The Model Tribes of TikTok

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Since its launch in the US in 2017, TikTok has grown into Ripley’s Believe It or Not of social media platforms: its appeal is largely based on unexpected people, places, and things that its algorithm converts into viral sensations. In the fashion community in particular, it has enabled the proliferation of myriad “style stems”, each with their own visual identity and ethos. “Socially born aesthetics are certainly not new, but over the past year they have drawn the masses under their spell,” said Cassandra Napoli, strategist at trend forecasting agency WGSN. As TikTok usage skyrocketed through the pandemic, these microcosms became one of the main attractions of the app.

Many of these tribes are grouped by a hashtag with the prefix “core”, which (when attached to a noun) denotes a corresponding aesthetic community. In 2020, the pastorally inspired #cottagecore community, known for wearing billowy vintage garments made of lace, paisley, and gingham, dominated while engaging in domestic, rural activities like petting farm animals, baking muffins, or picnicking App. But stranger, more specific identities are really where TikTok shines. Take #Goblincore: this nature-crazy tribe combines fantasy fashion (reminiscent of the hobbit) with “grandpa” sweaters and other goofy garments like suspenders and overalls. TikTok “goblins” usually wear weathered clothing in collision patterns and have a known affinity for frog motifs and mushroom hunting. They are not to be confused with the primary-colored, balloon-filled, LGBTQ-centered world of #Clowncore, whose genderless aesthetic has been modeled on the outfits of mimes, court jesters and clowns throughout history. # Clowncore users have intrigued (and terrified) online users with their maximalist makeup looks, oversized silhouettes, and unruly dyed hair.

The “core” aesthetic, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. Many TikTok-style tribes are amalgamations of bygone musical subcultures such as #EBoy, which combines grunge and emo fashion with anime and video game influences. The look, which usually includes black nail polish, mismatched earrings, split hair, and black and white striped clothing, inspired Celine’s SS21 campaign last year. Other groups are inspired by period nostalgia, like the Ed Hardy, Von Dutch, and Oakley-clad members of the #McBling community who recreate the dazzling flip-phone fashion days of the early aughts. Subcultural styles that were once only found in certain countries, such as the Japanese #Decora (a childish and caricature aesthetic based on excessive “decoration” in the form of layered rainbow accessories and jewelry) thrive in the digital realm where national borders exist obsolete.

Manifesting as a “channel” of themed videos united by a hashtag, these communities are not only easily accessible to all TikTok users, but also dramatically comprehensive. Many have helpful tutorials that explain how to adapt to the aesthetic of your choice. A search for #Darkacademia, a subgroup of fashion inspired by Harry Potter and the college style of prestigious mid-century universities, provides videos of literature students advising viewers on where to buy earth tone vintage turtlenecks, pullover vests and loafers can find. And inclusivity has paid off for infinite specificity. If dark colors aren’t your thing, #Lightacademia is always there. If you are hardworking but also creative, there is #Artacademia. And given the popularity of incredibly precise subsections like #Pastelgoth and #Birate (short for bisexual pirate), there is clearly not too much of a niche on TikTok. “What makes TikTok so special is the ability for people to discover, interact with, and even join niche communities that they didn’t know about before they joined the app,” said CeCe Vu, who runs TikTok’s fashion and beauty partnerships directs.

These tribal styles are more than entertaining cultural curiosities. Their global reach, youth appeal (Gen Z accounts for 60% of the platform’s users), and rapid innovation have all helped make them one of the most powerful trendsetters in the fashion industry. “Just a few hashtags that demonstrate the reach of niche communities are #Cottagecore (5.8 billion views), #Altgirl (1.3 billion views), and #Femboy (779 million views),” Vu said. Not only are these tribes of popular style changing the way people dress, but they are also inspiring a broader cultural shift in our perception of the value (and acceptance) of the alternative style.

Niche aesthetic communities aren’t unique to TikTok, but their performance and popularity on the app feel unparalleled. Staff at Aesthetics Wiki, a digital “encyclopedia of online and offline aesthetics,” said that while aesthetic niche communities perform better on image-sharing websites (since video creation is far more time-consuming), fashion aesthetics are notably the exception . “TikTok is usually one of the better centers for aesthetic fashion on the Internet,” said the Wiki staff.

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