Dec 07, 2020
These popular aesthetics have built massive communities online.
Culture+ is an editorial series that looks at trending topics and events with an eye toward what they reveal about our shifting culture. Culture+ Trends is a special installment of the series, where we break down the macro-trends that impact our audiences and businesses.
In Alt Aesthetics, we examine the latest niche subcultures, including dark academia, cottagecore, e-boys/e-girls, and VSCO girls, where people are finding a sense of community—mainly online.
The latest niches coming out of Gen Z, from cottagecore and dark academia to e-boys, e-girls, and VSCO girls, are all thriving virtually, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Followers of these trends use social media to express themselves and build a community—whether it’s via their love for baking and pressing flowers, or something a bit moodier, like reading a gothic novel by candlelight in a library. Especially with the rise of TikTok in 2020, these subcultures have popped up in feeds across the globe, thanks to the platform’s algorithm and easily digestible videos.
“These subcultures are trying to differentiate themselves from the everyday,” says Ari Lightman, professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon. “When you have a niche community of people, you have a shared bond, as opposed to the much larger crowd where you feel sort of lost.”
These trends go beyond 2020 though. “In my experience, trends stay around a lot longer than you think that they will, and all of these probably have been going on longer than we have seen them now,” said Suzanne Wexler, a culture journalist. “I think these have probably been around for a while and are just coming into their names right now.”
For Anna Shishmanov, a 24-year-old from Vancouver, Canada, being part of the cottagecore community goes beyond her love for the whimsical fashion. Cottagecore (also known as farmcore) recalls simpler times, when people made their own bread, grew their own vegetables, and lived in quiet, greener pastures.
“Life is hectic. Everyone is going so fast—places to go, people to see. That is why a simple life is so enticing,” Shishmanov said to ViacomCBS. “This aesthetic allows people to feel a bit more at home with themselves and the nature that surrounds them, even if the rest of their life is challenging.”
Due to the restrictions put in place by the COVID-19 pandemic, many people started to focus on foraging, baking, and growing herbs. Early on in lockdowns across the country, there was a shortage of flour and seeds.
“Cottagecore during COVID is a bit more survivalist,” said Wexler. “It’s about ‘What can I do by myself?’ ‘Can I grow my own vegetables?’ It has practical implications. It’s been growing for a long time, as cities have become very expensive. People are flooding out of cities.”
“In these aesthetic groups, you meet so many like-minded people, or as Anne of Green Gables would say, ‘kindred spirits.’ I love the online community aspect—everyone is so kind. I am very thankful to be a part of it and to have met my own kindred spirits,” Shishmanov said.
Dark academia is “a subculture with a heavy emphasis on reading, writing, and learning.”
“It's definitely deeper than a trend,” said Ellie-Jean Royden, a second year student at University College London. “It’s an expression of self. For me, dark academia really appealed because I am very academic, but it’s evolved from being something that's nerdy and typically masculine into something quite feminine and cool.”
She also said that the community element is very prevalent and TikTok helps to enable it.
“Once you show the algorithm that you love something and that you're really interested, your feed is just flooded with it. You realize that there are so many other people who love the aesthetic and love the way of life,” she explained. “That can feel very comforting. Especially with something like dark academia, which is not very typically cool. It's something that is typically nerdy, but it's a way that I've really loved to dress throughout my teen years, and now I feel as if that's been validated by this community.”
Lightman added that dark academia is particularly interesting because it is rooted in the desire to learn beyond traditional subjects that you learn in school. He tied it to the Harry Potter fans who are obsessed with herbology and potions and are drawn to school uniform ways of dressing.
“That harkens back to this idea of dressing up to go to school with formalized ties,” Lightman added. “It has to do with cosplay and looking academic, but I also think of it as an interesting notion of Renaissance art and Gothic art and studying things that aren't traditional.”
Royden—who considers herself an academic and whose YouTube channel started out to provide studying tips—added that part of the allure of dark academia is the Gothic novels, which she already loved. She was never assigned to read them in school.
VSCO girls got their name from the photo sharing app VSCO, which popped up after Instagram became more commercialized and less about photo sharing.
“As Instagram became more inundated with content, it became harder and harder to see the artistic side associated with it,” Lightman explained. “The VSCO app came on, and the VSCO girls were basically trying to show unique, artistic culture and what can be done. It’s not about being around the commercial creative.”
The VSCO girls are known for their oversized T-shirts, Hydro Flask water bottles, and laid-back, beachy vibes.
“It really goes with the lockdown factor,” Wexler explained, similar to cottagecore. “Everybody wants to be on a beach. Life is so much more casual.”
While some brand names are attached to the trend, like the Hydro Flask, Carmex chapstick, and Fjallraven backpacks, Wexler explained that VSCO girls are actually a more natural version of those label-obsessed Juicy Couture-wearing girls that came before them.
“VSCO girls became popular for the same reasons as the ‘80s valley girls before them,” said Wexler. “Or, the Hiltons in Juicy Sweats in the early 00s. Now I'd say this girl is kinder, gentler, surfer styles. The skinny popular girls are still label-savvy, but are also eco-friendly and are saving turtles.”
It takes extra work to be an e-boy or an e-girl. Similar to the goth and emo looks that were popular on MySpace in the 2000s and Tumblr in the 2010s, this trend is heavily stylized. E-boys and e-girls wear dramatic makeup and often have brightly colored hair, even in shades of neon, a la Billie Eillish.
“It goes back to the stylized factor,” explained Wexler. Doja Cat’s makeup routine—which can sometimes take over an hour for the pop star— is an example of the lengths e-boys and e-girls will go, just to get their look right.
Xepher Wolf, a 22-year-old e-Girl from Minnesota, says the subculture is more fashion-focused. She described it as “internet alternative,” a combination of different influences that can be found online.
E-boys and e-girls also embrace gender fluidity, despite the categorization of “girls” and “boys” in the title. They don’t dress in ways that are traditionally considered feminine or masculine.
“I think e-boys and e-girls are the latest incarnations of Goth/Cosplay/Anime/The Cure coming together,” Wexler explained. “It's a lot like music, but instead the expressions are vibes, outfits, makeup, moods. These subcultures a way of expressing our inner identities and desires, showing the world where we feel we belong (socially, politically). But like music, I suspect not everyone is so die-hard about them. I'm sure many will change from one genre to another depending on their mood.”