Why are we so obsessed with unicorns?

We explore our current fascination with the mythical spiked horse

For a non-existent animal, unicorns sure are getting around these days. Anna Hart explores our current fascination with the mythical spiked horse.

German scholars, when they coined the word ‘zeitgeist’, referring to the ‘spirit of the age’, are unlikely to have had emojis in mind. But if you ever need evidence that something is truly of the moment, a regular fixture in collective imagination and a pop-culture heavyweight, look no further than the gallery at your fingertips.

The unicorn emoji finally appeared in December last year, having been the fourth most-requested new emoji. These mythical creatures are no longer in the clouds: they’ve come down to earth and landed on our slogan tees and Instagram feeds.

Unicorn hair, aka the trend for My Little Pony-inspired rainbow hues, has broadened to include dramatic horn-like braids and tousled, voluminous tresses. Hair that says, ‘Screw reality – my head belongs in the clouds’. Why settle for the natural mane of a horse when you can ascend to the psychedelic realm of the unicorn?

Unicorns are a recurring motif in fashion this season, pawing the peaks of milliner-to-the-stars Piers Atkinson’s edgy baseball caps, dangling daintily on Tatty Devine pendants, and dutifully performing as gilded heels on gloriously OTT shoes by Irregular Choice.

“I think it’s the mystery, the magic and the beauty of unicorns that explains their charm,” says Irregular Choice founder and designer Dan Sullivan. “We’ve been told our shoes are like ‘real-life fairy tales’, and unicorns are the most enchanting and magical of mythical creatures.”

And unicorns are more than a fashion and beauty trend. These pimped-out ponies are cropping up in conversation with increasing regularity as shorthand for rarity, extravagance and general bad-assery. In late 2013, the word ‘unicorn’ was appropriated by the finance sector and applied to software-based start-ups valued at more than a billion dollars; Uber, Airbnb and Snapchat are all prancing around this paddock in Silicon Valley together. More colloquially, phrases such as ‘Bitch please I ride a unicorn’ have entered common parlance, scrawled all over Instagram and sweatshirts. ‘BPIRAU’ is the new ‘S*** Happens’.

Last week it was announced that the weirdly wonderful but niche noughties web series Charlie the Unicorn is being revived following a successful Kickstarter campaign, and advertisers have similarly clocked the unicorn’s mass appeal to millennials. The Harman Brothers, the viral-vid masterminds behind Poo-Pourri’s 37 million YouTube views, have produced a new bog-related clip of advertising brilliance, this time involving a unicorn crapping rainbow-hued ice cream into a new American product called the Squatty Potty. On a less weird and more British note, First Utility harnessed the power of the unicorn to bring us all down to earth with a bump. The message: superior electricity is a myth, so don’t pay unicorn prices for a plain old horse.

It may seem as if unicorns have leapt over the proverbial rainbow and galloped into our collective consciousness out of nowhere, but every trend – even one as fanciful as unicorns – is borne out of a variety of social, economic, cultural and political factors. Five years ago, chastised as we were by global recession and deteriorating international relations – and quite possibly bereft as the Harry Potter films came to an end – it was the no-nonsense, unassuming and oddly reassuring owl that became our talisman, finding itself on everything from Karen Walker jewellery to IKEA cushions. In 2016 we’re over the owl. Political parameters are being pushed by Clinton (imagine a female US president!), Corbyn (imagine a genuinely socialist Labour leader!) and Trump (just… imagine!). Culturally, we’re more than willing to suspend our disbelief for Game of Thrones, Star Wars and Outlander. Socially, there’s been a shift from ruminating on what we can’t have (mortgages, pensions, job security) to focusing on freshly minted possibilities (digital nomadism, micro-businesses, portfolio careers). The unicorn is our new power animal because it gives us permission to dream again.