Subcultures: The Big Ones
Alternative, Goth, Emo, and Punk may be indistinguishable to someone outside those scenes, but the people within them know exactly what they’re looking at. A crow isn’t going to confuse a grackle or a raven for another crow.
All of these counter-culture movements have stuff in common – they all have music genres associated with them, they were all pointedly against whatever mainstream culture was doing, and they were all made for people who didn’t fit in or didn’t want to. Punks were anti-war and anti-establishment. Emos were frustrated with a society that put looking perfect above genuine human connection. Goths don’t want the relationship with death and tragedy to be so strained.
All of these big ones have also been around for so long that they’ve earned mainstream acknowledgement – punk music written post-Vietnam is as relevant today as it was then, Hot Topic is proof that emo is still around, and older goth stuff may look dated, but it’s not uncool, Addams Family style, all the way back to black and white TV.
All of these subcultures being this old and this popular means that they’re changing as the next generations build their own subcultures within them. See E-Girls and E-Boys, a more recent offshoot of Emo that uses modern fashion to craft the look. It’s also escaped some of the negative associations of Emo, which included self-harm and untreated mental illness. Meanwhile, within goth, there’s now stuff like nature goth and pastel goth alongside trad goths – the focus is still on being goth, and it has the same roots, but it’s all different colors. Cyber-goths and vampire goths live in two different worlds, and they go to two different shows with wildly different music, even though both are technically goth.
Many of these counter-cultures eventually bleed into mainstream, at least a little – popular music from a genre is usually popular because it’s good! See Evanescence, Paramour, My Chemical Romance, Rage Against the Machine, Green Day, Linkin Park, etc. etc. and when it gets exposed to mainstream culture, the subculture grows and splits naturally.
And then social media began connecting people with pictures and music instead of just forums, and the world got both bigger and smaller. Here we see “core” stuff begin to form.
Labeling things helps people identify that thing.
Nightcore is a genre of music characterized by speeding up songs until the singer is very high-pitched and the beat is double or triple what it used to be, so it was more danceable. The term “core” here was coined by the band because they’re the ‘core of the night’, according to Dictionary.com, who also states that “core” was frequently used in reference to music genres – as the band that started the trend was Norwegian, it’s possible they just superimposed their own meaning onto the word so they had something to go by when asked. Nightcore is the first time I remember seeing “core” used as a descriptor alone. Nightcore isn’t the only root for the trend, but it’s a notable one because it came with aesthetics attached.
Years passed, and a movement slowly formed. Before you could just call something ‘weebcore’ or ‘nerdcore’ or anything else, you had to assemble the look the hard way. You want to build mood boards for Tumblr, and you want to find clothes that fit the look you like? If that’s not already named by popular online culture or style magazines, you have to seek out individual bits and bobs to make your style a living thing. What’s really annoying is when other people like it too, but you can’t find each other on a platform because you’re calling your stuff “Celestial” and they’re calling their stuff “Midnight Chic”. Or Blue Goth and Night Goth. Or Night Faerie and Starlight. You get the picture. If the names that blogs made up for their style didn’t catch on or didn’t get popular, well – neither did their looks, and it never turned into something bigger. Tumblr’s search function is notoriously horrible, and tags are the only real way to navigate the site, even now. Pinterest isn’t much better. Having a name for a style makes connecting online so much easier.
Cottagecore took off on Tumblr in 2018, and others followed it. While it wasn’t the first, it was very popular and easy to add to. Others followed suit.
If you like fairies, magic, and all of the feelings that come with them, and you like pictures of green woods – boom, fairycore, now you find more of it. If you really like the aesthetic of candy, and you like brightly colored clothing, you could be called candy-core, and other people in the know can put together what you mean. This naming scheme is very convenient, and it makes searching easy once you understand it – it’s also easier to tag and easier to navigate once people cotton on to the trend. Other, older subcultures that already had names didn’t need to adapt, but this made it easier to make new ones.
In the beginning, that was great, but now it’s turning into a nightmare.
You can be freed by a label in the same way you’re constricted by it. People want more of something they think is really cool, and as a result you get hyper specific ___cores, stuff that’s identifiable by one or two things alone. See Glitchcore: Glitchcore comes down to anime girls and glitchy, psychedelic rainbows – at least, that’s all you can find of it on Google. The music, too, often sounds pretty similar across bands, because if it doesn’t hit certain points, it’s hyperpop or electronic instead of glitchcore. It’s so unique that it’s difficult to make more of.
