Elizabeth Baldino ’25
Students begin the semester in Introduction to Digital Publishing by writing an op-ed that considers how our increasing consumption of online media is having an important cultural, social, or political impact. Here, Liz Baldino examines how TikTok and other social media platforms create a fast fashion trend cycle, leaving us without “the ability to present ourselves in a significant way.” -Professor Wright
How Social Media is Compromising our Ability to “Fashion” Trends that Define Our Era
Many of our current fashion trends are inspired by celebrities. The Hailey Bieber nails became popular after her TikTok video went viral. The ‘clean girl’ look, also inspired by Hailey Bieber, pairs minimal makeup with slicked back hair. Although these trends have a modern spin, the source material for them may be a surprise.
The slicked back hair, minimal makeup and gold hoops of the ‘clean girl’ aesthetic have deep roots in the black and brown communities of America, and have been repackaged on a white body. This style is now a TikTok trend, though most who emulate it have no knowledge of its origin.
The past 100 years have seen a series of style evolutions, each deeply connected to the years they originated. In the 1920s, women were coming out of the workforce following World War I, and yearned for equal rights and opportunity in a postwar America. Men returned back from war and displaced women in the workforce, earning more money for the same labor. The jobs women held to keep America afloat were no longer. The fashion aesthetic of the 1920s is about liberation of mind and body—loose dresses favoring comfortability and movement; simple, bold accessories; and short boyish haircuts.
The 1960’s were influenced by another wartime, an economic and cultural boom, and ultra-consumerism; designers and manufacturers took inspiration from British TV and morphed them into bold colors, unfitted shapes and eclectic designs heavily influenced by The Supremes and The Beach Boys and television shows like Bewitched and Here’s Lucy.
Having our own distinct trends brought with it a sense of pride.
Now, our modern fashion trends are easily confused and less distinct. The early 2000s are full of crop tops, Uggs and chunky jewelry; these trends were influenced by pop culture icons and something unprecedented at the time—social media. The rise of social media did not create the cycle of quickly rotating trends, but it has influenced what this cycle has become. Fashion trends and the intention behind them have ceased to embody the realities of their time, and this is largely due to how the digital world impacts our culture.
For example, if even 1% of active users on TikTok see a video of a shirt that is sold at Target, the shirt will become elevated and popular. This creates a vicious trend cycle of things going viral and then fading into obscurity when the next video goes viral.
What do we lose as a society and culture when our trends are determined by what gets views on social media? How can someone differentiate an influencer from a fellow consumer? The trend cycle is changing way too fast and a single decade is no longer definable by the fashion of its time—and reasons for the fashion choices we make are hard to find. As America moves away from nationwide watershed moments, we can see the fallout depicted entirely in the fashion choices of the people—we are confused and divided about how to represent ourselves outwardly to the world.
Today, it’s harder to pinpoint a fashion movement that’s influenced by a feeling or philosophical shift, as in the past. For example, the 80s were a time of adjustment for the American people and the fashion of the time showcased that. Bonnie English describes the implications of 80s fashion in A Cultural History of Fashion in the 20th and 21st Centuries, “Women in professional careers used fashion as a political language to illustrate their expectations of power and position in the management structures of large corporations” (English). Women wanted to be taken more seriously in the workplace, thus the ‘power suit’ was born. Broad shoulders and straight legged pants gave the body a wider and taller build, making the wearer look stronger.
Many current trends still abide by the wearer wanting to shift the perception of oneself, though this has become a bit more vapid. Instead of silhouettes implying power and status, people wear cowprint pants because a viral video featured a celebrity wearing them, causing fast fashion companies like SHEIN to produce them in overseas sweatshops and sell them online for $12. What do these choices say about the people who wear them, if they say anything at all?
We as a society have begun to develop strange para-social relationships with social media influencers, and so along with celebrity-influenced fashion trends, bodies are being influenced too. For example, the Kardashians rarely admit to having had plastic surgery, but the ideology nonetheless has real world consequences. Phylice Kessler of Mindpath Health writes, “The average woman weighs 170 and wears a size 14—these women will find it harder to find clothes to wear due to brands supporting this ‘curvy is out’ trend,” (Kessler).
