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The Rise and Fall of TikTok Aesthetics

The rise and fall of TikTok fashion.

TikTok aesthetics
Credit: Chaay_Tee / Shutterstock

TikTok aesthetics have taken the world by storm, both online and off. But why do we like them so much, how have trends changed over time and where do they go from here?

Honestly? The short answer is they make us happy. Labels such as “dark academia” or “cottagecore” give us a sense of escapism. Though on the surface they seem like purely aesthetic trends, they allow us to present and express ourselves in a way that we see as an ideal. They let us perform what we wish the world was. In many ways, they’re a little like cosplay. Jordan Sealous writes in her article “What’s up with our obsession with “aesthetics”? that “cottagecore is inherently escapism: escapism from hustle culture, from capitalism and discrimination, from technology, into the arms of sustainability, mindfulness, and peace.”

Credit: Iryna Imago / Shutterstock

Engaging with things we find beautiful “elicits feelings of happiness and calm” and gives us a sense of “contentment and hope”. Professor Abraham Goldberg even enacted a study that deemed people are happier in cities that they deem aesthetically pleasing- so maybe the dark academia obsession with old gothic buildings stems from a place that makes sense.

The philosophy of aesthetics has been widely studied since Ancient Greece, with the likes of Plato and Aristotle theorizing it. Much later, it evolved into the fashion world. Fashion trends have been around since the 14th Century, stemming from the elite of the time. Century’s later, just before social media, celebrities and fashion houses dictated trends – think The Devil Wears Prada.

“In the twentieth century, before the ‘social-media’ era was born, fashion trends would, on average, last between five to ten years. These trends would be carefully curated, often employing the use of magazine editorials, fashion shows and red carpet events where a small group of societal elites, models and celebrities would don new styles”.

Micro-trends and Overconsumption: Fashion consumerism inn the 21st Century- Melannie Suriarachchi

The lifespan of these trends, as well as the people that started them, is important. At this point, trends and different styles came around each fashion season, for the Spring/Summer Season, and the Autumn/Winter Season. People kept, and wore, their clothes for much longer, and we had not yet seen the explosion of the fast-fashion industry.

How the Smartphone Changed Everything

Technology then developed so that it seemed that everybody had a camera in their pocket, and social media to upload their photos to. Maria Popova speaks on our new obsession with capturing every moment and experience – photos offered “indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had”. The taboo of outfit repeating increased, and online shopping soon made new pieces more affordable and instant, though unethical.

Before TikTok, fashion trends and aesthetics were found, but not on the same scale. Some people had carefully curated themes for their Instagrams, and posts on Tumblr and Pinterest provided fashion inspiration for users.

Credit: PixieMe

With TikTok though, trends turned into micro-trends, with a short lifespan but large impact. Suddenly, aesthetics were at every turn, such as “dark academia”, “cottagecore”, the “clean girl aesthetic” and more obscure ones like “goblincore”, “model off duty”, or even “coastal grandma”. Though their origins may pre-date TikTok, the platform gave an astronomical rise to these aesthetics, and the subcultures grew quickly.

This is where the culture of fashion trends takes a 180 turn from the fashion houses and social elite. Rather than having to be a celebrity or influential fashion editor, everyday people found themselves famous overnight on TikTok, such as the likes of Addison Rae or Charli D’Amelio. With the vocation of “influencer” becoming a viable route online, the inspiration for fashion and new trends comes from a wider group of people, and in turn, they last much shorter. While trends used to last five to ten years, they now last on average, a shocking three to five months.

It’s no secret that the fast fashion industry has grown quickly and continues to do so. Relying on the exploitation of labor, fast fashion utilizes micro-trends and creates a large amount of waste as a result. According to Cainz, fast fashion produced ninety-five million kilograms of waste from single-use outfits in 2019, with the average person purchasing 60% more clothes, and predicted to increase by another 40% in the next decade.

Credit: Ernest Rose / Shutterstock

With hundreds of dollars Shein hauls all over TikTok, the waste and overconsumption could not be more apparent. The famously unethical fast-fashion company predicts current trends and produces clothing accordingly at an extremely quick rate.

As an example, Harper Rosenberg states that during HBO’s second season of “Euphoria”, internet searches for a black cut-out dress increased by 890% worn by the character Maddy Perez in one scene.

Again, searches spiraled after Kendall Jenner donned House of Sunny’s green Hockney dress in 2020. The piece cost $128, but more importantly, was ethically made. People sought after the dress to the point of pre-order waiting lists and reselling for thousands of dollars. After her post, however, duplicates showed up on fast-fashion sites like Shein for a fraction of the price. Suddenly, everyone had it, and just as quickly, it became both unethical and unfashionable.

Credit: taniavolobueva / Shutterstock

TikTok trends rise quickly and fall swiftly. Some aesthetics, like dark academia or cottagecore, last a bit longer, maybe due to their pre-TikTok roots. But others are loved and forgotten in equal measure. However, their impact on exploitative labor and waste cannot be gotten rid of quite as quickly.

To read more about aesthetics online, check out this article on our websites.

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