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Are ‘Core Trends Destroying Our Sense of Personal Style?

The pressure to look a certain way to garner likes and engagement via algorithm-driven trends on social media is at its peak. As a result, personal style is suffering.

Written by India Roby

Fashion is officially in its TikTok-core era. The dissemination of trends online was once ruled by how-to guides, forums, and microblogs. Now, ‘core trends are dominating the digital trend cycle since the rise of TikTok in 2019, and the speed at which we’re experiencing them — and subsequently tossing them — is at its peak.

Core trends in fashion, also referred to as microtrends, are best defined as the specific, short-lived styles with a reach limited by geography or demographic, according to Shakaila Forbes-Bell, a fashion psychologist for Afterpay and author of the bestselling book, Big Dress Energy. She further explains that the usage of the suffix “-core” has been linked to trend forecasters as early as 2013, with trends like normcore, an aesthetic comprising the comfortable, neutral clothing key to everyday outfits, and adjacent to the slightly quirkier hipster trend. These differ from macrotrends, which instead “speak to a broader audience and are more likely to be associated with a specific decade or era.”

Microtrends are all about the details. They typically contain a key item, a certain shade of color, or a specific detail on a garment, style expert Kendall Becker explains, and they are often spearheaded by designers or brands. Think: cottagecore from Hill House Home; Barbiecore from Valentino’s Fall 2022 PP Pink collection; balletcore from Sandy Liang or Miu Miu’s Spring 2023 range, and the list goes on. Once these niche items hit the runways, they’re then woven into the pop culture zeitgeist and worn by celebrities all across the board, eventually landing right onto our FYPs to encourage wasteful consumption of them and their inevitable “dupes.”

Rian Phin, a 29-year-old fashion commentator, tells NYLON that microtrends predate TikTok and have been around since the peak Tumblr fashion era circa the early 2010s, with popular aesthetics like vaporwave and art hoe. However, they believe that what ‘core trends cover is even smaller than that. Emerging styles feel as if they're based on recreating one or two widely circulated, nostalgic fashion images — take McBling, or the flashy Y2K aesthetic, for example, that recalls a specific image of Paris Hilton’s 21st birthday party dress — rather than having an overall global impact. “Microtrends often feel like costumes within mostly online subcultural fashion aesthetics,” Phin says.

Phin also adds that, unlike timeless trends, ‘core styles have no established rooting in fashion, and rather resemble starter pack memes. “They seem like a strict uniform of specific items to gather and wear in very specific ways and from specific brands, rather than a broad interpretation of ways to dress based on any actual subculture or cultural movement,” they explain. “That's why I think they're gone so quickly.”

The shift to more niche, shorter cycles of trends has a lot to do with new platforms and rapidly changing algorithms in a chronically online generation — typically Gen Z, who’s at the forefront of these conversations. At first, ‘core styles were treated on a large scale in the early stages of peak TikTok in 2019 and 2020, seeing trends like regencycore for Netflix’s Bridgerton, cottagecore for Taylor Swift’s folklore, tenniscore for, well, tennis. “It was more about partaking in macro trend conversations and coming from a lens of observation,” Becker explains. “Now, it feels more like pushing and creating ‘trends.’ Call it cliché, but it undoubtedly has a lot to do with algorithms and chasing clicks online.”

From a psychological perspective, Forbes-Bell says that increased social media usage and the switch to short-form content have been consistently linked to a reduction in attention span and an increase in novelty seeking, creating what researchers call “attention deficit fashion.” There’s pressure to look a certain way to garner likes and engagement, especially by catching the next “it” thing as early as possible. She adds that instead, ‘cores often allow people with an existing invested interest in a specific style to explore new ways of embracing it. “Fashion psychology lessons also encourage consumers to explore what these trend offerings mean to them and what feelings they provoke so that they can confidently decide what ‘core is right or wrong for them.”

