More than just a pretty face: What beauty trends tell us about the state of the world

During the pandemic, we observed a significant cultural shift as women left their makeup in their vanity drawers and turned to skincare. Self-care became a new imperative.

Today, more of these shifts are happening. With niche micro-trends replacing traditional monoculture, fashion and beauty now reflect not the singular pulse of Culture, but rather its every slight little tremor, like a hyper-sensitive seismograph. Although these small signals are often contradictory and confusing, they all point to larger macro-trends.

Inflation is the ultimate influencer

Retailers reported great sales in 2023, thanks to the Lipstick Effect. Buyers are hesitant to spend on big-ticket items, such as flights, but feel entitled to “little pleasures,” like a new lipstick (as observed by the founder of Estée Lauder, who first coined the term).

The economic slowdown we’ve experienced, coupled with inflationary pressures that have reduced spending power, has had two opposite effects. On the one hand, recession brunettes have chosen to return to their literal roots and forgo their blonde hair colour, as it’s too expensive to maintain. But on the other hand, even this return to a more natural hair colour has been rebranded to sound aspirational. Instead of simply going back to brunette, women now make the choice of dyeing their hair old-money brunette.

Similarly, as women spend less time and money on skin care, they reduce the number of skin care products in their daily line-up. This cutback rebranded as “skin streaming,” has allowed women to regain ownership of the situation.

Furthermore, just as return-to-office mandates are put in place, the office siren look is gaining traction among young women. But once again, we are faced with dual interpretations: This could signal a return to health for the economy, a readiness to go back to the office. Or, it could mean that with less discretionary income due to inflation, women can no longer maintain separate “work” and “non-work” closets, forcing them to combine the two.

Old money brunette, skin streaming, office siren–all of these micro-trends are in a way different expressions of the same phenomenon: women reappropriating and reframing the loss of their economic power amid record inflation. In doing so, they are regaining control.

Smart brands will learn to recognize these emerging micro-trends as they arise and participate in ways that are relevant to customers and consistent with their brand identity.

Freckles, big hair, and the Beyoncé of it all

Larger social movements have also intensified since the beginning of the pandemic. At the macro level, we are seeing more and more people assert their identity and their place in the world. People of Colour, 2SLGBTQIA+, and women’s movements have emerged or intensified worldwide over the past years, often due to their rights being threatened. 

With these larger social movements as their backdrop, some smaller trends have emerged.

Historically, freckles were deemed undesirable and, according to Pliny the Elder of Ancient Greece, “a kind of stain that needed to be removed.” But throughout Western culture in the 20th century, they became more attractive, signifying the ability to lead a leisure life, with ample sunbathing time. Today, thanks in large part to social media, women not only embrace their natural freckles, but learn and perfect makeup techniques to create fake freckles, or even go as far as getting freckles tattooed on their face. Beauty is indeed a boundless area for playful self-assertion. 

A similar swing of the pendulum is also happening in the world of hair. While straight hair has long been the ideal, recent movements see women embracing their natural curls, and more and more women are sharing their own Curly Girl Hair Routines–designed specifically to tease the maximum amount of curls from your hair. It’s gotten to the point where even women who don’t have naturally curly hair invest in products made to create Disco Curls.

Just as skincare made us rethink our relationship to our skin, haircare is hoping to make us rethink our time spent in the shower – be it for a daily wash or a four-hour long everything shower. Early forerunners of the haircare game include Ouai, Gisou and Olaplex. 

At the forefront of this movement is a figure that is both unlikely and unsurprising: Beyoncé. On February 20, Beyoncé launched Cécred (pronounced Sacred), her haircare line. Though she is far from the first celebrity to launch their own hair care line, this is culturally significant because Beyoncé is so in touch with the first signals of tomorrow’s culture. She’s also contributing to the revival of country and cowboy culture, leaning into her Texas roots, with her newest album, Cowboy Carter. Most notably, her cover of Dolly Parton’s classic Jolene has divided listeners and generated discourse about the place of Black artists in Country music. Country and big hair are both keystones of the Texan woman’s identity, so it makes sense that Beyoncé is exploring both of these as she asserts not only her own identity but also Black American women’s identity. What’s interesting here is how beauty and music become catalysts for political expression. 

Freckles, hair care, Beyoncé – all of these are facets of the same desire we have to be ourselves and own our place in the world unapologetically. The long-standing beauty ideal we’ve collectively shared is slowly giving way to a new, diverse, ideal, in which we embrace and celebrate the features that make us unique.

Self-care is for guys, too

As the importance of personal identity increases, the nature of our own identities is also changing. The way we see, describe, and label ourselves is becoming increasingly fluid, as we have become aware of the fact that identity exists largely on a series of spectra. 

This means that the phenomenon of owning one’s identity isn’t restricted to women or those who identify as such. Though men still use fewer products than women—1.8 products on average to women’s 4.9#—younger men are more engaged than older ones in the skincare space.

Newcomer brands are challenging the traditionally feminine view of skincare. Brands like STUFF or Lumin lean into traditionally masculine brand codes (Tone of voice: manly! Packaging: manly! Product names: manly!) to make the category more approachable for men. 

This reflects a larger trend of men kicking toxic masculinity to the curb, as they share videos of them playing princess with their daughters, meal prepping for their working wife or sharing their news anchor makeup routine.

Traditional views of men and skincare/makeup are changing. This is a huge opportunity for brands, even if we’re still far from mass adoption. Overall, facial skincare usage rates have remained steady since 2020. 

All of these signals intersect, build off one another, and sometimes contradict each other. There is no singular, clear message, and every brand must navigate culture according to its own business reality. What will matter most is understanding who you're talking to and how those macro/micro trends resonate with your audience. 

To make sense of it all, get in touch.