social media microtrends
Alexa Demie wearing the viral cutout dress in 'Euphoria'

Microtrends: Is it time to do away with niche social media aesthetics?

25 Apr 2024 | Updated on: 26 Apr 2024 |By Anna Solomon

In the past, fashion trends would stick around for years, even decades. Now, hyper-specific ‘microtrends’ rise and fall in popularity thanks to an ever-fluctuating algorithm. Are such short trend cycles really sustainable?

Allow me to take you on a trip down memory lane: do you remember when people started dressing like ‘coastal grandmothers’ in 2022? Or, if you really cast your mind back, ‘VSCO girls’ in 2019? How about when the House of Sunny Hockney dress had us all in a chokehold because Kendall Jenner wore it once?

If you’re like me, you will have completely forgotten that these terms ever existed in our collective consciousness. The trend cycle moves so fast nowadays that even the furore around the ‘mob wife aesthetic’, which happened a few months ago, feels like ancient history.

It wasn’t always like this. Before the explosion of social media, in particular TikTok, fashion trends originated on runways before making their way onto the high street, with a little nudge in one direction or another from pop culture and celebrities. Now, trends originate online, and the hyper-visibility of the algorithm means that things move much faster.

Enter the microtrend: the new styles which spawn, seemingly every other week, on TikTok. The pattern is always the same: a term starts trending – because Bella Hadid wore librarian glasses, perhaps, or Maddy Perez from Euphoria wore a cut-out dress (searches for the term surged by 890 per cent after Alexa Demie’s character donned the style in season two). Journalists write about ‘the latest thing taking over our feeds’, which then, inevitably, starts to feel hackneyed and overdone and dies as suddenly as it was born. While the fads of bygone eras may have lasted a couple of years (think the clearly-defined looks of the 1970s and ‘90s), the lifespan of a microtrend may be no more than a couple of months. 

fashion microtrends
Miu Miu's SS22 show

Fashion has been through countless iterations in the last few years. In 2020 it was ‘cottagecore’, which was all about romanticising rural life: going-to-the-farmers’-market-in-a floral-dress sort of vibes. In 2022, that Miu Miu collection and subsequent New York Post article (Bye-bye booty: Heroin chic is back) ushered in the return of Y2K style, which, to be fair, I think we can classify as a full-fledged trend. From this, however, came offshoots like ‘indie sleaze’, the reimagining of MySpace and Tumblr aesthetics as embodied by Kate Moss and Pete Doherty circa 2007. More recently, we’ve seen the emergence of ‘stealth wealth’ and ‘quiet luxury’, which endorse expensive, logo-less clothing – think Kendall Roy’s $525 Loro Piana baseball cap.

I would argue, however, that these looks can be classified as timeless styles resurging in popularity (boho, indie, grunge, minimalism) under a hashtag-friendly name. What I am referring to when I say microtrends is the increasingly obscure ‘aesthetics’ and ‘-cores’ proliferating online.

Stealth wealth becomes ‘old money aesthetic’ – dressing up like a rich person, basically, in Chanel loafers and Ralph Lauren blazers. Mattel’s mighty PR machine spawned ‘Barbiecore’, inspired by the release of Greta Gerwig’s film and helped along by Valentino’s hot pink AW22 collection. This broadened into the ‘girlhood’ trend, which was all about pastel colours, bows and ballet flats, spurred by social media concepts like ‘girl math’ and ‘girl dinner’.

A penchant for youthful, feminine energy gave rise to a host of new, and even more bizarrely specific, microtrends: ‘tomato girl’ entailed dressing like someone who consumes lots of fresh tomatoes, pasta and Aperol while dressed in white linen – a sort of rebranding of la dolce vita with Hailey Bieber at its helm. ‘Coquette’ called for miniskirts, bows and broderie anglaise, inspired by Rococo fashion and Lana Del Rey. ‘Vanilla girl’, meanwhile, was all about white cashmere, mini Ugg boots and dewy complexions – cousin to ‘clean girl’, with her slicked-back bun and gua shua’d face.

Fashion has begun to feel defined by these hyper-niche avatars: Weird girls (?). Clowns (??). ‘Frazzled Englishwomen’ (???). It’s all a bit unhinged – flitting from emulating a cowgirl to dressing like Bridget Jones. We get it, it’s meant to be whimsical. It’s fun and aspirational to exist within these visually coherent worlds. The issue is that it's not altogether harmless. 

Understandably, when it comes to microtrends, brands want a piece of the pie. Last year, beauty brand Refy released a campaign shot on the Amalfi Coast in 4:3 ratio, inspired by the ‘Mediterranean vintage’ fascination that drove the tomato girl trend. Boss named its AW24 collection CorpCore, marking a shift from brands defining trends to lifting collections straight out of social media crazes. Another example of this would be Maison Margiela’s 2024 Couture show, which was a beautiful and irreverent interpretation of the internet’s preoccupation with ‘girlhood’. 

Generally, however, brands do not have the capacity to identify and respond to every fad. Fashion has to be fast to keep up with the demand created by microtrends – literally. Labels like Shein use search and social media data to churn out new designs, going beyond fast fashion, almost, to become ‘real time fashion’ – its consumer-to-manufacturer business model acting as a mirror to breaking trends. As a result, Shein can add up to 2,000 new styles to its website in a single day; for comparison, Zara typically adds this over 30 days. 

Further, if clothes are being rendered ‘cringe’ at the same pace as they rise to prominence, it follows that people are getting rid of their obsolete styles, engaging in a cycle of overconsumption and waste. There was even a TikTok trend of people showing the clothes they regret buying, with one captioned: ‘POV: you were influenced to buy all the micro trends last summer and now you’re disgusted’. The antidote to the microtrend is personal style: curating a collection of versatile, durable staples that can be paired with the occasional fresh purchase to give them a new spin.

Fashion is all about patchworked influences and experimenting with aesthetics, and we love that. But when social media dictates style, it begins to feel less like self-expression and more like an unending, exhausting push towards newness. And when a practice is promoting unhealthy consumer habits, it’s time to rethink.

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