(Culture Of Core)
The Biggest Trend Of The Moment Is Trends
Meta but true.
Rattling off fashion’s current hottest “trends” can feel something like a Stefon sketch from Saturday Night Live: Barbiecore, night luxe, coastal grandmother, vacationcore, indie sleaze, balletcore. This season has, quite literally, just about everything — and by the time you read this, it’s likely that half of these will be outdated and a new crop of trending terms will have popped up to replace them.
It seems like the only real, reliable trend right now in fashion is, well, trends. The trend cycle has sped up to a dizzying pace, to be sure, and most of that growth is driven by TikTok, where individual creators can single-handedly create the newest thing with one viral video. But the popular social media app couldn’t have done it alone; would you be all that surprised to learn that the COVID-19 pandemic had a hand in creating today’s head-spinning trend landscape?
“TikTok is such an interesting conversation because it’s really accelerated the trend cycle since 2020,” says Cassandra Napoli, a senior strategist at trend forecasting agency WGSN. “Before that, people were living their lives outside, and it was business as usual. Then, all of a sudden, we were all confined to our homes, and there was little else left to do but scroll TikTok. We spent all this time on digital media, and as a result of that, between 2020 up until now, the trend cycle has accelerated at an exponential pace.”
The proof is in the numbers, which are staggering in some cases: #nightluxe took off on TikTok at the beginning of the year and has been used some 47 million times since. The hashtag #coastalgrandmother is now at 167 million views worldwide. And #cottagecore, which first took hold during the pandemic, is holding strong with 10.8 billion views, 2.1 billion of which happened in 2022 alone.
“Aesthetic” Culture Is Now All-Encompassing
The meme-ification of fashion trends isn’t particularly new — recall 2014’s “normcore” phenomenon, for example — but there’s a new pressure to keep up with the punishing pace at which these trends rise and then die out. With more traditional fashion trends, there were always ways for people to incorporate those changes into their own wardrobe; maybe it was a matter of adding in a new accessory or trying out the latest print in a favorite silhouette. That’s no longer possible with these new social media-driven trends, which are meant to encompass an entire lifestyle rather than just one or two key pieces in your closet.
“Before, I could pick and choose what I was participating in, but also still maintain some aspect of my own personal style that I did not have to sacrifice to have any kind of social relevancy,” explains Gabrielle Prescod, fashion director at large for Blanc Magazine. “I feel like that is becoming less and less [true] now, because with all of the social exposure that all these other trends are getting, it’s kind of pushing whatever you are drawn to out of style.”
But how much stock should we be putting in this virtual avalanche of trends? Many of them can be traced back to a single viral video created by a social media user; creator Lex Nicoleta can take the credit for “coastal grandmother,” while “indie sleaze” came from Olivia V. What happens from there, according to Vox senior correspondent Rebecca Jennings, is that other creators see an online success they want to emulate.
“I think there's this race to name the next thing — whether the next thing exists or not is kind of beside the point,” she says. “It’s more just like, ‘I coined this cool term; here’s one example that may or may not actually be happening.’”
The Algorithm Amplification Effect
Once a video like this takes off, it teaches the algorithm that people are interested in that concept — and thus, an actual trend is born. As other creators see a topic going viral, they, too, want to get in on the potential for views. “If you have a decent following on TikTok, like, you are probably burnt out; you are probably feeling like you have to post multiple times a day; you are sick of coming up with ideas,” Jennings says.
“When a new trend comes along, that gives you a video idea; like, ‘Oh, I can do whatever my thing may be — thrifting, beauty, get ready with me — and you can just say, ‘I’m doing a coastal grandmother thing like that,’” she explains. “And you’re hopping on a trend, which might increase your chances of getting looped into the For You page on certain people’s feeds.”
The more traditional media outlets pick up the baton from there, carrying these microtrends from their original platforms to the broader fashion industry at large. In a piece for Vox, Jennings details how a combination of pressure to perform on an SEO-driven Internet and the hustle to be the first to report on something buzzy has created the perfect environment for a flash-in-the-pan viral video to become an actual, industry-influencing trend.
