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McGrath ’24: From trendy to cheugy: the acceleration of TikTok fashion

In October 2021, trend forecaster and TikTok influencer Mandy Lee predicted the return of the so-called “indie sleaze” aesthetic: a call back to the hipster heydays of the mid 2000s and early 2010s. And this predicted 2010s resurgence may be quickly becoming a reality. In recent months, I’ve seen TikTok users replicate Zooey Deschanel-inspired “twee” looks, “Elena Gilbertnormcore from the mid 2010s and the “2014 Tumblr Girl” aesthetic.

Fashion typically adheres to the “20-year rule” — meaning that fashion trends generally make a comeback every two decades. With this in mind, the Y2K revival showed up right on cue, hitting its mainstream stride last summer with the popular “coconut girl” aesthetic. 2021 was all about colorful jewelry, beachy floral patterns, crochet halter tops and that one House of Sunny green maxi dress (or, at least, the Amazon equivalent). But now, just one year later, fashion trends have already moved into the next decade, effectively chopping the typical 20-year trend cycle in half.

If all of these microtrends (or even the phrase “microtrend” itself) sound like a hodgepodge of hyper-specific internet talk, well, you’re essentially correct. In fact, this accelerating trend cycle is a direct consequence of our increasingly online culture. The media we consume doesn’t just reflect our tastes, it actively informs them. And with TikTok’s hyper-specific user experience, online niches haven’t replaced the typical trend cycle so much as they’ve pushed this fashion evolution into overdrive.

TikTok is deliberately engineered to keep its users coming back for more. To say that they’ve succeeded is a bit of an understatement: TikTok has over a billion monthly users, each spending an average of 89 minutes on the platform every day. And for good reason — in addition to being biologically addictive (TikTok literally scratches the same psychological itch as gambling), our TikTok For You Pages actively connect us with the jokes we’re most likely to laugh at and the people with whom we share the most interests. Simply from our engagement statistics, TikTok can infer shockingly accurate demographic information. The result is an astonishingly-specific user experience with an undeniable emotional appeal. It's intoxicating to live in a world that was created just for you. Personally, my own little corner of the internet is one of the few places that feels uniquely mine.

In this way, TikTok is incredibly identity affirming. However, it’s also identity creating. In order to keep us engaged, TikTok’s algorithm is constantly showing us new content. As a result, its recommendations actually shape our future interests as much as they cater to them. And because each user experience is so uniquely curated, the trends we see are almost absurdly niche themselves. While there's certainly some overt social pressure to keep up with the trends, it seems that many of us do so because our tastes have genuinely adapted to suit the latest styles, largely in response to these personalized recommendations. I didn’t know what “coastal grandmother core” was two weeks ago, but today, I think I like it?

This process is honestly a lot like biological evolution: Each living on our own algorithmically generated island, the content we encounter slowly shapes our tastes, opinions and interests. And much like Darwinian evolution, as more time passes and our tastes evolve, the less we have in common with those evolving on other islands. The result? Two groups of people with daily content experiences (and resulting tastes and interests) so unrelated that they’ve essentially become two separate species. For instance, take millennials and Gen Zers. At the beginning of last year, millennials, the same generation that actively prided itself on inventing all things internet culture, were shocked to learn that skinny jeans had utterly fallen out of fashion. Because millennials are much less likely to be on TikTok, their fashion preferences evolved on a much slower timeline. In contrast, as the de facto TikTok generation, Gen Z’s timeline has only been getting faster.

Trends have a natural life cycle: A look becomes popular, the market gets oversaturated and then consumers inevitably crave something new. But now, accelerated by TikTok’s vast user base, trends can oversaturate our feeds in just a couple of weeks. The result is a series of fleeting microtrends that only fast-fashion retailers such as SHEIN and Amazon can even begin keeping up with — resulting in a fast-fashion boom with bleak environmental and human consequences.

In response to these short-lived trends, we’ve had to create an entirely new word — “cheugy”— to describe clothing that’s just slightly out of style. In fact, the trend-to-cringe cycle has become so short that being trendy itself, is well, not very trendy. When trends go from niche to viral in a matter of days, the line between novel and cliché can get pretty blurry. As a result, trends can feel cringey or “chuegy” almost the second they reach mainstream popularity. And this cycle extends far beyond fashion. Words and pseudo-political ideas often go viral on TikTok just to receive inevitable backlash a few weeks later. For example, gaslighting and gatekeeping were once the go-to terms to call out problematic behavior. But now, after being hilariously overused, these watered-down phrases have been reduced to mere punchlines in the “Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss” meme.

Whether it’s fashion or cultural criticism, the pop culture boom and bust cycle has entirely collapsed. Being “on trend” really means being ahead of the curve. So now, the takes need to be hot and the looks need to be novel. When popular ideas inherently seem cheugy, consensus can feel impossible.

It's no secret that TikTok has revolutionized pop culture, particularly when it comes to clothing. And despite the undeniable benefits of this bottom-up approach to fashion, the accelerating trend cycle isn’t without its detrimental environmental and labor-related impacts. In the case of fast fashion, the ideal solution is to ditch the trend cycle entirely — to forget what’s considered “fashionable” at any given moment and stick to timeless pieces. 

While I genuinely love this advice, actually embracing it isn't always that simple. The pressure to adopt a “forever wardrobe” or follow a minimalist lifestyle can sometimes feel just as stifling as the pressure to remain on trend — particularly when our individual identities feel so intertwined with the identity-affirming trends we see online. But rather than expressing these identities through ephemeral microtrends, we might have better luck owning them as elements of our own personal styles — even if it means embracing the cringe as it inevitably comes.



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