For decades, the role of clowns in our society has been debated. Are they joyous beings stirring up barrels of laughter? Or are they the main characters of our nightmares? While some link clowns to childhood birthday parties, others will always associate them with Pennywise, the terrifying entity bunking in the sewers. On the internet, however, clowns are a meme—later resurfacing as a derogatory term after President Joe Biden not-so-subtly used the word to hurl a dig at Donald Trump.
But what goes around will eventually be picked up and redefined by gen Zers on the internet. Today, clowns have evolved from horror and slapstick comedy to an entire identity rooted in fashion and makeup. While their theatrical ties remain intact, their sartorial inspirations are now centred around escapism. Welcome to the vibrant little world of clowncore.
Also known as circuscore and clownpunk, clowncore is an aesthetic surrounding—you guessed it—clowns, mimes and jesters. Sporting overlaps with kidcore, rainbowcore, scenecore, Decora Kei and fanfare, clowncore features visual motifs including circus tents, balloons, confetti, cotton candy, Furbys, inflatable bounce houses and worm on a string.
In terms of fashion, think rainbow stripes, harlequin prints, overalls, suspenders, circus tights, ruffles, oversized collars, bright hair, jester hats and large shoes. Although clowncore has a heavy focus on primary colours, subgenres of the aesthetic include pastel clowncore, neon clowncore and dark clowncore. While the first two on the list can be traced back to key values like joy, humour and positivity, dark clowncore involves eerie motifs aimed to emphasise the mystery, occult and distrust associated with clowns in popular culture.
All of this sounds pretty straightforward, right? But when SCREENSHOT interviewed a bunch of enthusiasts in the community, we realised that there’s more to the aesthetic than what meets the eye.
For Neo, their brush with clowncore unexpectedly blew up on the internet—as one of their looks (the first one in the series above) is currently the first image that pops up on your screen when you Google ‘clowncore’. As someone who’s been interested in the alternative side of fashion for years, Neo admitted to having always tried to define their style. “Personality wise, I’m a very eclectic person and this also translates to several different things in my life, including fashion. So I generally define myself as ‘alternative’ or a ‘Harajuku Kid’,” they told SCREENSHOT, adding how they are also drawn to both clowncore and Decora in the same realm.
Being an admin of the Uruguayan community dedicated to alternative fashion, Neo’s iconic picture was taken at a Valentine’s Day event organised by the members in 2019. “The creation of this look was pretty casual, to be honest. I wanted to do something on-theme but still original,” they said. Following the ‘love fool’ concept—complete with the relevant colours—Neo then made the clowncore pieces themselves in less than a week.
“For me, it was a regular Harajuku meetup and I didn’t expect it to blow up on my niche,” they added. “I do get DMs from people who find my picture on Pinterest or TikTok about the style and it makes me so excited. I think I accidentally nailed the clowncore look before knowing about it and that’s why it got popular but I find it very flattering.”
As for Asbel, a makeup artist whose personal style pivots into a space between clowncore, kidcore and Decora Kei, the former can be channelled with anything from photo editing and home decor featuring clown statues to makeup inspiration and even circus costumes. “Personally, I use the clowncore aesthetic when I really want to make a huge makeup look with a colourful skin base. But my ‘everyday makeup look’ also includes a clown vibe because I use strong red blush on my cheeks and nose,” he explained. Be it on social media or in real life, however, Asbel admitted to receiving frequent remarks like ‘clown’, ‘circus’ and ‘carnivals’ used as slurs to refer to his clowncore-inspired style. Despite all of this, the enthusiast now uses these terms with pride in his daily life.
When I reached out to Swamp, the enthusiast further refreshed my perspective about clowncore. Describing their personal style as ‘kidcore clownpunk’, Swamp admitted to not really subscribing to any labels but taking a lot of inspiration from Japanese fashion, clowns, 90s Club Kids, Kandi Ravers and scene kids. “I’ve always felt attracted to bright colours and I feel a kind of affinity to clowns,” they shared. “As an autistic person, I always felt like the butt of jokes—especially during the peak of ‘cringe culture’ in the mid to late 2010s. And when I started experimenting with makeup, I was mocked for looking like a clown.”
Swamp then mentioned Mr Tumble, a clown from a TV show in the UK featuring kids with intellectual concerns. “References to this character were used against me by bullies as a child,” Swamp admitted. “When I discovered clowncore, it felt like an empowering opportunity to reclaim my own identity and all of these negative experiences.”
If you Google ‘clowncore’ and scroll past Neo’s picture, you’ll notice how each look is a unique take on the aesthetic. While much of this can be credited to its subgenres, clowncore’s overlaps with other aesthetics and subcultures cannot be ruled out. When I asked Asbel about the similarities between clowncore and Decora Kei, and how the makeup artist incorporates both the styles into his personal identity, he started by defining the latter. “Decora Kei is a style born in the Harajuku district of Tokyo, Japan,” he explained, highlighting how the aesthetic incorporates loads of kid accessories and layers of clothing.
“In the beginning, there was Decora Kei based on one colour, like black or pink, but the trend has [since] been bursting with rainbows and that’s what I wear every day.” In terms of the intersections between the aesthetics in question, Asbel pointed out similar veins in regards to the childish vibes and bright hues.
