The Aesthetic is: An Identity Crisis Based on a Wealth Problem

© Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer by Casper David Friedrich

When I was younger I had dreams of becoming a fashion designer but I had no real game plan so I never pursued them. It’s one of those childhood dreams like becoming a professional football player, a pop star, or an actor that once you grow older you realise they might not be entirely realistic (if you don’t have the proper motivation to pursue them that is). One of those dreams that you’ll have but they never actually seem plausible. As if there’s no way of actually achieving them. I never really considered that in order to be a fashion designer you’d have to be able to sew. I just thought it came down to being able to draw designs on characters. However, my interest in clothing and ‘style’ never decreased. As much as I like cool clothing that makes me feel good, I hate spending money on something that is cheaply produced that I know for a fact I will only wear for one season or so. So in my efforts to become a more sustainable person I took up a sewing class at the end of last summer. 

Luckily for my wallet and my ecological footprint, I rarely go out to buy clothes. I’ve hated going shopping for as long as I can remember. Unflattering fitting room lights, always picking the wrong size clothing, queuing for hours before you can actually try on that one pair of clothing that looked cute on the rack. No thank you. I rarely buy a lot of new clothes at once. Usually, I just buy one new piece of clothing at a time that I then make into a new outfit with other pieces of clothing that I already owned. 

Once the pandemic started and I started exploring the internet more and more in search of new hobbies (on top of the one-hundred other neglected hobbies that I already had), I came to the realisation that I could make one of my childhood dreams come true. Surely, I’d have a slim shot at becoming an actual fashion designer, with my lack of skills, lack of continual motivation and limited knowledge on where to even begin, but I figured, why not try and see if I might actually like sewing. I’d looked up numerous videos on youtube on how to thrift flip your own clothes, how to sew your own jeans, etc. I had found my new obsession. In an effort to become a more well developed and sustainable human being I decided to try out some sewing lessons first, seeing as I’d only ever once sat behind a sewing machine when I was maybe 5 years old and wanted to see if I’d actually like sewing before going out and buying myself an expensive sewing machine that I’d then never use. Non-material gworl*. We love to see it. 

© Vox

The first aesthetic that really stood out to me and that I actively tried to adhere to was the 2014 Tumblr-core aesthetic. I have fond memories of everything that surrounded this particular internet sub-culture: the pictures, the quotes, the music, the movies. For anyone that was around on Tumblr or Instagram around this time I’m sure that you’ll agree with me when I say this was the most coherent and pleasing aesthetic to ever exist. However, there were certain unspoken rules that came with trying to fit into this aesthetic. An iPhone was part of the vibe, American Apparel clothes which were extremely expensive, being skinny and white (especially pale), owning a polaroid. The biggest ‘vibe’ this aesthetic gave off was a privileged rich white kid with parental issues that was bored of school. Nonetheless, it was a vibe. 

© Bratz the Movie (2006)

Microtrends move faster than ever because of social media. As useful as it can be to help people get motivated to pursue new hobbies, it is also a breeding ground for new trends that are expected to be discarded in a second. By presenting aesthetics as markers for individualism you enable consumerism because people will always be looking for the shiniest new toy to show off in order to show how they fit into an aesthetic as an individual. An aesthetic is adhering to a more or less predesigned style form that a group of people fits into. The whole e-girl, cottagecore, art-hoe, y2k aesthetics focus on cliques and thus are heavily dependent on exclusion and separation through minor details. From dark academia, to light academia, to romantic academia; the details have the biggest influence on whether you fit in or not. These details change so often because once more people find out about them, the style is no longer seen as exceptional enough. The underlying motivation for an aesthetic is often to differentiate yourself from the collective. With the key to this exceptionality laying in the minor details, consumerism is lurking just around every corner. Microtrends are able to thrive off of this consumerism because in a world with 7–almost 8– billion people, many people are willing to pay a few pennies to be able to do so. Therefore, even the idea of being sustainable by making your own clothes is rooted in an aesthetic that is thriving off of this consumerism.

When you take a look into Western art styles you’ll realise that throughout history people have been obsessed with creating or adhering to a certain aesthetic. Being able to afford a certain aesthetic increases your worth because being able to afford a certain aesthetic is a privilege. If you look at the art and clothing styles of the upper classes during the Renaissance, the Baroque era, or the Romantic period, for instance, you’ll notice that everything is supposed to fit into an idea(l) that mostly rich people can afford. Is it about novelty or is it about showing off to others that you can afford a certain lifestyle? Aesthetics are an exclusionary tool that can help gatekeep certain things from a certain group of people. It’s a privilege to even be able to afford a sturdy beginner-friendly sewing machine. Owning a sewing machine can be part of a whole aesthetic, to begin with. To make your own clothes and to be able to show them off is a privilege mostly rich people can experience. The thrift store is slowly being infested with people that are looking for cheap vintage-looking clothes in order to cut out their contribution in the production of fast fashion. The idea was initially to cut out on the process and to help boost a more sustainable form of fashion. Nevertheless, the fact that it became hip and trendy to go thrifting has also led to an increase in prices in many thrift stores, because the demand for the materials is higher than it used to be. Hence, people of lower incomes that used to go thrifting because they didn’t have enough money to buy new clothes are being excluded from these stores because people of higher incomes have found a new trend to fit into their aesthetic. Making your own clothes or thrift flipping clothes that you found at the thrift store has become part of a sustainability aesthetic that you can only afford if you’re wealthy enough. 

Aesthetics don’t just come down to the way you dress or what you are interested in. There are whole Pinterest boards that garner an aesthetic that you are expected to live up to if you want to fit into it. Of course, making your own clothes, growing your own vegetables, or recycling as much as you can are noble things to strive towards, and they definitely should be encouraged. However, the idea that everyone should be ‘unique’ in a world with seven billion people is an idea that only privileged people can actually spend their time and money thinking about. 

* If you understood this reference then I must advise you to spend less time on the internet, and specifically TikTok. Advice I should take to heart myself.

Written by Marijne Ottenheym

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