The commodifying of social media influencers, who turn everything connected to their identity into a trend, is having permanent social and cultural impacts on America. The newest plastic surgery trend on TikTok is something called ‘buccal fat removal’, which hollows the cheeks. After many celebrities and influencers were seen with carved out cheekbones, countless social media posts were made about regular people getting the procedure. The trends are becoming permanent adjustments to people’s bodies.
In the past, there seemed to be unwavering trust in America’s fashion magazines. Trends in fashion magazines like Vogue, Life and Glamour leaked from the page into the real world. What was printed was a trend forecast; if a designer like Dolce and Gabbana was featured, then the following year everyone was wearing them. They were curated by experienced people with decades under their belt and a passion for what was being printed. An archive in 514 Broadway about the history of magazines explains that clients “could order a dress made from one of the sketches they saw illustrated. Vogue illustrated as many as 33 models from Paris in each issue, and about twice as many American dresses. Advertisements provided many more images” (Stories).
Not only did print media drive trends, it also sold mass-produced garments and prioritized made to order handmade garments. Now, fashion magazines tend not to drive trends as much, and cater to a niche audience rather than a large one. Instead, social media gives casual fashion consumers free and easy access to trends.
Some might say that social media elevates the culture of fashion and offers a more environmentally and cost-effective option, in not being printed. Shreya Jain with SHILPAahuaja writes, “When asked what appeals to them the most about digital magazines, readers felt that they are a way to save their money, receive quality content faster, and at the same time do their small part for the environment.” Although this is true, this shift in fashion focus is not beneficial to the environment, as fast fashion culture has been birthed out of the constantly changing trend cycle and the need to keep up with celebrities.
What do we lose when we lose our fashion identity? We lose the ability to be perceived whatever way we wish. We lose a sense of community and culture, in exchange for a false sense of security. Vintage fashion is about being noticed as an individual with something to say when you walk in the room, like big hair curled with hot rollers and a neon yellow windbreaker. Now it’s about blending in with everyone else; Lululemons paired with an oversized hoodie barely makes a statement about itself. When we let others assign meaning to the clothes we wear we lose the ability to present ourselves in a significant way. It becomes harder and harder to give meaning to our clothing choices when they change with the next trend, and then are discarded anyway. If we continue to let the newest TikTok trend decide how we spend our money, we lose what fashion used to be about—the made to order bold print and color dresses worn after war times to bring back a sense of normalcy, wide-legged pants and androgynous style as a protest for peace, and the power one can gain from a well-tailored suit.
Jain, Shreya, “Face of Fashion Magazines in the Digital Era.” Shilpa Ahuja, 28 Mar. 2022, https://shilpaahuja.com/fashion-magazines-in-the-digital-era/.
English, Bonnie. A Cultural History of Fashion in the 20th and 21st Centuries: From Catwalk to Sidewalk. Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019.
Pagels, Ciara. “Body Types Are Not Trends.” Mindpath Health, 30 Dec. 2022, https://www.mindpath.com/resource/body-types-are-not-trends/.
Grayzel, Susan. “Changing Lives: Gender Expectations and Roles during and after World War One.” British Library, 29 Jan. 2014, https://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/changing-lives-gender-expectations#:~:text=Economically%2C%20returning%20men%20displaced%20many,equal%20pay%20for%20comparable%20work.
Goodwin, Doris. “The Way We Won: America’s Economic Breakthrough during World War II.” The American Prospect, 19 Dec. 2001, https://prospect.org/health/way-won-america-s-economic-breakthrough-world-war-ii/.
Banerjee, Shahana. “Reclaiming the ‘Clean Girl Aesthetic’.” 34th Street Magazine, 34th Street, 13 Sept. 2022, https://www.34st.com/article/2022/09/clean-girl-aesthetic-bella-hadid-hailey-bieber-tik-tok.
Greenwald, Dr. Joshua. “Pushing Back against Tiktok’s Buccal Fat Removal Trend.” Greenwald Plastic Surgery, 9 Feb. 2023, https://www.drgreenwald.com/blog/pushing-back-against-tiktoks-buccal-fat-removal-trend/#:~:text=Buccal%20fat%20removal%20%E2%80%94%20also%20known,for%20most%20patients%20to%20undergo.