Have aesthetics killed subcultures?

Fashion has been on a wild, unprecedented ride since the start of the millennium. Seasonal collections are long gone. So is the expectation of revisiting them years after purchase, unfortunately. SheIn are churning out upwards of 1000 new listings a DAY and trends come and go in a matter of weeks. The industry is in overdrive. It’s little surprise that subcultures are getting lost in the noise. 

And it’s all on its head. Whereas brands used to dictate what would be in vogue, now it’s largely up to the customer. Gen Z are a prime example of this. Making up a sizable chunk of consumers globally [estimates are around 40%] they’re a commercial force to be reckoned with. They’re less invested in what goes down the catwalk at fashion week and much more inclined to pay attention to what’s trending on social media. As a result, we’re seeing brands opt for ‘realism’ in an attempt to win them over. From cleverly downplayed influencer marketing strategies to runway shows on apps. The pace is faster and the tone is… kind of all over the place?

Portrait of 4 young people together, all are wearing face glitter
By Yan Krukov via Pexels

Gen Z vs Subculture

Research shows that fashion is the number one form of entertainment this demographic spends their money on, even more than gaming or eating out. After all, has there ever been a generation that wasn’t deeply invested in their appearance? It’s a natural part of being in your early 20s. Style has and will always be a crucial part of exploring and displaying your identity.

But is that the only thing that’s natural about this new trend cycle? For all the fashionable young individuals around, the looks are similar and there’s a noticeable decline in any distinct subcultures. Being on trend has never meant the same thing for everybody. What was perfect for the preppy, OG Gossip Girl crowd circa 2007 was a nightmare for the MCR-loving emos at the time. As divisive as these factions were, they were unequivocally unique to themselves. Perhaps the confines of these genres were too rigid to move with the times and they’ve simply been overtaken. But maybe it had a lot to do with the accelerating fashion and content cycles.

So in a world where trends can rise and fall over the course of a month on Instagram, can any true subcultures survive? 

When did it start?

Let’s go back a bit. The concept of ‘teenagers’ only really came to mean anything in the mid-50s. Before that you just had a bunch of adult-looking children or child-looking adults, without much of a claim to the space in the middle. As popular culture developed alongside this new group, so did the tell-tale signs of cliques being formed through musical loyalties.

Punk with a green mohawk, wearing a leather jacket is sitting on a beach
By Nick Fewings via Unsplash

From the swinging 60s of Beatlemania and boho; through the disco and soul of the 70s; past the hair metal and new wave of the 80s; by the Brit pop and grunge of the 90s; then the girl groups and hip hop of the 00s … well, you probably remember the rest. Music and fashion have always gone hand in hand, creating tribal allegiances whose main entry criteria was Looking The Part. There was no way you were going to mistake a BeeGees fan for somebody on their way to go see the Sex Pistols; this distinction wasn’t an accident, it was integral to the sense of ‘belonging’ each group had.

The irony that individuals within these genres all look much the same to outsiders is a criticism that’s long been levelled at youth culture. To the uninitiated, emo and goth are more of less indistinguishable, for instance. But what matters most about these movements is the internal camaraderie, and the fact that those in the know… they know. Being part of the scene has always been of utmost importance to the genesis of counterculture. Whether that was queueing for hours outside gigs or football matches; hanging out in graveyards or shopping centres. Up until the past couple of decades, participation in person was essential. It meant truly living the lifestyle. Now those geographical boundaries have disappeared, opening things up to anyone who’s interested.

And then social media happened…

If you’re old enough to remember the turmoil of choosing a profile song for your MySpace page, you’ll know exactly what comes next. 

Social media led to a flurry of increasingly niche subcultures, with more platforms than ever for people to see and be seen on. Instagram and its image-driven format quickly amplified this when it dropped in 2010. All of a sudden, we hit oversaturation. Suddenly there were about 23 different subsets of indie, a strange chav-emo hybrid was starting to form, and scene kids were… well, yeah. It’s not surprising that ‘normcore’ soon followed, the premise of which seemed to literally just be looking as neutral as possible. That in itself was quite a statement.