Alternatively, look at metal bands that made it big – their fans usually have a pretty clear style, and if the band’s not deliberately inviting, the hardcore fandom will do everything in it’s power to sort out “posers” who want new stuff from the band, cutting off creativity at the knees to keep the style ‘pure’.
Now, you have a name for what you like, but you’ve pigeonholed yourself, and the style is so small it’s tough to connect with people who really get it.
Besides, trends that piggyback off of other, older stuff can create issues in different ways when all of their context is online. Cottagecore clothes and retro-style clothes are only recognizable as ‘old-fashioned’ to anyone who’s not in-the-know on sites like TikTok or Instagram. People online know that traditional clothing doesn’t equal “traditional” views on women and society… people offline might not, and that can lead to some unwanted attention for the wearer.
Similarly, wearing a cowboy hat and bolo tie when you’ve never ridden a horse isn’t going to be met with ‘oh, wow, cowboycore, huh?’ offline, especially in the South or Southwest.
Certain ‘aesthetics’ also ignore the roots of a look. To use cottagecore again, cute farm animals are common items in mood boards and on cottagecore-themed clothing. Notice I said items – the reality of taking care of these animals isn’t a crucial part of the board, because why would it be? Cottagecore creates a fantasyland where the people out in the sticks who actually own chickens are living like Snow White, not getting up at 5 AM with the rooster to feed them, not getting pecked for eggs, never having to clean out a smelly roost, and never having to worry about coyote or fox attacks in the night, or vet visits. There are no spiders for horse riders to accidentally run into, and no power outages or spotty internet. The weather is always somewhere between temperate and cold. This romanticized version of how people on farms live is obviously incorrect to anyone who’s actually lived on one – to the point that it’s almost insulting.
Aaaaand We’re Back On Microtrends
If you look at it – really look at it – sometimes aesthetics are just shopping lists of items because you can’t achieve the look with other items you already have. This is a problem. Look at punk jackets – each one is unique because it was made special, not bought special. Look at E-Girls and E-Boys – stripes and black clothes stick out, but the items are generally bought because they can be cut to shreds and stitched or pinned back together in interesting ways. It doesn’t have to be new to be E-Girl/E-Boy stuff. OG Cottagecore often encourages wearers to buy old dresses and tailor them to custom-fit, making them new again. All of these styles are A) accessible, and B) possible to buy for ethically, meaning buying second-hand clothes or buying from sources that don’t use sweatshops. Of course, some consumption from bad sources happens with any trend, but the point is that the option exists.
The issues with microaesthetics/__cores are much worse when the options are limited and there’s no other way to get the look but buying new items. You’ve heard of Retro/50’s style, but what about RetroFuturism? Specifically, Retro-Space-Core? If only one company makes see through plastic shoes, that company just hit the jackpot when Retro-Space-Core becomes the next hot micro-aesthetic, even if it’s issues with plastic waste and worker treatment are well-documented. People will buy them anyway.
Because of this, it is much worse that small aesthetics and __core clubs can be so small that new unique items constitute a major development in the style space. You can make something that nobody wants, but everyone will buy and discard, just because it’s aesthetic. See the frog chair that got big and then died out. Frogs are cute, and the frog chair was very cute, but TikTok cottagecore latched onto it as a shortcut to cottage vibes… and then gradually came to realize it was difficult to actually decorate with because it was aimed at kids. The same goes for wicker furniture – you do actually have to take care of wicker, or it deteriorates, but the people buying wicker stuff for the first time when it was hot often didn’t know that. Or, you could look at any number of boots, sweaters, and jackets that flash into aesthetic ‘must-have’ lists like magnesium in a pond before fading back into the background noise.
Ultimately, doing research on products and the microaesthetics themselves can stop most of the issues associated with them. The rest comes down to maybe accepting that sometimes, things look unique because they are unique, and asking for more of it or trying to make a whole style out of it is going to suck the fun out of the inspiration. If the movie, or music, or whatever isn’t broad enough to style around, that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be. Not every aspect of media has to be drawn out and analyzed into an aesthetic.