If I have to mentally engage with one more aesthetic my head is going to explode, and, weirdly, I’m fine with that. Clean girl, cottagecore, indie sleaze, Y2K, weirdcore, the list is almost endless. My TikTok For You page is bombarded with any and every feminine fashion aesthetic there could possibly be, and just when I think we’re done, another one pops up. My brain aches, but in a good way. Everything seems to be in fashion all at once, which gets me thinking that we could be seeing the ever-accelerating trend cycle finally eat itself. Can we all look cool no matter what aesthetic we best fit? Maybe, just maybe, this overload of aesthetics could drag us all out of a fashion rut.
Clean girl, cottagecore, indie sleaze, Y2K, weirdcore, the list is almost endless. My TikTok For You page is bombarded with any and every feminine fashion aesthetic there could possibly be, and just when I think we’re done, another one pops up. My brain aches, but in a good way.
Why so many all of a sudden?
Aesthetics have, much like the subcultures of the late 20th century, emerged as a backlash against a period of extreme hardship. Punk emerged in the UK as a nihilistic movement amidst the period of mass unemployment and social unrest of the late 1970s, and, much like this period, the early 2020s have most certainly provided a similar backdrop of discontent. I will not mention the dreaded p-word that we have all been living under for the past 2 years, but the darkness and boredom of this period most definitely have had an effect on the quantity and variety of aesthetics we see on TikTok. “Nothing kills numbness like a sensory onslaught,” as Judy Berman put it.
In recent years, it’s not just the sociopolitical world that has been uninspiring, it is also the fashion world. The global success of fast fashion brands such as Fashion Nova, Pretty Little Thing and Boohoo has meant that the clothing market is saturated with items that are increasingly homogenous. Nowadays, there is little variation between brands’ site identity, clothing range or even the influencers who are chosen to promote them. Not only this, fast fashion brands are notorious for stealing designs from both rival brands and small businesses in order to keep up with the newest styles. This plagiarism and lack of diversity has resulted in everyone from Molly-Mae to your little sister wearing the same dress.
Aesthetics are a retaliation against this. Why choose to look the same as everyone else when you could pick a completely different look and stand out? It’s no wonder that, after seeing everyone in the same fits on Instagram, young people now favour picking from a diverse, alternative range of aesthetics in order to express themselves. Whether it be dark academia, e-girl, or 70s aesthetic, people want change.
The sheer number of aesthetics that are prevalent shows just how desperate we are for variety in a world where fast fashion dominates. Our desperation for stimulation has only served to accelerate the already warp-speed trend cycle, with more and more aesthetics cropping up even before the previous one has had its time in the spotlight. This has meant that many of the aesthetics we see on our For You pages exist at the same time, with no individual style dominating over another. Thus, styles overlap and crossover in a way that has never been seen before. Fewer people are dropping everything in favour of the newest fast fashion trend, and are instead drawing fashion inspiration from aesthetics, which feel more timeless. The result is that these aesthetics all appear fashionable at once, and with greater variety to draw from than ever before, cool is no longer limited to one new style. The trend cycle is slowly dying, and I for one hope it doesn’t recover.
Aesthetics all appear fashionable at once, and with greater variety to draw from than ever before, cool is no longer limited to one new style. The trend cycle is slowly dying, and I for one hope it doesn’t recover.
A new, multifarious fashion movement has arrived, with much of the same qualities as the subcultures of the past, yet with a more carefree feel than before. Aesthetics have a much more ‘try on for size’ appeal to them than subcultures, thanks to the large assortment of moodboard-esque videos available to use as inspiration, as well as the fact that these groups are largely internet-oriented, rather than being in-person social groups. Belonging to an online group carries far less of a risk of being excluded for not fully committing to an aesthetic, and thus appeals to a wider audience that would otherwise be unwilling to experiment with fashion. This absence of cliquism is what differentiates aesthetics from subcultures. For example, in the 1970s, you would never have worn safety pins or ripped jeans if you weren’t a punk, however, nowadays you can wear a long, floral dress and feel no pressure to fully commit to the cottagecore aesthetic. What’s more, in the age of social media, no one is accused of being a poser anymore. Since the large majority of us have an online presence, people are far more used to online culture, that is to say dressing up and taking photos for aesthetic purposes. Aesthetics no longer bind people in the same way that subcultures did in terms of values and ideals, so ‘poser’ is no longer – whether you gatekeepers like it or not – an insult you can throw.
Not only does the world of aesthetics feel more welcoming, it also feels larger. In past decades, one subculture dominated at a time, eventually giving way to a new movement, for example, the transition from punk to new wave by the end of the 1980s. Now, with so many in existence at the same time, we seem to be living in a new cultural age, where maximalism rules. More is more in this world, and heterogeneity is now the new cool. It is not one aesthetic itself, but the patchwork quilt of all the aesthetics that is exciting. “Why?” I hear you ask. “Isn’t it all a bit overwhelming? Isn’t there such a thing as too much choice?”
Too much is a good thing…
It is overwhelming, yes, and, maybe there is such a thing as too much choice. It’s confusing to have so much style inspiration on our plates at once. Worryingly, it could be reflective of our ever-shortening attention spans. However, I would much rather be overwhelmed than underwhelmed. With such a variety of styles in fashion at once, there are far more options for all types of bodies to look good. Gone are the days of Y2K toxicity, where a flat stomach was the key requirement to fit in (literally, if you wanted to get into the clothes). Now, if the idea of wearing low-rise jeans fills you with dread, you can pick another aesthetic that better suits your vibe, without feeling excluded from what is considered to be cool. This is not to say that Y2K fashion is still exclusively for skinny people, however, the cultural mood of that particular aesthetic (i.e. supermodel supremacy, heroin chic, fat-shaming) has proven difficult to shake off. Greater diversity in aesthetics means greater body positivity for all, as plus-size people can now simply pick another style that does not centre itself around a specific body type, for example, cottagecore.
Maximalism is having an impact outside of the fashion world, too. Musically, hyperpop has made huge waves, a genre that shares many of the same hallmarks as the aesthetic overload we see on social media, both being highly eclectic movements with a tendency to reanimate styles that have gone out of fashion. In the cinematic world, Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is also causing a stir, with audiences flocking to see the loud, bright, in your face three hour (?!) biopic of The King. My point is, aesthetic overload, and thus, maximalism is worth the sensory overload. The art world seems bolder, more intense, and less rigid thanks to the more is more approach we see nowadays. Inspiration is being drawn from so many different corners of the world and fewer boundaries to what is artistically possible. I think my headache is going.
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