What’s Up With Gen Z’s Obsession With Picking An Aesthetic?

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Socrates probably would’ve cringed at our modern usage of the term (or at least the phrase “that’s so…aesthetic“) but there’s no denying that Gen Z loves it. Supposedly there’s one out there for each person to proudly display as a descriptor along with a horoscope, an Enneagram type, and a favorite musical artist as badges of identity. It has the same sort of appeal that bite-sized personality quizzes (like the ones that tell you which Kardashian sister you are) have.

Gen Z’s newly coined terms for various aesthetics have snuck into the fashion vernacular. The internet generation took to social media to find inspiration and solidarity within online subcultures, exploring alternative styles and share outfit snaps within a fashion-hungry digital audience always looking to consume the next shiny new thing. We could question why members of Gen Z are so obsessed with picking an aesthetic, but given the communities that have risen up around each one, the answer to “why” seems pretty clear. But how did this all start?

Much of the recent rise in wanting to pick out and identify with a singular aesthetic stems from social media. There’s a niche sector of TikTok that has started to define these aesthetics, even the blip-on-the-radar ones that would’ve faded into obscurity after reaching a popularity ceiling in a smaller town or state before the takeover of virality culture. Case in point? The VSCO girl.

A discussion arose around the origin of the VSCO girl aesthetic after some claimed that it stemmed from a more locally popular style aesthetic in Oregon. The VSCO girl is an easy-going, suburban beach girl who (and this is very important) owns items from brands like Hydroflask, Glossier, Mario Badescue, Fjallraven, Glossier, and Pura Vida. Claiming the VSCO girl aesthetic meant unspoken guidelines on where to shop, what brand of lip balm to buy, and how to post on social media (mainly casual beach photos with vintage filters on the VSCO app).

The aesthetic would’ve most likely stayed local to Oregon without the reach of social media, at most reaching as far as the rest of the West Coast, but YouTube quickly exploded with tutorials and major news outlets started to use the term VSCO girl to pitch their listicle pieces. It became a form of identity beyond clothing, although style played a major role particularly if you wanted to align yourself with the affluent, typically white, carefree ideal VSCO girl who could pull off massive T-shirts worn with barely visible Nike shorts.

The VSCO girl had a short lifespan from 2017 to 2018, but not to fear, as the TikTok videos that explain different aesthetics that viewers could pick from offer an abundance of options. “Tag your friends and ask them to let you know which aesthetic you are!” Be it art hoe, plant mom, fairycore, or Christian Girl Autumn, the TikTok community has made it their personal responsibility to break down these aesthetics and give them names.

The uber-specific fashion formulas for these aesthetic subcultures complete the circle of life when they receive second lives as memes, joining the ranks of other aesthetics that are clearly of a certain time. It’s a reflection of both Gen Z fashion and pop culture — maybe an aged-out aesthetic will become a starter pack meme, a Halloween costume, or just a pop-culture reference that’s understood by an entire generation until the 20-year trend cycle strikes again and that same aesthetic sees rebirth.

While you may not need to know that your preference for baby pink and leather makes you “bubblegum goth,” there are some benefits to these meticulous aesthetic breakdowns. They appeal to those who find themselves drawn to a certain aesthetic but don’t have the vocabulary to describe it — fashion aficionados step in, putting words to style concepts in order to open wide the gates of the fashion community. After all, how can you create a moodboard to manifest your ideal cold-weather closet without knowing which keywords to search on Pinterest? Some on TikTok are even creating videos offering lists of the right search terms to find inspiration photos within different commonly-liked aesthetics.

Or maybe this collective obsession with aesthetics is simply because most of Gen Z is currently under the age of 25, living out formative years of figuring out fashion preferences that may not be directly reflected in the physical communities that they live in. There’s something to be said about knowing that you identify with a certain named aesthetic that others also enjoy. Social media algorithms lend themselves to this endeavor, constantly working to show users the content that they consume the most, and while this can be dangerous in certain spheres (echo chambers are a real thing) it also helps people discover and explore their fashion preferences through social media. It’s accessible fashion education in a new form, available to anyone with a smartphone.

Fashion and identity are at the core of this discussion in the same way that they have always been. Previous generations tore through teen magazine quizzes that tallied up how many times you answered “A,” “B,” or “C” to tell you whether you’re more of a chunky slides or combat boots kind of girl, while Gen Z tags their friends in aesthetic videos on TikTok to find out if they’re more dark academia or light academia. It’s no new phenomenon, just a universal, collective desire to know who we are and to be known.

The micro-trend is a side effect of the internet generation’s inclination towards naming and identifying significantly more new aesthetics than past generations have. A TikTok video could blow up in the blink of an eye, creating yet another micro-trend — a problem that has been criticized for creating unsustainable aspirations of constant buying and consumption thanks to the never-ending influx of new. However, many of these micro-trends have gone macro.

“Cottagecore,” “Coconut Girl,” and “Y2K” have become commonly used style terms by fashion brands describing their offerings, pushing their products higher in the Google search rankings when shoppers google things like “coconut girl hibiscus print halter dress” or “avant basic vintage Y2K low rise mini skirt aesthetic.” It’s no longer the trickle-down system that Miranda Priestly described in her iconic The Devil Wears Prada monologue where she explains that clearance bin sweaters are the product of dozens of decisions from higher-up in the fashion industry. Instead, it’s both trickle-up and trickle-across, as streetwear and social media fashion trends directly impact mass retailers and fashion designers. These aesthetics have become so widely identified-with that they are driving keyword searches and sales, as teens shop to match their current closets to the aesthetic that they’ve chosen to identify with.

Whether you love or hate the idea of a personal “brand,” you can’t ignore the fact that many of the people who younger generations look up to have very clear, branded aesthetics, ranging from alternative e-girl to Texas-based fashion blogger. This isn’t new — Marilyn had an aesthetic and so did Diana, but now everybody from Megan Fox to Emma Chamberlain to Instagram micro-influencers have a specific aesthetic on the social platforms that most of Gen Z is posting on. It’s a horizontal comparison now, as those aspiring to be like celebrities or influencers look to branded aesthetics to elevate their social media profiles as well.

For the fashion industry, it has become all the more important for brands to precisely align with the aesthetic of their target demographic. Most of them accomplish this through social media influencers because if the general Instagram population declares that your brand is Y2K, or minimalist, or (God forbid) cheugy, that defines who it will attract — and who it will scare away. Aesthetics doesn’t just stop at defining fashion. They now can dictate favorite movies, coffee orders, and online shopping habits.

Clothing has always been a way to communicate how we want to be perceived, but social media has amplified the love-hate relationship between fashion and identity. There are overwhelming numbers of aesthetics and brands to shop at so it comes as no surprise that Gen Z is intrigued by the idea of systematizing, naming, narrowing down, and picking a select few for themselves. It’s a way to stay immune to the identity muddle that comes from trying to keep up with all of them, which is both confusing and incredibly expensive.

It’s about owning your place in the ocean of options and finding your people, and knowing that you can play around with more than one aesthetic — maybe you define your style as cottagecore by the sea, or irreverent academia, or 90’s grunge with a Y2K moon. Either way, no matter what you love, there’s an aesthetic out there for you that Gen Z has aptly named, just waiting to be pinned to a manifestation board.

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createdAt:Wed, 15 Sep 2021 19:52:16 +0000
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