Has the colossal shift to online life hurt the authenticity of subcultures? Well, yes and no. The art of gathering in like-minded groups and creating these categories organically has certainly taken a hit.The alarming rate at which iconic bars and venues have been closing down has definitely impacted people’s opportunity to get out and experience ‘tribes’ the old fashioned way. Likewise independent boutiques have suffered over recent years, trampled by both the cost of living and titans like BooHoo and FashionNova. As these brands dominate the industry, it’s little wonder there’s an increasing amount of ‘sameness’ in the way we’re all dressing. 

But there’s now more opportunity than ever to establish and express new styles in the digital world. It’s just different. And a lot, lot faster. 

Subculture -core?

Cottagecore, barbiecore, gorpcore, farmcore, even vacationcore? The internet is a Pandora’s box of aesthetics you’ve never heard of before. Surely these are the new subcultures then, we hear you cry. But again, it’s a yes and no. 

Photo of a band's live show
By Vitalina via Pexels

The notion of these styles as ‘aesthetics’ is at the root of this. With so much of life and socialising being done on visual platforms, it’s become paramount that you look right on a surface level. This youthful self-consciousness itself obviously isn’t new, but the more time we spend online, the more curated we’re becoming. The perfect cottagecore aesthetic for instance is one of floaty outfits and flowery meadows; it alludes to Gunne Sax dresses of the 70s and simpler, rural lifestyles. As delightful as that is, it doesn’t appear to go all that much further. Whereas somebody deeply into indie back in the early-2000s would eat, sleep and breathe the music, the films, the clothes and the social scene itself, aesthetics seem more ephemeral. It’s almost an aspiration, as much as a trend.

There’s a fascinating sense of fancy dress with a lot of these new genres. As if a Pinterest board has come to life; this is how I want to be perceived, the life I want to be seen as having. There’s something more escapist to -cores than the all-too-real world of skaters or hippies. 

And once fast fashion brands pick up the scent, an entire new collection of clothing is ready to drop in a matter of days, ready to ride the wave. It’s proving all too easy for these tropes to be neatly encapsulated [or stolen from independent designers] and sold at terrifyingly cheap prices. The novelty is a powerful factor in driving these sales. As is the pressure to fit in.

Subculture in the 2020s

It feels like we have micro-trends now, rather than subcultures. Whether or not that’s more about exclusive cliques than actual community is up for debate. There’s a lot to be said for being able to search your personal niche on TikTok and connect with like-minded individuals. Networking this way is powerful and accessible. But it does seem considerably more temperamental. When one -core flops and another rises to take its place, is it as authentic? Or have we created a more isolating, fractured set of groups that continues to get more and more disparate? 

In many ways, subculture as we used to know it is the culture now. It’s cherry-picked and reimagined – some might argue diluted – but in typically cyclical fashion, it’s still around. With music less centralised, those original close ties have been cut. It’s increasingly likely that What’s Trending is based around influencers and celebrities, rather than bands. Angsty rebellion now takes the form of loud and proud self expression, in whichever style feels right at the time. 

Someone in a pink dress and black boots stands on a pile of roses
By Cottonbro via Pexels

It’s cheap to buy in

The issue now is the brands exploiting this everchanging zeitgeist. In true chicken-or-egg style, the back and forth between fast fashion and TikTok’s latest aesthetic rages on. Whatever succeeds on one, promptly explodes on the other. With social media’s innate pressure to keep up, people are buying entirely new looks to fit in on an increasingly regular basis. Does a barbiecore wardrobe hold up when farmcore comes around? No? Better shop that handy new collection! This has always been an issue [style may be eternal, whereas fashion dates quickly] but it’s going at breakneck speed now.

The clearly delineated groups and their unswerving loyalty may have evolved beyond recognition, but the inventiveness remains. Now we just need it to be sustainable. The good news is; all of this has been done before. Literally. Shopping secondhand while staying ‘on trend’ has never been easier. The only upside to this constantly evolving landscape is that the preloved market has absolutely every possible vibe covered… especially the ones from just 3 months ago. There really is no need for the immense overproduction to continue. By turning away from the desperate race to adopt each and every new style, we can all cultivate richer and more meaningful aesthetics unique to ourselves. Me-core is the only trend that you’ll never get tired of and it starts by simply asking yourself: which clothes make me feel good? 

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