“Both Decora Kei and clowncore break societal ‘rules’ with colours and humour.” — Asbel
Now, although there are no constraints in this aesthetic, what are some of the pointers one should look out for to nail clowncore visually? According to Neo, makeup is an integral part of clowncore. “Something of your look must resemble some kind of clown (there are several but most people associate the aesthetic with circus clowns), so maybe diamond eyes, tears, coloured nose tip or even a clown nose—coupled with other designs,” they mentioned. When it comes to clothing, Neo outlined that most people tend to use intense or neon colours along with balloon-shaped bloomers and sleeves. “Skirts are a good option too,” they continued.
“I don’t think there’s anything standard for tops but collars are a big thing, so go for ruffled collars and big bows. Funky earrings, hats and anything playful can work. I recommend looking for tons of references of actual clowns since it’s a relatively undefined style [at the moment] and maybe you can introduce a new standard for it!”
Over to Swamp, the clowncore enthusiast believes the aesthetic has witnessed varied adaptations across social media platforms. “TikTokers who do clowncore have a slightly different interpretation to what I’ve gotten used to on Instagram,” they said, adding how they essentially equate clowns and carnivals to the aesthetic while TikTok, with 241 million views and counting on #clowncore, is more inspired by the broader alt fashion and makeup styles. On these terms, Swamp lists “bright hues (especially primary colours), circus-y prints like polka dots and candy stripes, frumpy and oversized silhouettes [as well as] obnoxious and over-the-top makeup (especially if it incorporates a red nose and face paint designs seen in [typical] clown makeup).”
Now onto the burning question: Is the fear of clowns, also known as coulrophobia, redefined within the aesthetic as well? Are we all finally prepared to embrace one of our biggest childhood fears, once and for all?
“I was never scared of clowns, so I can’t really comment on this,” Swamp admitted, adding how they believe coulrophobia is largely a social construct and a relatively-recent fear. “I do think a lot of people who experiment with clowncore are queer, mentally ill and neurodivergent—who have perhaps felt othered and/or the butt of the joke their entire lives and turn to clowncore as a way to reclaim this identity.” Swamp additionally outlined an interesting correlation between what society fears and what it laughs at. “I also feel it provides a cloak of androgyny and allows people to experiment with gender presentation in an unconventional way,” they added.
While chatting to all three enthusiasts about the inhibited essence of clowncore, I wondered if there’s a line between what is considered ‘costume’ and ‘couture’ in the aesthetic. “I do think there’s a line, which is not necessarily easy to define but easy to recognise,” Neo explained. “Some of the actual elements of clown costumes are utilitarian or for comedic effect, that’s what’s generally lost on clowncore. Some examples of this are clown shoes and hoop suits.”
In terms of this overlap, Swamp shared, “There are a lot of clowncore creators who create fabulous, elaborate outfits and makeup looks that I imagine wouldn’t be practical in everyday life and are probably just for videos and photos. So I would classify these as a costume.” According to the enthusiast, it’s definitely possible to don a more moderate form of clowncore in daily wear. “Commercially-available clothes, if paired correctly, can create a solid clown-y outfit,” they summed up in this regard.
If you’re someone who’s been reading SCREENSHOT’s coverage on aesthetics and subcultures religiously, you know I won’t let you guys go without due advice on how you can jump on clowncore yourself. So if all of this talk has perked your interests in the aesthetic but you’re too afraid to experiment with bright colours, clashing prints and overall maximalism, here’s what all three members of the community had to say.
“Trying is key,” Neo started. “Find a base, maybe a colourful pair of trousers, and try to build around it. If you find a piece of a clown costume in a thrift or fancy store, try it on, add whatever you think fits and take a picture. I do this for almost every alternative or themed look.” The next step is to note what you’re lacking. This can be an arm accessory or even belts. If you’re confused, you can always refer to the very essence of clowncore: clowns.
“Colours and clashing prints are key to the aesthetic, so don’t be afraid to look silly because it works for this look. But if the attention is what scares you, maybe start inside your house or around friends who support you. If not, alt fashion communities are almost everywhere. If Uruguay has one, I’m confident you can find one near your area.” Neo also mentioned how donning alt fashion in a group eases the experience—all the while having people with more expertise guide and support you throughout the process. “If not, you can always write to me and I’ll try helping out!” they added.
Asbel additionally emphasised the importance of initiating yourself into clowncore, or any other vibrant aesthetic for the matter, one step at a time. “Looks from others can be tough and mean, so it can be easier to begin within a group of friends. That’s how I started wearing alternative fashion a long time ago,” he explained in resonance with Neo. “It’s also easy to find clowncore items at flea markets, charity shops or on second-hand apps such as Vinted or Depop. You have to feel free to wear what you want if you are comfortable and happy with it!”
Swamp also encourages those interested in the aesthetic to do their thing. “Be prepared for some funny looks and reactions at first but you’ll become desensitised to it over time,” they said, adding how the medium is an amazing way to express your creativity and identity. At the same time, the enthusiast recommended to avoid comparing yourself with the standards influencers have created online.
“It takes time and practice to build the wardrobe and makeup skills but if you stick to it you will get there. Do whatever makes you happy and don’t feel constrained by any ‘rules’. There are no rules, only guidelines. To develop your own personal style you have to follow your heart, you won’t get there by just following the trends strictly.”
And if there’s one thing I’ve learnt after speaking to members of several aesthetics and subcultures, it’s that once you find the tribe that matches your vibe, you’ll ultimately learn to love yourself more authentically than ever before. So the next time someone says ‘quit clowning around’, embrace their supposed dig instead of inhibiting your inner class clown. Oh, and make sure to put on a show while you’re at it.