There’s something magical about the way that TikTok’s For You page and SHEIN ‘new drops’ site update at a similar rate. On both platforms, a small flick of the thumb rewards you with piping hot content, often of debatable quality and unclear origin.
A million and one ‘aesthetics’ and ‘cores’ have been trodden over in 2022 TikTok feeds. A non-exhaustive list would include ballet-core (wrap-around sweaters, ribbons, buns, tulle, a touch of blush), indie sleaze (heavy eyeshadow, digital flash photography, ripped black tights, tacky everything), avant-apocalypse (maximalist layering of different textures, with subversive cuts in neutral colours), regency-core (corsets, gloves, pearls, lacing, complaints about Bridgerton costumes), and a terrifying resurgence of 2014 Tumblr soft grunge (skater skirts, knee socks, Doc Martens, and an Alex Turner obsession). When those plastic jelly sandals roll back around, you know we’re in real trouble.
UoA students have noticed this high turnover rate. Annie, an Arts student, is enthusiastic about the never-ending flow of styling videos on TikTok, saying that it’s “pretty exciting to scroll through so many different types of clothes, and see people play with really niche aesthetics.” Bayley, another Arts student, expresses feeling “slightly overwhelmed” by the speed at which pieces become “cheugy.” Tazrin, a Nutrition student, notices that she tends to see a really specific look with “edgy fashion, with leather and neutrals.” She also says that the “clean girl look” has popped up on her For You page. Ben, a Music student, does suggest that the format of TikTok styling feels new, saying it “tends to be more instructional than in the past… content creators seem to gear toward short quick, ‘amp up your style’ advice.” All of these students refer to the speed of the output—a key characteristic of consuming content from the TikTok fashion community.
Trend cycles haven’t always moved as fast as the For You page would suggest. As ready-to-wear clothes in standardised sizes became more widely produced and accessible following the Industrial Revolution, new lines and new trends entered retail stores either two or four times a year. During the second half of the 20th Century, these seasons began to speed up. Fast fashion, as we understand it today, emerged in the 1990s. Brands began to outsource labour and increase production, with garments popping up in-store irrespective of the changing weather or established Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter fashion shows.
Current critique of TikTok fashion communities highlights the harms and wastes of overconsumption. Ben notes that TikTok influencers that he’s aware of seem to be “offering tangible, quick options that align with fast fashion trends.” And we’ve become intensely familiar with the consequences of the fast fashion industry in Aotearoa. Instagram infographics fill our feeds with descriptions of the violated labour rights, worrying environmental impacts, swiping of other designers’ works, and increasing disposal of low quality garments. Of course, we don’t all entirely depend on this model. Plenty of consumers re-wear garments for years and years, consume in smaller amounts, opshop for their goodies, and wear pieces from their family or friends.
These social and environmental concerns surrounding fast fashion and TikTok’s influence are urgent and important. In fact, users within the fashion community are often aware of them, and bring further awareness to them. What is exciting about the production of content within TikTok fashion communities is the way they might actually pose further challenges to the corporations within the industry and norms of styling. Increasing globalisation of the fashion industry means that borders are less of a concern to consumers in New Zealand—even if COVID-19 illustrated that this process is demanding and complicated. With the popularisation of op-shopping in local stores, Depop, or Trade Me searching, consumers can also look to secondhand sources, or even start to incorporate DIY into their wardrobe.
And it’s not as if avid TikTok watchers are passive in their consumption. Tazrin notes that while she enjoys seeing the “edgier” styles on TikTok, she wouldn’t necessarily buy into that aesthetic. She says “my style has a lot more range… I don’t really have a capsule wardrobe in that way.” The options for dress seem to be expanding, and TikTok’s influence cannot be understated.
Comparing the often innovative and exciting work of online fashion communities with SHEIN’s ultra-fast output, as I’ve sneakily done at the start of this article, is a little unfair. SHEIN, as a corporation, is trying to create further demand, and puts profit above social good. TikTok users often express themselves through fashion, challenge existing norms and trends, and engage meaningfully with each other in a community.
The dominant discussions surrounding fashion communities on TikTok tend to discuss the ‘micro-trend’ and the co-dependent relationship to ultra-fast fashion brands. While these are key issues to unpack, this focus may be missing something valuable in this excessive representation of style.
It’s near impossible to define 2022, at this point, with a particular look. The fact that regency-core, inspired by both the 18th Century and 1990s, is ‘in’ at the same time as those 2014 Tumblr looks, shows that there’s some major fragmentation within our markets. Of course, while subcultures are not new, this wide, decentralised mode of ‘trend forecasting’ might challenge concepts of the fashion cycle altogether. The wide range of ‘cores’ and aesthetics that are all ‘in’ at the same time, might leave consumers less keen to jump on the newest thing, instead more excited to delve into a look they feel is more their own.
You only need to look to some of the leading fashion influencers of the moment to see this keen interest in creating a distinct personal style. Mina Le (@gremlita), a rising YouTube and Instagram star, curates a vintage style, pulling from Victorian influences, and mixing decades with mainly second hand pieces. Sara Camposarcone (@saracampz), a TikTok maximalist, brings looks together with Hunger Games-esque extremes. Mira Al-Momani (@Miraalmomani) is a Y2K enthusiast with an eye for emerging designer pieces and slow fashion practices. The appeal of these influencers seems to come from their distinct sense of style and inventive modes of dress, rather than their allegiance to trend cycles.
The best of TikTok’s stylists defy familiar categorisations. They can be highly referential and ironic, or mess with classic (read: discriminatory and outdated) expectations of silhouettes and gendered dress. This lack of care for the impossible fast fashion pace might be a promising sign for the future.
The dominant discussion surrounding fashion communities on TikTok tend to discuss the ‘micro-trend’ and the undeniable relationship to ultra-fast fashion brands. While these are key issues to unpack, maybe we’re missing something valuable in this excessive representation of style. Perhaps the inventive work being done in TikTok fashion communities gives us the social permission to abandon the relentless trend cycles and normative dress codes, and find a style that feels like it communicates something about us.
It might be too utopian an idea, but we’ll need innovative thinking to escape the ingenious marketing of fast fashion companies—and maybe TikTok teens are the people to do it.