"In difficult times, fashion is always outrageous." — Elsa Schiaparelli
"Fashion is the armor to survive everyday life" — Bill Cunningham
"Fashion is part of the daily air and it changes all the time, with all the events. You can even see the approaching of a revolution in clothes. You can see and feel everything in clothes." — Diana Vreeland

How Weirdcore and Y2K aesthetics took over TikTok in times of despair

February 16, 2023

What is trending in the fashion world at a particular place and time says a lot about this context and how it is experienced. Fashion holds up a mirror, reflecting the face of our times, our zeitgeist. Recent developments in the industry, such as the exponential advance of fast fashion despite growing awareness of environmental responsibility, show that humans are not perfectly rational, nor irrational. In times of crisis, everything becomes convoluted, polarized, and even more emotionally charged than usual. To illustrate how this presents itself today, let's take a closer look at one particular aspect of the fashion scene: TikTok aesthetics, and what they reveal about playful nihilism, emotional spending, and the outrageous fashion of difficult times. 

A few minutes of scrolling on any social media platform commonly used by Gen Z can reveal a striking paradox hiding in plain sight. The same generation that claims sustainable life to be the only way of living is feeding consumerism habits. Young people are constantly performing for their digital audience and rely on material goods, which many of them can’t even afford, to do so. This situation seems to have arisen as a result of economic crisis, which is closely linked to emotional spending and despair. In this essay, I will discuss how this phenomenon relates to a widespread sense of nihilism by examining two trends that have gained popularity recently.

With the rise of the internet, we have become increasingly aware of the multiplicity of co-existing trends. TikTok, a social media platform, is fertile ground for these trends to bloom and swiftly became the main stage for younger generations sharing their fashion sense — thus aesthetics came into being. 

Nowadays, given the wide variety of clothes available and the rise of individualism, how we dress is taken to be intimately tied to how we feel and what we think. However, if we look at the bigger picture, summing up what many different people are choosing to wear at a specific time, we can get a snapshot of our zeitgeist. Aesthetics always concern more than one single individual, yet have never been so personal. 

The term aesthetics gained a particular meaning on the lips and screens of Gen Z, coming to signify affiliation to specific styles. Embracing an aesthetic goes beyond committing to a specific clothing style — it informs choices of music, decor, books, and movies. Simply put, aestheticizing one's life consists of giving it aesthetic coherence. The craze is not focused on one particular aesthetic, but on the idea of having an aesthetic in the first place. Perhaps as an antidote to our fragmented and diverse world, the aesthetics trend proposes a sense of continuity that appeals to our brains’ penchant for simplifications and patterns. Notably, there are two specific aesthetics that have boomed in recent times: Weirdcore and Y2K. To interpret what they might reveal about society, a closer examination of the trends and what they stand for is needed.

Visually, Weirdcore embraces surrealism by the composition of purposefully low-quality images characterized by their enigmatic texts, exploration of liminal spaces, and the juxtaposition of frightening and uplifting imagery. Weirdcore music includes many of the same elements: low-quality “retro” technology and strange melodic combinations. The result is, in my opinion, nothing short of eerie and discomforting. When it comes to clothes, Weirdcore translates into graphic tees with characteristically “weird” elements such as eyeballs and ominous texts printed in red and unusual accessories like ski masks, candy beads, and anything holographic. In some ways, Weirdcore is a rebellion against the high-efficiency “clean girl” aesthetic that has reigned on the internet in past years. Parallel movements of a similar vein include succubus chic and indie sleaze, both of which celebrate the messy, dirty, and sweaty looks which are gaining popularity. 

Example of Weirdcore. Visual designed by Zeynep Algan.

Another popular aesthetic is Y2K, which stands for year 2000. An element Y2K has in common with Weirdcore is its embrace of “retro technology” visuals, inspired by how the future was imagined in the late ‘90s. That might have been the initial idea behind the flashy aesthetic, but it morphed into something else entirely throughout its development. Y2K is now widely inspired by children’s and teenagers’ media of the early 2000s, such as Totally Spies (2001-2005), Winx Club (2004-2009), Mean Girls (2004), and Legally Blonde (2001). This shows that Y2K is not about remembering the reality of the early naughts, but rather the imagined and romanticized version of it that only ever existed in PG-13 media. These pieces of media received such nostalgia-fueled renewed attention that in 2021, Netflix launched Fate: The Winx Saga, a teenage drama/darker take on the original 2004 animated series. The idealization of this era has been brewing for a while, with not-so-subtle nods to the now cult-classic films mentioned above being dropped in Ariana Grande's Videoclip thank u, next (2018), which is considered to be a reference point in Y2K style. 

Interestingly, both trending aesthetics, as different as they may be, reference the late ‘90s and appeal to a sense of nostalgia for a time that Gen Z barely remembers or wasn't even alive for. Somehow, both the dissolution and confusion of Weirdcore and the nostalgic optimism of Y2K resonate with young people simultaneously. 

The visual diagnosis of youth sentiment today oscillates between depression-anxiety and naïve positivity. In some ways, the contrast between these two aesthetics represents two sides of nihilism: the rejection of meaning and absolute reality. The former is dark, twisty, and satirizes the decaying reality in which it is embedded. The latter is bright, shiny, and consciously blissfully ignorant of the troubles looming outside.

