Culture Wars: “The Great Male Renunciation”

Photograph Source: Eric Sonstroem – CC BY 2.0

I’m not a woman. I’m not a man.
I’m something that you’ll never understand.


National Geographic is a monthly magazine launched in 1888 by the National Geographic Society and, in 2019, was acquired by the Disney organization.  In January 2017, it published a special issue on the “shifting landscape of gender.”  The issue is entitled “Gender Revolution” and offers a collection of telling profiles and articles exploring the complex issue of gender identity among young people across the globe.

The issue posed a critical question: “Freed from the binary of boy and girl, gender identity is a shifting landscape. Can science help us navigate?”

Provocatively, a number of articles profiled male gender identity in the U.S., including a trans boy, a gun-toting youth and a father raising two newborns. These stories suggest the range of maleness beginning to reshape masculine identity in a traditionally patriarchal society.

The issue has a particular resonance for males somewhere between 20 and … years of age. Especially for guys who do not identify as gay, bi or tranny; guys who are “straight,” hip and macho.  Some of these males are beginning to wear cosmetic makeup.

CNN profiled the former baseball player Alex Rodriguez (“A Rod”) and his BlurStick “skincare solution” for men. The Associate Press (AP) reported that on TikTok, videos with the hashtag #boysinmakeup had 225.9 million views and #meninmakeup was viewed 159.5 million times. Traditional male gender identity is being shaken-up.

Compounding these developments, a 2019 survey for the research group, Morning Consulting, found that 33 percent of young men ages 18-29 years said they would consider wearing makeup and 30 percent of men ages 30-44 reported said they’d be open to the idea as well.


Men long wore makeup. According to one report, “from 4000 BC to the 18th century, men wore makeup daily.”  Various archeological studies date male use of makeup in China and Japan to about 3000 BC.  In China during the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC), the word “mei” (beautiful) that is today is used to describe feminine beauty related to the beauty of both sexes.  During the Han Dynasty (202 BC–AD 220) and the Three Kingdoms and Six Dynasties period (AD 222–589) men often used artificial methods to look good.  White face powder first became popular among men and boys during the Han Dynasty.  However, at the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), men’s use of makeup fall out of favor.

In ancient Egypt, men and women used scented oils and ointments to clean and soften their skin and mask body odor. Among the basic ingredients used were myrrh, thyme, marjoram, chamomile, lavender, lily, peppermint, rosemary, cedar, rose, aloe, olive oil, sesame oil and almond oil.

In North America, many Native Americans tribes painted their bodies and faces for rituals, dances and for battle. According to one source, “the designs painted were believed to hold magic powers for protection. Colors and images were also used to make the warriors, chiefs and braves to look more ferocious. Their objectives were achieved.”  In addition, Native people also painted their horses and ponies, decorating them with war symbols or symbols of power,

In Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries upper-class as men and women wore make-up, especially lead-based ceruse cosmetics to whiten their skin.   As one commentator noted, “the aristocrats preferred several meters high wigs and hairdos, false teeth pulled out of corpse’s mouth, and fake eyebrows made from mouse skin.” During this period, men wore wigs including those with two large peaks at the top known as “allonge wigs” as well as more modest one known as “buckled wigs” or “buckled clubbed wigs”.

Profound changes in male fashion coincided with the American (1775-1783) and French (1789-1799) revolutions, a period British psychologist John Flügel dubbed “the Great Male Renunciation” in his 1930s work, The Psychology of Clothes.  He argued:

Hitherto man had vied with woman in the splendour of his garments, woman’s only prerogative lying in décolleté and other forms of erotic display of the actual body; henceforward, to the present day, woman was to enjoy the privilege of being the only possessor of beauty and magnificence, even in the purely sartorial sense.

It was the period in which Queen Victoria I associated makeup with the devil and a feminine attribute.  The French Revolution challenged established notions of privilege by promoting new ideals of meritocracy and equality.  It led to “the abandonment of bright color, loud patterns, high heels, shiny accessories and other types of ostentatious adornment.”  This included makeup and other cosmetics.  It bespoke a new masculinity, one promoting work and usefulness typified by the trim black suit.

The Great Male Renunciation sought to blurr class distinctions, while heightening gender stereotypes. Men’s clothing sought to present men as more rational and practical, while women’s clothing sought to present females as more decorative.

Gilles Lipovetsky, author of The Empire of Fashion, points out:

The neutral, austere, sober masculine costume reflected the consecration of egalitarian ideology as the conquering bourgeois ethic of thrift, merit, and work. Costly aristocratic dress, a sign of celebration and pomp, was replaced by clothing that expressed the new social values of equality, economy, and effort.

He adds, “Since the nineteenth century, masculinity has been defined in contradistinction to fashion, to the ephemeral and the superficial.”


Men wearing makeup is moving from the movie screen to street life.  Many will recall Tim Curry’s role as the cross-dressing alien Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show or David Bowie performing as Ziggy Stardust, both in exaggerated makeup and bold lipstick. Well, male makeup is moving from the exaggerated world of Hollywood to everyday life.

In a 2018 report, The Guardian asked: is makeup for men the next big beauty trend?  It noted that Chanel has launched “Boy De Chanel,” promoting what it identified as “actualization through makeup  rather than the idea of visual enhancement.” Oh, yes, “boy”  stood for “Be only you.” Among the products offered were foundation, lip balm and an eyebrow pencil. It was a product that was about, according to the press release, “breaking free of codes and rewriting the rules.”  The Chanel press office said: “Men should be free to use makeup products to correct or improve their appearance, without calling into question their masculinity.

According to Forbes, the 2021 global beauty and personal care industry, including makeup, fragrance, skincare and personal care, is projected to be a half-a-trillion ($510 billion) industry.  The valuation of the global male grooming products market is all over the place with a 2018 estimated valued it at $11.5 billion while a 2020 estimate reached a value of $69.8 billion.

So, is the Great Male Renunciation finally over?

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at; check out