and that “men need more cosmetic recognition”.

Nor is this drag, the social media star is keen to clarify. Manny’s decision to wear makeup is no more costume than the daily grooming ritual of makeup and skincare many women perform. Makeup is purely about creative expression, argues Gutierrez in an interview with Marie Claire. “It’s an art form for me. I’m still confident as a boy and I will always be a boy. I can be confident with bare skin and with a full face.”

Male face of Covergirl Cosmetics, James Charles
Male face of Covergirl Cosmetics, James Charles

The male grooming industry, worth $50bn last year, is experiencing phenomenal growth, not to mention looking thick, luscious and silky. According to the FT, retail sales of male grooming products at Procter & Gamble, including its Gillette brand, are more than $11bn, while Unilever, which sells the Axe and Lynx brands, sold nearly $5bn in 2015.

While in terms of cultural acceptance the industry has found success marketing a plethora of products to men including moisturisers, pomades and body hair removal products, until now makeup has remained an unacceptably emasculating proposition, and remained hidden inside the bathroom cabinet. The idea of a man in makeup has stayed a taboo, like lipstick on the teeth.

Yet, it’s easy to point out that men wearing makeup isn’t quite as ground-breaking as we might initially think. In past centuries, it was common for upper class men to powder and rouge their faces as part of their grooming routine. And while more conservative voices have decried the signing of Manny et al as the “rise of the sissy boys”, it’s not only avant-garde artists like David Bowie, or those at the leading edge of challenging gender norms who dabble in makeup. The President Of The United States himself, while in some areas quite the über-performer of semiotic codes for traditional masculinity, is a dedicated if clandestine wearer of makeup, including tanning products, bronzer and foundation. While it’s unlikely that Trump will dabble with mascara and lipstick, across society as gender identity becomes increasingly fluid, we can expect to see a resurgence in the practice of men wearing makeup, and a wider acceptance of the painted male face in the public’s imagination.

Part of GenderShift, a series exploring how identity is changing in modern times