Elizabeth Brady ’25 is a Public Policy major and an English minor. She loves art, music, movies, and is a member of Alpha Chi Omega. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in the article are the author’s own.
Fringe fashion groups have existed for almost as long as clothes have. Clothes have been used to signal membership to groups, alliance to a cause or, in the least complicated but not least significant cases, personal taste. For most people who dress outside of the norm, fashion is a reflection of their selfhood, it’s a way to convey their inner selves, to control their own visual narrative or to just wear something they think is fun and cool. Fashion is expressive in nature, and in turn, reveals something special about its wearer.
Recently, however, I’ve noticed a difference in how we engage with subcultural or niche fashion. On the internet especially, different fashion subcultures (now commonly referred to as “aesthetics”) are hyper-specific, narrowly defined and easy to copy if you have an Amazon Prime subscription. Want to be a “granola girl?” Buy a Hydro Flask and some Birkenstock sandals. Want to do “ballet-core?” Find some leg warmers, pink flats and a wrap cardigan. “Dark academia?” Get some thick rimmed blue light glasses, a tweed blazer and a copy of “Catcher in the Rye.”
More and more, internet fashion culture has become inexpressive, you don’t have to actually like yoga to be a “green juice girl” you just have to wear the slicked-back bun and gold hoop earrings. It seems like the goal of dressing is not to do what you want, but to pick one aesthetic and perform it as best you can.
The appeal of this is obvious, having an epitomic, cohesive, crystallized style that directly falls along the lines of a pre-ordained “aesthetic” is easier and less risky than developing one yourself. All you have to do is punch a few words into the Pinterest search bar and you can find an entire new look and a laundry list of traits and consumer goods to acquire in order to attain it. And the best part about all of this is that you still get to feel subversive while you do it.
I am aware that this is a rather uncharitable, judgmental and pessimistic point of view, as well as an unoriginal one. People have been whining about “posers” for forever, and in a world where everything is So Bad All The Time, can we not at least just let people do what they want? Sure, people are allowed to do and dress as they please, I’m not going to go snatching cherry lollipops from the mouths of “nymphet aesthetic” enjoyers. I’d just like to point out that dressing within a pigeon-holed aesthetic “code” (even if that code is one not broadly held as normal) is not as creative as people may think it is.
This kind of “consumable identity” (where the construction is largely comprised of consumable goods and has little to no foundation in one’s actual taste) may have existed before the internet but has never before found a better home. Social media marketing created an environment where looking the right way and buying the right thing can literally become your job, which in turn incentivizes looking the right way and buying the right thing. And if there’s basically a pre-existing handbook on how to look and the things to buy, you can easily become the most marketable you that you can be.
I saw someone the other day say that they liked an item of clothing but it “didn’t match their aesthetic.” And I think that this oxymoron is the perfect example of the problem with our current state of affairs. The idea that you would forfeit wearing something you like in order to more carefully and exactly cultivate yourself for consumption is so antithetical to what having a personal style should be. Dressing yourself should feel authentic, the second that the label you’ve attached to your style begins to chafe and restrict it is the moment that you find a new label, or better yet, abandon labels altogether.
In summary and for clarification, I’m not against teenagers on the internet dressing weird, I think that teenagers (and children and adults) should dress weird. And I’m not against people online sharing the things that they enjoy with other people who have a similar personal style, I think that that’s amazing. What does give me pause, however, is when we start to monetize aesthetic assimilation, and we stop valuing truly original personal style. The way out of this quandary is simple, radical and sometimes feels impossible: wear what you like.