“I asked my friends to send me pictures of my aesthetic,” one half of TikTok says before flashing through a montage of similar visuals. Gathered at #whatsmyaesthetic, some users ask others to help define their aesthetic while the rest attach ten pictures off their Pinterest feed as an attempt. The second half seems to be focused on lifestyles more than visuals. They are seen meeting up, suggesting films, sharing Spotify playlists and giving elaborate room tours using dedicated hashtags housed under the umbrella term #subculture.
What are aesthetics and subcultures exactly? Is there even a difference between the two? If so, what should we—as both the audience and the creator—know before jumping on one?
Now, if you’re one of those 2013 Tumblr OGs, chances are that you have your concepts nailed. Over time, however, the two terms have glitched into a confusing alliance. So if you’ve been waiting for a transparent ride to the other side, you’re on the right dock. In a bid to clear out the basics, we asked two active members of the internet’s “one-stop shop” for aesthetics and subcultures to explain.
“There is a lot of overlap between the two,” said Angela Yin, a 19-year-old art history student in California. Introduced to the dynamic world of aesthetics and subcultures while lurking on Polyvore in 2013, Yin explored the depths of Tumblr and Instagram before arriving at the doors of the Aesthetics Wiki in 2020—where she contributed to various articles and became a moderator before stepping down in June 2021.
According to Yin, both subcultures and aesthetics have a shared list of elements including a common fashion sense, media and visual motifs. However, subcultures are noticeably different from the norm. “You’re able to pick out and identify a person from a subculture as being different from an average person,” she said. “Aesthetics, by contrast, don’t really have to be different from the norm.” Yin cited preppy as an example for an aesthetic.
Yin also credited this differentiation to history and the emergence of communities. “Subcultures tend to meet in person, have closer social ties, make zines, have memes, inside jokes and more,” she explained. In this regard, subcultures emphasise social connections when compared to internet aesthetics. To participate in an aesthetic, an individual can just make moodboards, curate playlists and post edits and pictures. “[Aesthetics] don’t require group interaction and don’t facilitate making friends as much as, say, a local meet-up does. However, there is Discord, Facebook groups, etc. for people who do want a closer atmosphere in an aesthetic.” To sum up, the social component for subcultures is mandatory, while for aesthetics, it’s optional.
Another basis of difference is based on the depth of internet aesthetics. “Aesthetics can be a complete mode for fantasy and escape,” Yin said. “A cottagecore blogger can live in a studio apartment in New York City, wear only navy business attire, listen to the music, make moodboards and still be considered part of the community.” In contrast, Yin outlined how you have to actually participate in a subculture to be a part of it—with the qualifiers depending on the subculture.
“For example, I am a Lolita. And in our community you aren’t a Lolita until you have a coordinate (outfit) and wear it out.” In this regard, Yin acknowledged certain elements of gatekeeping within subcultures “where there is knowledge that one should hold and ways to participate before you are considered part of the community.” The ex-moderator also explained how this factor doesn’t affect aesthetics, largely because of the greater element of anonymity. No social interactions here, remember?
In a 2019 article by Vox, the publication outlined how egirls are not compelled to be egirls outside of TikTok. Yin linked this as another potential difference between subcultures and aesthetics. “Most of the big subcultures have a long history, such as goths and bikers,” she said, adding how an egirl’s digital existence may be spurred as a consequence of the rise of social media. “It’s still a fairly new thing that is being researched by sociologists right now.”
Now that we’ve established clear distinctions between the two, it’s time to address the roots of the phenomena. Who pioneers aesthetics and subcultures? What is the research process like? And, in our digital age, where it sometimes feels like everything’s been done before, is it even possible to create our own aesthetics and subcultures from scratch?
When asked about the self-creation process behind both, Yin highlighted the difference between a ‘created aesthetic’ and a ‘non-created aesthetic’ on the Aesthetics Wiki. “Created aesthetics are pages on our wiki that originated there. A single person decided to write a wiki article or create an account and the aesthetic was born.” In contrast, a non-created aesthetic is one which has originated via multiple sources and evolved over time to suit shifts among its audience. In these terms, dark academia is non-created—organically made and developed through online communities influenced by the European patrician society—while dual kawaii was created by a single person, who now has the ultimate authority over the aesthetic.