Stylight reports to NYLON that some of TikTok’s microtrends are coined by creators, like Coastal Grandmother’s @lexnicoleta back in January 2022. Since then, the “Coastal Grandma” aesthetic has not only been adopted by celebs like Reese Witherspoon and Anne Hathaway, but there’s an increasing demand for these cozy yet refined summer-inspired pieces — crisp, white button-ups, linen pants, simple linen blouses, and straw hats. In fact, there was a whopping +833% increase in search interest for “Coastal Grandmother” on Google Trends from April to May 2022 alone.

Phin notes that ‘core labels are a result of people using the search engines to learn about and buy these fashion styles. “In order to search these styles on Pinterest or TikTok, for example, they need labels for the groups of clothes,” they explain. “That's why I assume it comes from Tumblr or other internet culture. Fashion blogs were labeled based on the aesthetics of the blog and hashtagged their type of blog, and then were found by people looking for a similar aesthetic.”

Growing up well before the days of TikTok, style handbooks were once cherished as a necessary part of adolescence (think Seventeen’s Ultimate Guide to Style and Amanda Brooks’ I Love Your Style). Street style blogs served as fashion inspiration and bridged the gap from Tumblr and TikTok, like Jak and Jil and The Sartorialist. With an even more susceptible and impressionable demographic to think less and buy more, microtrends act as temporary fixes to a loss of individuality.

Cydnie Cole, a 23-year-old producer and content creator, says that she believes it would be more difficult for her to find her personal style if she was a teenager at this time. “There are so many people telling you what to buy, how to look, where to go, and how to act, and it’s this horrifying echo chamber that can be very difficult to ignore if you aren't connected to yourself or what you want,” she tells NYLON. Through shopping at her favorite brands like Peter Do and Bianca Saunders, on top of being older and surrounded by people who are unapologetically themselves, she has an optimistic outlook on developing her own personal style.

Jazmine Rogers, known as @ThatCurlyTop and the founder of Sustainable Baddie, points out that ‘core trends are simply not going to be sustainable in the long run, from both a retailer and consumer perspective. As a fashion content creator, she struggles to keep up. “It's harmful when everyone's trying to adapt and grab onto the newest trend [and] it comes from a place of having to impress others, but not necessarily in a way where it's a self-esteem issue,” she explains. “The fashion industry also preys upon people's insecurities, and in order to fit in, you have to buy new products over and over. And social media makes this even faster and easier.”

There’s also power to be had with this, Forbes-Bell adds. “I think a desire for control and a need to belong is behind this phenomenon. Microtrends have upended the traditional models of fashion where those within the industry would dictate what’s en vogue. Researchers have identified that consumers have now absorbed this power by transforming from mere bystanders (trend followers) to hunters (trend curators) and finally to participants (trend creators and disseminators). Furthermore, as humans, we all have an ingrained desire to belong, which only intensifies when we’re denied access. Microtrends provide the everyday person with increased and easier opportunities to jump onto a core and satisfy that desire, if only briefly.”

But in some ways, ‘core styles, no matter how temporary they may be, helps users like Rogers find their own personal style. “I like using the word ‘core sometimes because I think it's funny — I’d use words like ‘clowncore’ or ‘girly pop’ to describe my wardrobe. It's fun being able to mix and match the different aesthetics and it can be a nice starting point to start experimenting with your style.”

Social media isn’t going anywhere, so until the algorithm shifts, Becker thinks the sped-up trend cycle will continue to reign. However, the conversations around personal style are beginning to grow. “I’m excited to see creators and publications expand on those,” she says. “There are so many ways to approach fashion which is what makes it fun, right? It’s time to nix the idea of standing out for the sake of it or keeping up with cores due to pressure, but turning back internally to explore our own wants within fashion.”

While hitting up your local bookstore to research personal style might’ve phased out, Cole tells NYLON the best advice she could give to someone looking to develop their own would be to “think about what you loved to wear as a kid, what interested you, how you always dreamed ‘grown up you’ would dress, and channel that while also taking into account the knowledge and interests you have now.

She adds: “And take your time! Developing your personal style is a lifelong journey and it is not a race despite what you see and hear. I think eventually everyone will get exhausted of the ‘core cycle because the nature of the core is to die out, it is a micro-trend after all.”