So What's Your 'Aesthetic'? A (Non-Professional) Analysis with Graphics

Written by Janet

You've heard it floating around the internet, silently creeping into Instagram hashtags, Pinterest suggestions, and oh-so-subtly...into your vocabulary.


The dictionary defines this term as:

"A particular individual’s set of ideas about style and taste, along with its expression."

So how does an aesthetic differ from a person's style? From my observation, it encompasses more than the clothes you wear; it's the way you talk, dress, decorate, and even what you eat and listen to. The latter half of the definition comes to the forefront: "a ... set of ideas about style and taste, along with its expression", particularly how they are expressed online.

To illustrate, below are a few mood boards of popular aesthetics you may have heard of.

    source: shoes, shirt, chains, makeup

    The modern equivalent of the scene and emo crowd from the early 2000's (ala Avril Lavigne). Popular themes include the following:

    • Chains
    • Stripes
    • Rebellious messages
    • Cherubs
    • Typical color palette of black with pops of neon

    source: hydroflask, car, backpack, shirt

    An environmentally conscious youth with a penchant for California surf attire. Essentials include outdoor brands like Hydroflask, Fjallraven, and Birkenstock. People who strive for this aesthetic are typically seen wearing pucca shells, scrunchies, and handmade jewelry.

    source: flatlay, clothesline, kitchen, books

    A romanticization of simpler by-gone days, cottage core features activities like hand-sewing and gardening, and as you might expect, cozy cottages. Common motifs include things like the following:

    • Farm animals
    • Picnics
    • Mushrooms
    • Florals

    source: anime, paintings, oceans, kitten paws

    The "soft girl" aesthetic features pastel color palettes, particularly the color pink. Soft enthusiasts tend to enjoy lo-fi music playlists and have a penchant for youthful, calm imagery, such as baby animals, sunsets, and cartoon mascot characters.

    So Why Have an Aesthetic?

    1. Community

    People are always looking for community, but they can be hard to find and even more difficult to join. You may need specialized knowledge or a set of materials that are prohibitively expensive. Conversely, aesthetic subcultures are more accessible. As these subcultures largely live online, you only really need a phone with internet access to join (although a small budget always helps!).

    Take the e-girl/e-boy phenomenon. In its heyday, silver padlock necklaces, safety pin earrings, cherub mesh tops, and chains galore were seen on content creators left and right, and these items were easily purchased at fast fashion retailers. Snap a few photos, set the mood with filters, post online, and you're welcomed into a community to connect with.

    What if you can't buy these items? Take or curate photos of objects or environments that evoke a mood and create an Instagram or Pinterest board. For example, a quick search of the "soft aesthetic" on Pinterest leaves you with a wide variety of results. From anime, paintings, oceans, and kitten paws, anything is fair game when curating your aesthetic.

    2. Hashtags

    Having a named aesthetic also makes content more searchable in a hashtag generation. With the exponential amounts of content being created every minute, it becomes near impossible to sift through millions of posts to find something that speaks to you. But searching through terms like "#cottagecore" and "#vscogirl", you immediately know what you'll find.

    For example, here are the top posts when I search #cottagecore:

    And a screenshot from most recent:

    You can see various themes that connect many of these photos together, from the warm golden tones, romantic dresses, woodland scenery, and vintage props. It feels cohesive and tells one story.

    Now compare it to the top posts when I search for #falloutfit:

    And the most recent posts:

    While #falloutfit is relatively specific, it caters to a wider audience. From the minimalist to the maximalist and the edgy to the feminine, it's all there. For example, several photos feature more NY-chic outfits with items like leather pants, clutch bags, and blazers, while others show a more casual approach with denim overalls, scarf tops, and bohemian dresses.

    Here, you'll find general search results that cater to a wider audience, rather than more niche subcultures.

    3. Branding

    Now take a look from the other side of the fence: the brands and content creators.

    The stronger your aesthetic is, the quicker someone can tell whether your Youtube channel or Instagram page is something they will connect with. Take Dearly Bethany and Steal the Spotlight for example. Both are fashion channels with a sizable following, but radically different aesthetics.

    From a cursory glance at Dearly Bethany's recent uploads, we immediately get a sense for the type of content she creates. From the simple fonts, neutral tones, and even the syntax of the video titles, you see a classic, minimalist approach to fashion.

    Steal the Spotlight, on the other hand, is much more bold, colorful, and youthful. From the collage-style thumbnails, bright colors, and pop-culture themed videos, her content is targeted for a more experimental, trend-focused audience.

    If one person saw both channels, it's likely that they would be drawn more to one over the other. In a sense, having a strong aesthetic helps content-creators (and brands) find a captive audience. In a diverse world, it's difficult to cater to everyone's needs well; instead, finding your niche and committing to that is a more sure-fire way to keep people engaged.

    Another clear example of aesthetic branding can be seen when you compare Anthropologie and COS.

    Anthropologie's website features bold, high-contrast imagery with lots of movement and energy. The vibrant colors, textures, and prints give a maximalist bohemian vibe that distinguishes it from other brands.

    COS is on the other end of the spectrum. While probably targeting a similar age demographic, the silhouettes are clean and crisp and the images feature mostly neutral tones. The pictures are even backlit, which softens the brightness of the imagery compared to Anthropologie's photography style.

    People need to only look at the first page to decide whether it's worth it to keep scrolling or not. At first, it might seem that someone quickly dismissing a brand is a negative thing, but in the long run, having a smaller, more dedicated group of customers allows brands to understand their specific audience's needs and to serve them better. 

    4. Escapism

    Finally, aesthetic communities provide a sort of 'escape' from the real world. With a few choice photos posted on a social media platform, you can create an online persona filled with snapshots of your life that portray your ideal version of reality. It offers a sense of control in a time where things seem to change by the second.

    The Takeaway

    The increasing relevance of establishing an online presence has made aesthetic taste more relevant than ever. In the age of social media and the proliferation of content, it helps to stand out by providing a consistent look that your followers or customers will recognize. On the flip side, it also helps the average internet user to find content that relates to them personally, rather than having to turn to sources that cater to the masses. It's personal, creative, and fun.

    I'd argue though that it isn't as harmless as it seems on the surface.While curating and forming an aesthetic can help people find community online, it increases our expectations that there's a "right" way to live. It can unintentionally make perfection seem achievable by portraying a lifestyle that seems effortless but is often carefully and painstakingly curated. Not to mention, it makes us view our lives entirely through how it would be seen online.

    In addition, the pressure to fit into an aesthetic can stifle creativity, as it subtly enforces the idea that everything we do or post must be completely consistent, and thus prevent people from exploring new styles or ideas. What happens when a content creator's style or interests change? There is huge potential to lose a community of people that were only interested in that specific niche.

    Take book genres, for example. Each one appeals to a unique demographic, whether it's fantasy, thriller, romance, historical fiction, or non-fiction. But the longer a genre has been around, the more likely certain expectations and tropes develop that can impede the story an author wants to tell.

    Whether it's love triangles in YA fiction or the damsel-in-distress in fantasy series, a genre can become ingrown with the expectation of what the readers supposedly want and lead to a stagnant, been there, read that story. Rather than letting the genre outline the way your book "should" be written, tell your story and use the genres to help describe what you've written.

    Don't let an aesthetic define who you are. Instead appreciate it, enjoy it for what's worth, and be inspired by it.

    Until the next post,




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