Yin, however, believes a person cannot create an aesthetic or subculture as there are already pre-existing ones that influence a person. Rather, she described it as a “collection of influences.” “For example, pastel academia is a scholastic focus on kawaii. All of the visuals come from kawaii culture, but they added their own love for learning.”
So are created aesthetics and subcultures merely spin-offs on existing ones? “Deliberately going out and trying to create an aesthetic likely doesn’t work, as the point of aesthetics and subcultures are that they are beyond a single person,” Yin said, outlining how it’s a bit off-colour to claim that the user invented it when all they did was utilise a pre-existing aesthetic to base their own. This is also the reason why created aesthetics are not going to be as unique in the end. “But then again, this could be argued for all art,” Yin added.
What does the ideal process for aesthetic and subculture creation look like instead? “People should just exist on their own, doing their own interests and reblogging or posting the things they like. Others would soon see it, admire it, mimic it and then the trend catches on,” Yin explained. The ex-moderator also noted how aesthetics and subcultures are often created by whims.
“Light academia started as a single Tumblr text post that the creator wasn’t intending to make as an aesthetic. But people who found the single post resonated with it—adding their own photos to the tag and making their own text posts. In the same way, a person can dress a certain way and a friend on Instagram could make a matching outfit. A lot of it is simply play.”
On the other hand, pastel academia’s growth and popularity was not autonomous. “A lot of their content includes directions and their article on the Aesthetics Wiki became quite popular,” Yin explained. Although the rules and guidelines of the platform catch up in some communities, it doesn’t matter for others and can even be perceived as “hackneyed and presumptuous.” Yin therefore labelled the overall creation process as “fairly random and uncontrollable.”
When asked about her advice to those who want to create their own aesthetics and subcultures, Yin explained how the Aesthetics Wiki is moving away from ‘created aesthetics’ on the platform—instead focusing more on documentation. The ex-moderator hence discourages people from writing articles on personal aesthetics.
However, if you are interested in documenting existing aesthetics and subcultures on the Aesthetics Wiki, we’ve got Gibby, a self-described “Finnish gremlin” who authored the folk punk Wiki page. Dabbling in different types of music—mostly mashup, noise and folk punk—Gibby is currently making his own folk punk album along with other musical mishaps.
When asked about his motivation to create the page, Gibby explained how it was a spur of “screw this, if nobody else has written about this, then fine, I shall do it” moment. “I’d actually thought of writing it for a couple of months, but it was only this summer that I decided to do it.”
So what was Gibby’s research process like before writing the article and creating the page? “The research was basically me being hyper fixated on the genre, watching documentaries and reading Wikipedia articles on bands themselves.” Gibby also admitted to researching bands like AJJ, Ramshackle Glory, Days N Daze and The Window Smashing Job Creators when he spotted similarities with the clothing styles described in his article. Gibbythen followed the style guide listed on the Aesthetics Wiki while authoring the page.
In terms of the reception to his article, Gibby noted a positive influx of feedback both online and offline. When asked if the article has fuelled the popularity of folk punk, the author disagreed, further highlighting how folk punk is not for everyone. “This is honestly due to how bad the quality [of the music] tends to be, with it being acoustic and often done by the members themselves—usually on a shoestring budget.”
If you are planning to document and create your own Wiki page, Gibby advises a review of the rules and standards governing the platform as a guide. “Adding all the things in the guidelines isn’t necessary,” he mentioned. “I basically added the points that fit and explained the basics of folk punk.”
Although documenting aesthetics and subcultures is a step into its exposure, are there any particular platforms one can tap into in order to build a community around the same? ‘TikTok, obviously’ one may think like I did until Yin pointed out one factor influencing the process. For starters, the Aesthetics Wiki is not a place for community building, social media is. The perfect platform, however, is difficult to pinpoint since different communities interact in different ways—be it Tumblr reblogs or TikTok meme formats. “Knowing the platform’s MO and expressing yourself from that comes from osmosis,” Yin added.
