The curation of identity through online aesthetics
When you live in a hyper-consumeristic culture, your identity feels like something you need to invest in. However, the understanding of oneself and the formation of a continuous character is arguably socially constructed. We feel the need to be validated by our environment to reaffirm our existence as multifaceted individuals with hobbies, interests, and compelling personalities. Communicating this constructed identity visually is an easy way of proving it, even if you’re not quite sure your personality is all that compelling. So, here’s a shortcut: pre-approved, widely used, fully realised Package Personas in the form of style aesthetics.
If you’ve been on TikTok this year, you’ve probably heard phrases like ‘coquette’, ‘cottage-core’, and ‘dark academia’. If they’re coquette, they may enjoy listening to Lana del Rey, romanticising problematic literature like Lolita, watching Sofia Coppola films, and smoking (obviously in a nihilistic and existential way, not a tacky way.) Someone who adopts a cottage-core aesthetic may present themselves online using an earthy or pastel pallet, escape by reading Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice, and obsess over to Taylor Swifts Folklore album. Dark academia girls may engage in ‘Booktok’, reading books like A Secret History by Donna Tartt and watching Good Will Hunting. While many of these aesthetics have started losing popularity in day-to-day life, you’ll still be seeing trends associated with these aesthetics everywhere, often without TikTok’s hyper-specific naming conventions. Some of these curated personas are so hyper-specific that they’re starting to birth hybrid subspecies like ‘ballerina sleaze,’ ‘grunge fairy-core,’ and some bordering on bizarre, like ‘bloke-core,’ wherein middle-aged Stella Artois-drinking football lads have become this generation’s fashion muses.
Not limited to clothing or accessories, these aesthetic trends also apply to a readily tailored collection of items. They have their own mythos, and you can take your pick based on your desired personality: mysterious, ethereal, free-spirited etc. Through the application of these constructed identities that are so widely known online, people around you can guess the type of media you consume and the lifestyle you lead (even if it’s not entirely accurate.) It’s a persona publicly realised through fashion. Arguably, it’s even gotten to the point where you can literally wear your emotional baggage: linen milkmaid blouses and floral vest tops did nothing to deserve their contemporary ties to daddy issues and disordered eating. In adding interests, traits, and personal struggle to the mythos of these styles people can take on a premade and perfunctory personality; one that has about the same substance as a fake plant that you buy from Ikea, in the way that it’s visibly ingenuine and disposable.
But of course, isn’t creating a style persona what the fashion industry’s all about? There’s the Prada woman who’s mature and elegant, and the Miu Miu girl (‘Prada’s little sister’) who’s carefree and naïve. Wearing Vivienne Westwood sends a very different message than wearing Balenciaga. It’s who represents the brand, whether it’s Chloe Sevigny or Harry Styles, that’s everything. Marketing encourages us to see the Chanel girl or the Dior man as someone we should aspire to be, and it’s a persona ripe for taking on the condition that we spend a small fortune on luxury items. It’s worth noting that the spread of certain aesthetics in popular culture comes alongside the sucess of high fashion shows, collections and figures. Miu Miu and the rise in popularity of figures like Lily Rose Depp have played into ‘coquette’s’ success, whilst the Lirika Matoshi strawberry dress has helped elevate the status of the ‘cottage-core’ aesthetic. So, how do we distinguish aesthetic personas from brand personas?
Think of the ‘clean girl’ - or ‘that girl’ alongside the typical Danish influencer vibe - minimalist, neutral tones, natural makeup and not a hair out of place. She loves early mornings, matcha oat milk lattes and writes her to-do lists in perfect handwriting. Her self-care routine is extensive, and her workday is long. It’s not just about who they are or what they look like, it’s their everyday routines, the media they consume, and their personal identity. Somewhere else, the ‘coconut girl’ and her friend the ‘coastal grandma’ drink cocktails by the sea as if it’s an island by the Mediterranean, even if they’re in Southport, whilst the ‘grunge fairy’ dissociates in a forest somewhere. It truly is a package and deviating from an aesthetic persona feels like heresy. There’s not a lot of room for self-expression when your style has been so acutely categorised that threatening the coherence of your wardrobe threatens the authenticity of your personal fashion folklore.
Notice how most of these carefully honed aesthetics are gendered. They’re starting to feel more like feminine archetypes, or another way of placing women into genres. It calls to mind the rise of the term ‘divine feminine’ on TikTok, where dark femininity equals dark colours and light femininity refers to playful pastels. We’re supposed to accept that this aesthetic yin and yang is supposed to convey something about our divine inner strength; it’s the Prada woman and the Miu Miu girl with an added spiritual purpose. Categorising womanhood is often quite reductive - light femininity/dark femininity is a new age Madonna/whore complex, which we may relabel to a niche market as ‘coquette’/’whimsigoth’. Attaching certain traits to these styles feels like a way of classing types of aspirational femininity: ‘that girl’ is the city-based career woman, ‘cottage core’ is the domestic country housewife, and the recent coining of ‘indie sleaze’ shows a revival of the early 2000’s party girl. Really, aesthetic personas are an escapist fantasy, a way of divorcing yourself from a persona you no longer identify with. Moving from one aesthetic to another often involves completely replacing your wardrobe, something that only serves fast fashion companies who capitalise on each new wave of style trends.
In fact, it’s not to be ignored that the ‘something-core’ aesthetic trends were born on TikTok. It’s an app that’s built on categorisation. Most social media algorithms work by pinpointing where a user lies on a multi-dimensional graph and arranging its users into content-based clusters; in other words, TikTok employs the school canteen seating plan like it’s the sorting hat of social interest. It’s very useful for the platform to know what kind of media and products its users consume. Convincing us to choose an aesthetic makes this sorting process much easier, almost as if we are choosing a school clique. Because certain aesthetics are so well established, people pre-emptively know what reactions to certain styles will be: it’s pre-approved so there’s less worry that you’re wasting your money. But it’s easy to forget that the lifecycle of a microtrend is short. There’s the soft launch, the humble beginning, and the celebrity endorsement, but once fast fashion brands get their hands on them they become nauseating. Social media, especially TikTok, is Gen Z’s fashion bible and its naming conventions and trending styles are taken as gospel. Ultimately, we're being sold something in a one size fits all way, and we're being told it's a necessity.
So the question is, what’s your aesthetic? Not anything with a name or mythos, simply the style that fits you. And how do you curate it sustainably? Style is personal, and it takes time to figure out, but when it’s yours, it’s yours. These online aesthetics may still be on the rise, but individually they‘re fleeting, and your longstanding interests have more staying power. Let‘s leave the Package Persona behind.