Before going viral on TikTok, elements of Weirdcore and Y2K aesthetics could be seen on the streets of the Tokyo district of Harajuku, famous for its avant-garde youth fashion since the ‘90s. The absurdity of the looks was a marker of independence of the constricting uniform life imposed on Japanese teenagers, who lashed out by proudly parading their unapologetic bad taste. Following in the footsteps of 19th-century romantics, youths in the late ‘90s and early 2020s rejected functionality and opted for extravagance instead. However, by becoming mainstream and being incorporated into mass-consumed fast fashion, what started as a protest against the standardization of society, now seems to feed into the status quo, rather than going against it. 

Another controversy relates to the beauty standards of the ‘90s and ‘00s that are making a comeback through fashion trends. With ‘90s models and cartoon characters as style inspiration, the ideal being promoted is one of unrealistic thinness. The infamous "nothing tastes as good as skinny feels" Kate Moss quote is relevant again. Romantics have long aspired to “sick looks”, equating “melancholia” to artistic substance and interest. We have seen it all, from tuberculosis chic to heroin chic

Although TikTok content moderators are constantly trying to take down content that could incentivize self-harm, their mechanisms are no competition to the savvy of native internet users. A widespread opinion in the darker corners of the internet is that anyone wanting to worsen their mental illness in the name of fashion has the prerogative to do so. They are, after all, “living their truth” and “finding themselves”. Philosopher Charles Taylor might deem such phenomena symptomatic of the rise of expressive individualism, i.e. that today, the path to a good life lies in the ability to connect to one's inner self and express it to the world. There is no one right answer, what matters is having the ability to choose. However, the quest to discover who you are should not come at the cost of safety, much less that of minors.

In typical coming-of-age fashion, zoomers are using aesthetics as a tool for finding their voices, or at least a social group to fit into. This behavior makes them particularly prone to the exaggeration of expressive individualism. Today's aesthetics may be a re-interpretation of ‘90s urban culture sub-groups and teen clique stereotypes, but when being a brain, an athlete, a basket-case, a princess or a criminal doesn't seem to be an option anymore, aesthetics are a more flexible solution, since they are admittedly not about who you are, but how you present yourself. Their stage? TikTok. People might be expressing their individuality, but they are also keenly aware that they are doing so on the internet, the most public of places. What each person posts, sees, and reacts to, contributes to determining the context that is TikTok. Ultimately, they are the ones who determine what is trending.

Currently, many voices are singing the praises of Weirdcore and Y2K, and consequently the era they emulate, the late ‘90s-early ‘00s. Two of the most popular TV shows at that time, and most re-watched now, are Friends (1994-2004) and The Sopranos (1999-2007). These titles could not be more different from each other, the former being a light sitcom in which nothing much happens and the latter a critical take on mob reality and mental illness. It is almost hard to believe that these shows are set in the same time and place: New York / New Jersey in overlapping timeframes. Looking at the most binge-watched shows on Netflix nowadays, we find a similar parallel between popular true-crime documentaries like Tiger King (2020) and mindless reality TV shows like Love is Blind (2020). Then, and now, we experience and seek two sides of nihilism: astonishment and disbelief in reality paired with shutting it all out and pretending that all is laughs and giggles. Balancing the nihilism coin can be seen as a playful coping mechanism — thus the term playful nihilism

In times of crisis, people hold on to small tokens of normality and joy; fashion and beauty particularly. Historically, during periods of economic difficulties, lipstick and nail-polish sales have skyrocketed, and heels have gotten higher. Style is often the last man standing in times of despair. It is not a rational decision; after all, we don't need fashion to stay alive. However, the human way of life does depend on it. How we dress is directly linked to our self-esteem, feeling of belonging, and consequently to our general well-being. 

When uncertainty permeates all aspects of life, fashion is comforting in two ways: one, choosing what to wear and how to spend our money gives us a sense of control over our lives. Much like eating disorders, spending disorders can grant feelings of control; something desperately lacking in present times. Two, it feels good. Finding that rush of serotonin became increasingly important during the pandemic, when reality felt so exceptional that we allowed ourselves to discover what it feels like to be more hedonistic. We ate some extra chocolate, binge-watched a series or two (or three), snoozed the alarm, and bought things we didn't need. Guess what: it's addictive, and that future, when things would go back to normal and we would "be responsible again", never came. When we have a good day, we treat ourselves to celebrate; when we have a bad day, we treat ourselves for comfort — and so emotional spending blooms. However, the relief it provides is fleeting, and what is left behind is the same issue, now compounded by debt. 

Emotional spending increases due to the previously explored widespread feelings of nihilism and despair. Many might not see the point in saving when they are so unsure of what is to come. Of course, that is paradoxical, since financial stability could serve as a cushion when crises deepen. However, the perceived impossibility of any kind of safety net prevents constructive action; instead, a trap is built on the motto "why not?". Why not make my life easier and more pleasurable? Don't I deserve it?

We, like the adherents of both Weirdcore and Y2K, idealize a future in which we are perfectly rational and moral. In such a future, we don't spend beyond our means, don't support any institution that is not completely sustainable, and are as happy and healthy as ever. However, when looking into recent popular TikTok aesthetics, we catch a glimpse of the drawback of this dream: its impossibility. Nevertheless, let's not succumb to nihilism, but instead, look at the dark side as a source of constructive criticism. As long as we are talking about the future, there is hope; we critique because we care.

About the author(s)

Guest author Victória Ferreira interned at FreedomLab while completing her Master's in Cultural Economics and Entrepreneurship at Erasmus University Rotterdam. In her research and writing, Victoria nurtures her expertise in the field she loves most: culture. She investigates how objects and art tell stories and write history, especially when it comes to fashion and heritage.

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