To date, Screen Shot has spoken to various businesses dedicated to certain aesthetics and subcultures. Be it kidcore brand Blackcurrant Pop or dark academia-inspired Etsy shop Harper & Rafell, both business owners shared the same plans five years down the lane: immense expansions and noteworthy collaborations. But isn’t the life span of such businesses completely dependent on the longevity of the aesthetics and subcultures they’re based on? More importantly, don’t both of them lose their appeal once they go mainstream?
“Subcultures will almost always have a greater longevity because the community has a tighter knit and it becomes part of your identity,” Yin explained. On the other hand, internet aesthetics are ephemeral because of their majorly-gen Z audience. “Teenagers are often known for cycling through different identifiers and leaving different trends,” Yin said, adding how they are destined to grow bored with them. This is also the root of all problems and controversies relating to aesthetics and subcultures. “If a community is too static, it grows stale. But if it changes and evolves, it won’t be the same anymore.”
Then there is the whole ‘mainstream appeal’ part to the conversation when big retailers pick up on certain aesthetics and subcultures. “They lose their glamour when, for example, you find metal and punk shirts at retail stores and celebrities wearing studded denim vests with patches on them (aka battle vests),” Gibby explained. The author labelled this as ‘recuperation’, adding how it is a “horrible side-effect of capitalism” and counter-culture for subcultures like punk.
Over at Yin’s, the ex-moderator outlined how people often use clothing to express connections with a community. But when that factor loses its context, it becomes watered down and all meaning is lost. “For example, a teenager wearing a tweed blazer is connected with dark academia, meaning they probably like to read and be pretentious. But if tweed blazers become popular, it means that the teen is following a trend, not aligning with a community with set connotations.”
There is, however, a plethora of factors playing into the relationships of brands with various internet aesthetics and subcultures. “Indie and smaller brands are okay, but the issue is when corporations try to get in on it in a way that seems disingenuous,” Yin explained. The variety of audience within a subculture is another factor. “Some people in the [cottagecore] aesthetic may emphasise sustainability, anti-capitalism and repurposing. However, others aren’t concerned about that and would purchase a cottagecore piece from H&M, for example.” The list of variables also boil down to whether the owner is part of the subculture or not. Brands which are credited with creating an aesthetic or subculture are yet another factor and topic for part three of this series.
Let’s address one more factor, in case you can’t wait for more insights into the dynamic world of internet aesthetics and subcultures: forecasts. Is it possible to predict the ones that might come up in the future? “Yes and no,” Yin exclaimed. “Trends tend to cycle. For example, cottagecore is the latest incarnation of the pastoral romanticism in 70s revival or 90s shabby chic.” According to Yin, they can also be a consequence of social and political events, or even media.
“Cottagecore became really popular during the pandemic, when people couldn’t go outside and experienced escapism through learning new hobbies. However, a lot of it is random and comes from out of nowhere. For example, dark academia came from The Secret History, a book that was published in the 90s, thirty years before the popularisation of the aesthetic.”
In the next five years, Yin expects the Aesthetics Wiki to become a platform like TV Tropes—a place for people to contribute and use as a dictionary for aesthetics. “We still have a lot of pages that we need and are missing, more depth could be used in articles, etc.” But as more people join and the Aesthetics Wiki’s presence becomes known from word-of-mouth and Google searches, Yin hopes articles will further bloom on the platform—and for the Wiki to become “a place for people to turn to as a resource similar to other internet history websites like Know Your Meme.”
Yin also admitted to stepping down from the moderator position to focus more on research and writing, “rather than monitoring page activity and discussing the Wiki on a meta level.” Leveraging her art history background to find influences, Yin’s special interest now lies in finding the origins and influences of aesthetics—with interviews and trying to find original posts.
Over at Gibby’s, the folk punk artist plans to continue contributing to the Aesthetics Wiki. “Maybe about black metal, because I feel it’s different enough from regular metal culture that it deserves its own article,” he added.
