The Secret History of the Unicorn Trend

Mythical creatures have gone mainstream, but they've been right in front of us for a long, long time. Here's why the biggest trend may not be a trend after all.

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The Unicorn Trend Is *So* Old

Those ridiculous pastel Starbucks drinks you're sipping might seem like a novelty, but, sorry, unicorns predate frappuccinos and highlighters by thousands of years. The first depictions of unicorns were made by Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations, and they were notably described in the writings of the ancient Greek historian Ctesias.

Some mistranslations of the King James Bible's Old Testament brought the one-horned wonders into the Common Era. But back then, unicorns weren't quite the pastel, glittery creatures that beauty bloggers and gastronomists alike try to emulate today.

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More modern notions of the unicorn started to appear in the second century. In an allegory from the Christian text Physiologus, a unicorn—not inherently a gentle creature—is tamed by a virgin woman. From there, the mythical creature became an emblem of purity and chastity, which is likely how the fantastical beast gained its association with girlhood. Those psychedelic pink and purple pencil cases you used to cherish feel a little different now, don't they?

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People Have Craved Unicorn Swag for Literally Centuries

Unicorns: the must-have accessory in 1505.

Today's scramble to get a Farsáli Unicorn Essence serum or a Unicorn Frappuccino isn't too unlike the thirst people in the Middle Ages and Renaissance had for all things unicorn-inspired—except, of course, the fact that centuries ago, unicorn products were rumored to be made from actual unicorns.

From the Middle Ages to the mid-18th century, there was a great market for unicorn horn—called alicorn—which were believed to have magical medicinal properties (not unlike unicorn blood in Harry Potter). Physicians falsely promised that alicorn had the ability to cure disease and detect poison, so it was sold as powders and also carved into ornate cups, usually used by royalty. In reality, anything sold as "alicorn" was really just the horn of a narwhal (the unicorns of the sea!), the horns of an oryx, or the tusks of elephants or walruses.

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Unicorns Weren't Always Pink and Sparkly

This depiction of the Japanese quilin was actually inspired by giraffes, which explorer Zheng He first saw in Somalia.

In fact, it wasn't really until the branding efforts of Disney, Lisa Frank, and Hasbro that unicorns received their modern visual identity. In ancient Greece, unicorns looked like horned goats or donkeys. In Japan, they resembled a horned combination of a lion and a dragon. As western civilization mythologized the unicorn more and more, it eventually turned into something that was basically just a horse with a single horn atop its head.

The Current Craze Is a Merging of Old and New Ideas

Admit it—you wanted a folder that looked like this.
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The famous Unicorn Tapestries, woven in the Netherlands at the turn of the 16th century and now displayed in the Metropolitan Museum's New York City Cloisters, show white, bearded unicorns surrounded by delicate flowers. But this creature didn't experience an overt feminization until the '80s, when Lisa Frank rose to prominence and Jeff Bridges and Mia Farrow co-starred in 1982's animated film, The Last Unicorn.

So how does a mythical animal, once resembling dragons and donkeys, become tied to traditional notions of femininity? It's likely a combination of factors: the old Christian allegory about maidens being the only people able to tame unicorns gave the creatures an association with young girls, which has lasted for centuries, and modern marketing has brought out that association in the form of anything shiny (Unicorn Snot glitter), colorful (those sugar-laden Frappuccinos), holographic (Too Faced's Unicorn Tears), and rainbow (unicorn toast).

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Unicorns Aren't a Trend at All—They're a Cultural Stalwart

Are long lines and stressed baristas worth the 'gram? It's your call.

At the heart of the fascination with unicorns, which has kept them in the public consciousness for thousands of years, is a desire to find something rare, special, and magical. While the current wave of unicorn fandom may make unicorns less intrinsically unique than they once were, they still capture a sense of wonder that makes people itch to Instagram and Snap every single mythologically inspired food item or beauty product that comes their way.

Even if a unicorn horn may not offer you any magical cure-alls, if it can bring a smile to your face, have at it—the obsession with unicorns has lasted thousands of years, and it's not going to slow down anytime soon.

Unicorn Essence, $54,

La Crème Color Drenched Lip Cream by Too Faced, $22,

Unicorn Snot, $10,

Where do you stand on the unicorn trend? Let me know @rebeccadecz!

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