It is difficult to scroll TikTok for even a few minutes without being confronted with a Pinterest montage or outfit compilation of the Internet’s latest micro-trend. Whether this is being a ‘tomato’ girl versus a ‘garlic’ girl, or being Lana Del Ray– or Lolita–coded, the internet is constantly producing barely-distinguishable new aesthetics, like an ever-expanding Mean Girls cafeteria. Each of these aesthetics are subtly differentiated; whether that is the utilisation of a particular colourway, a la Taylor Swift’s eras; a clothing brand, such as the Matilda Djerf/Djerf Avenue girls; or just pure vibes, which is the only way I can explain the ‘oat milk-coded’ aesthetic. With these niche micro-aesthetics being created and deemed untrendy within days, it begs the question as to whether we can ever truly identify with them in the first place.
Fashion and aesthetics have always been entwined with self-expression. The idea of ‘aesthetics’ is not a concept of the Internet, but in fact has a history of being a significant marker of identity and self-expression about as long as fashion’s own history. Notably, during the 70s and 80s, fashion was employed by young people to claim their belonging to a particular subculture, including ‘hippies’ and ‘punks’. In this way, dressing according to a particular aesthetics helped people connect in real life, as it indicated a particular lifestyle or ideological identity.
With the rise of social media apps in tandem with the crisis of fast fashion, fashion trends have become less of a way of life to commit to, than a fleeting photo-opportunity to abandon after posting. Particularly with TikTok, which encourages engagement with strangers connected through similar interests via the For You Page, aesthetics have become less about connecting with others, but rather perpetuating what is seen on our screens.
Now, instead of an aesthetic denoting identity, it rather denotes a shallow, temporary conformity. I think the conception of these niche-aesthetics can be traced back to the epitome of 2019 Internet culture: the VSCO girl. Popularised in tandem with the rise of the eponymous photo-sharing app, highly saturated photographs, and the fame of creators with the aesthetic including Emma Chamberlain, the VSCO girl was easily identified by scrunchies,
over-sized t-shirts and pukka shell necklaces. The VSCO girl aesthetic remained the pinnacle of trendiness for around a year, which is about a decade in Internet-trend-time. Inevitably, the VSCO girl became cliche and meme-
ified, and just like the creators who established it, the rest of the Internet moved on. Since then, the aesthetics of internet culture have evolved, moving from clearly demarcated cottagecore’ or ‘dark academia’ aesthetics, to a tightening spiral of niche trends and aesthetics. It seemed as though, even only since 2019, social media users now have less of a focus on conforming to the same trends as their creators, but rather search for their own niche combination within a sea of TikTok micro-trends by emulating multiple aesthetics and styles. Emma Chamberlain, for instance, now clearly has her own personal style, and followers embody her, branding themselves or their outfits as Emma Chamberlain-coded. People have become aesthetics for others to emulate, which is a clear marker of the divide between aesthetics and personal identity.
In many ways, the cycle of niche aesthetics being popularised, pushed, and put aside on TikTok emulates what we are seeing in fast fashion; a constant, cycle of clothes made to be worn once and cast aside, with a new hoard of more up-to-date clothes ready and waiting the next week. But, if aesthetics are supposed to mirror and encapsulate one’s identity, how are they being created and abandoned in such tightening cycles? I think the most obvious answer is the most simple: that they are not real. Or at the very least, they’re too ephemeral to be an identity. This can be seen by how they are posted on TikTok.
In contrast to the VSCO girl aesthetic, which was actively worn by content creators and attached to a certain beach-goer, penny-boarder lifestyle, trendy aesthetics like the ‘okokok’ versus ‘lalala’ girls (inspired by Tyler the Creator’s song See You Again) are shown through contrasting compilations of aesthetic pictures found on Pinterest, or two different but singular outfits showing the differences between the two. There is no personality or identity strictly attached to a ‘lalala’ girl, it is just the vibe being emitted. This is further perpetuated by TikTok’s algorithm, which rewards users for putting trending sounds over their videos, or adding trending hashtags to the caption. In this way, it seems as though TikTok encourages collectiveness, as is the original purpose of aesthetics, but only for fleeting moments of micro-virality.
Similarly, anyone can claim that they are Kendall Roy–coded in a video of them on a particular day (probably wearing some kind of suit, and feeling particularly pathetic or ‘babygirl’-esque). Clearly, it is easier to claim these aesthetics in a moment, rather than employing them or personally identifying with them over the long-term, which is counter-intuitive to the idea of an aesthetic altogether. Thus, if someone can claim an aesthetic only for a video, there is no way it can be indicative of their entire identity. This encapsulates the increasing gulf between ourselves and the images that we present online. There is still clearly a human desire to connect and conform in order to create community even in the digital age, but when it is possible to create an image of yourself in order to connect with others without it being a true representation of the self, a gulf is created within the self, rather than from person to person. The perpetuation through niche aesthetics of this dissonance between the self and the internet image is becoming ever-more apparent as the trend cycles accelerate.
It is impossible to fully emulate Internet aesthetics in reality, because by their very nature they are unsustainable and ephemeral. In other words, the ‘vibes’ of an aesthetic are fleeting; no one can be Kendall Roy-coded throughout their entire lives (unless, of course, you are actively making bids to take over your father’s company). However, with our lives becoming more entrenched in the Internet, and with the rise of virtual realities such as the
Metaverse, it is becoming harder to disentangle the self from the Internet image. Thus, in this contradictory conflict of aesthetics and identity, but the intertwined nature of internet and reality, it is becoming increasingly necessary to ask which one is the true self? Although these micro-trends are relegated almost entirely online, with only fleeting moments in reality, are they the epitome of our generation’s own subculture, the Internet subculture