With all of that being said, if you are someone who lives on #whatsmyaesthetic and want tips from the OGs themselves, Yin has got you covered. Having written an entire article for the Aesthetics Wiki, the ex-moderator advises to start by exposing yourself to different things to find out what you do or don’t like. “Collect colours, objects, sounds, sensations, emotions, quotes, textures, fashion details and songs. Then develop your visual vocabulary to express the feeling of the aesthetic,” she said. Knowing certain connotations (for example, tennis skirts denoting “sexy high schooler”) and adjectives used to describe an image also helps the entire process, apart from learning a bit about the background of designs including the history of fashion and art.
And if you still have misconceptions about aesthetics and subcultures, head over to the Aesthetics Wiki page authored by Yin and sift through the elaborate disclaimers listed. If you’re clear with your concept, sit tight, because you’re in for a ride into the dynamic sunset we call ‘internet culture’.
Every summer, we look for a new aesthetic to define our style, or at least influence it enough to update some of our key looks and avoid posting the same outfit twice on our Instagram feed. I know I do it, even though I try to shop as little as possible. You probably do too, whether you want to admit it or not. My point is, as much as we like to convince ourselves that trends don’t dictate our consumption habits or the way we look, they have a crucial influence on what we deem ‘cool’ or not—be that the latest trend in question or its exact opposite.
And this summer, the ‘coconut girl’ aesthetic certainly looks like it’s about to be crowned first place. Where does it originate from and how will it impact your wardrobe this summer 2021?
The fashion trend is mainly defined by the hibiscus flower print, a motif associated with Hawaiian shirts (also called Aloha shirts) that originated as early as the 1920s in Hawaii, along with surf-inspired graphics, puka shells, crochet details, halter tops, and platform sandals in bright colours. As a kid, I owned the ‘Barbie Cali Girl Summer’ called Lea—her skin was slightly tanned, and her hair smelled like coconut. A typical coconut girl icon if you ask me.
You guessed it, the aesthetic initially appeared on TikTok, now home to countless new trends, ranging from fashion to food and everything in between. Just in time for this year’s summer, and after countless COVID-induced lockdowns spent dreaming about the perfect outfits for a tropical holiday, many TikTokers have decided to replace their cottagecore, grunge fairy and egirl statement pieces with a more relaxed and carefree approach.
Think maximalist pastels mixed with youthful tackiness. Surfer girl mixed with pastel Scandinavian interior design—Roxi and Billabong with a touch of House of Sunny femininity, you know? Many fashion experts define the coconut girl trend as an evolution and amalgamation of Y2k fashion and the VSCO girl.
As an aesthetic, the coconut girl highlights a cultural moment where people are daydreaming of a summer that’s both carefree and removed from the troubles of our current times. That’s exactly why fashion is looking joyful and optimistic at the moment. According to Saisangeeth Daswani, head of advisory at trends intelligence company Stylus, it’s also one of the reasons why we’ve seen such a huge burst of colour on the runways recently. “It takes inspiration from beaches and that disposable camera finish,” said Daswani when speaking to NYLON. “It’s about halter tops and miniskirts, pastel colors, glitter tattoos, floral prints, and Claire’s-inspired accessories. It’s equal parts escapism and joy.”
It’s all about chilled out vibes, colourful (but not super bright) clothes, wavey prints and hair, shell necklaces and key pieces featuring hibiscus prints. You can probably already picture the real-life version of my Barbie Lea already—she’s tanned, most definitely smells of coconut and never wears shoes. She spends all her free time on the beach, her diet consists solely of fruits, and she exudes good ‘Sun’s out, bun’s out’ vibes only. Now, take all of the clichés I’ve just listed and try to find a common point between them. Nonchalant, positive, and relaxed are probably adjectives that came to mind, and it makes sense the younger generation would be craving those same attributes for their summer of 2021.
Who doesn’t want a laid-back summer after over a year of non-stop, stressed out panic? If that sounds like a dreamy way to spend your summer, then feel free to indulge in the aesthetic (responsively). If it sounds too cheesy for your miserable ass—no judgement here—don’t you worry, the coconut girl will probably only last a couple of months before we all get sick of it and move on to the next flashy and novel aesthetic.