Fashion Industry Trends & Social Media Trends Are Locked In A Cycle
Still, the current trend landscape is definitely tied up in a “chicken or the egg” situation: As much as social media can influence trends happening in the fashion world, the capital-I industry is equally responsible for sparking ideas across various platforms. Prescod cites the still-popular Y2K revival as an example: When a brand like, say, Blumarine mines its own archives to put a new twist on older pieces — low-rise pants, handkerchief skirts, butterfly tops — a fashion-obsessed Internet community will then dig up photos of the originals and find even more things to dredge back up.
“Whatever the fashion industry does, they dictate the trend to a certain extent, and then social media can be like, ‘If this is relevant, remember when this was relevant and this happened,’ and then they take that and run with it,” she says. “That might be more relevant to more masses because social media has a larger reach than our fashion community does.”
This is how we end up in a world where a hit Miu Miu collection can lead to a full-fledged renaissance of those ultra-micro-miniskirts you may remember from your days as a high school student, with one key generational difference: Millennials approach these fashion moments from a comforting nostalgia — “It’s kind of like a big hug, talking about the Backstreet Boys and Y2K and things like that,” explains Napoli — where Gen Z has just enough distance to romanticize the era. (Imagine telling your younger self that your flared dance pants would one day be worth such reverence.)
Yes, Nostalgia Is Moving Faster Than Ever Before
And if it feels like that nostalgia-driven cycle is moving faster than ever now, too, that’s because it is. Once again, technology is responsible for completely shaking up the generational order. Before, it made sense for generations to be spaced about 15 years apart; baby boomers had a completely different childhood experience than Gen X, who themselves lived in a different world than millennials. But even by the tail end of the millennial generation, things had changed just enough to require a new term for those born within a three-year span of the millennial/Gen Z divide (that would cover between 1993 and 1998, if you’re curious): Zillenials. With the rate our current technology is expanding, that’s only bound to break down further.
“The fringe generation is becoming more important because our relationship to technology is so different; it didn't accelerate as quickly then, and so somebody born at the beginning and at the tail end of the generation shared commonalities,” Napoli says. “But if you look at today, the technology that exists for the tail end of Gen Z versus the beginning of Gen Z, it’s so different and their experiences coming of age are going to be vastly different, because by the time the youngest Gen Z reach adulthood, the metaverse might be here.”
The result is a collapse of that nostalgia, which means where trends might have operated on a 20-year cycle before, they’re now having resurrections closer to the 10 to 15 year range. That old style adage about sitting out on a trend revival of something you lived through the first time around is getting harder to live by — and, more importantly, it leads one to wonder whether we’re about to hit rock-bottom when it comes to new ideas.
“Now, I feel like we’re in the late aughts to early 2010s, and I’m just like, we don’t have anything else to reference? We’ve exhausted the ’60s, the ’50s, the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s, that we’re now up into the 2010s to harp back on?” Prescod asks. “It doesn’t feel like we should be that close. If we do not have any original ideas outside of that, I’m concerned about what people are now drawing inspiration from.”
To Participate Or Not To Participate: That Is The Question
We’ve been so exposed to the deluge of new hashtags to try out, it’s hardly a surprise that the idea of participating in trends is starting to feel exhausting to all generations. Gen Z is still interested in trends, but according to Napoli, their approach to these popular hashtags is centered around the idea of finding a community rather than constantly switching up style — hence, those lifestyle-encompassing aesthetics. They even built a platform, the Aesthetics Wiki, to share and name all of the different sub-genres. “Gen Z are really looking to social platforms to find camaraderie, to find themselves and to feel like they know themselves, and part of that is finding like-minded people online,” she says.
“This umbrella term of the ‘core’ aesthetics: If I’m ‘cottagecore,’ what does that mean? That helps me identify with other people who might be like-minded, it helps me find people who share interests and values and things like that,” Napoli explains. “There’s this appetite to curate our lives, and make our lifestyles and who we are fit into an umbrella term so that we can understand it, and we can build community around it. That appetite really is a Gen Z-focused trend, rather than a millennial trend.”
Maybe it’s time for us to think more like Gen Z: Until the next umbrella terms sparks a feeling of community for you — I personally am waiting for #BlairWaldorfCore, but that might just sit under the already-existing #oldmoneyaesthetic (388 million views on TikTok this year) — feel free to sit out the next wave of viral fashion hashtags sure to hit come fall.