All style, no substance: the problem of aesthetics in 2023

As a vast online gallery, the Aesthetics Wiki is fascinating. As a glimpse into Gen Z, it’s even more so

October 16, 2023
It’s a vibe: Cottagecore was one of the first aesthetics to gain huge popular traction during pandemic lockdown. Image: David Newham / Alamy
It’s a vibe: Cottagecore was one of the first aesthetics to gain huge popular traction during pandemic lockdown. Image: David Newham / Alamy

Tinged with lilac and freckled with cartoon skulls, the Aesthetics Wiki’s homepage welcomes thousands of users a day, promising to offer them a comprehensive guide to all “visual schemata”. At time of writing, there are 969 different “aesthetics” to click through, but many users cut to the chase in the comments section below: they want to know what their aesthetic is, which one they should emulate on and offline. A user called 24horigane writes: “What is my aesthetic please? My favourite colours are: red and light/pastel colors. My favourite activities are: drawing, writing and listening to music. I usually listen to rap, and pop.” As an afterthought, they add below: “I am also into evil stuff.”

A second user suggests that 24horigane check out “Urbancore”, and possibly “Devilcore” to satisfy their penchant for evil. Both these aesthetics have their own Wiki page, with a list of key values and motifs, fashion recommendations and a gallery of evocative photos. The Urbancore page consists of images of baggy hoodies, graffiti and Arctic Monkeys album covers; Devilcore introduces itself as an aesthetic “inspired by the gross and creepy, and even seductive”. Its trademark visuals include snakes, teeth and silhouettes of women in stilettos. Don’t confuse it for “Villaincore” though, which encourages its followers to don curlicued crowns and embrace their vengeful impulses.

Browsing the Aesthetics Wiki is a bit like squinting at a disco ball. It’s a dizzying encyclopaedia of a thousand online micro-styles and sensibilities, each one codified with an appropriate name, dress-code, playlist. There’s a niche for absolutely everything, it seems: your wicker furniture belongs in “Coastal Grandmother”; toxic waste dumps are “Nuclear”; rats and ferrets are “Feralcore”. And if you can’t find a place for something, you can devise an aesthetic of your own. Like Wikipedia, the website is an open source where anyone can contribute, though its moderators are strict, and many pages get swiftly taken down for contravention of their rules. Aesthetics named after proper nouns, for example, are banned, much like in Scrabble: they would not accept “Star Warscore” or “Stormzycore”.

The wiki has been steadily growing ever since its spike during the Covid lockdowns, when images of homemade bread and frolicking in wildflowers were first christened “Cottagecore”. Made by and for an overwhelmingly Gen Z community, the site itself has never really hit the mainstream. But it’s worth looking at, because it’s been rigorously charting a phenomenon that’s going on much more loudly and seriously on TikTok and Instagram—and in their users’ psyches. Absolutely every piece of media conceivable, every micro-trend across every domain, is being ascribed a shorthand nametag, saving you the trouble of explaining that you’re into both psychedelic visual art and witchcraft: you’re just “Acid Pixie”. A catch-all name that also makes it easier to connect with other Acid Pixies online and carve out a distinct niche. As these grooves appear in every corner of the Internet, Aesthetics Wiki chronicles every one, and hundreds of pages appear every month.

While I doubt the artists and philosophers who first solidified the word “aesthetics” in the 18th century saw “Goblincore” or “Y2K” coming, none of this is a million miles from their general thinking. Most aesthetic philosophers, including Immanuel Kant, described an interplay between universally recognised compositional pleasantness and personal taste—in other words, certain things are beautiful for everyone, and almost everything is beautiful to someone. Some visuals will be more popular than others, probably the ones that involve complementary colours, symmetry and hopeful connotations. (Fans of Kant should check out the “Academia” aesthetic on the wiki.)

But, in many ways, the Aesthetics Wiki is a very different beast. Aesthetics is no longer an investigative term for the science of beauty and taste, but an umbrella term for online subcultures, a byword for “vibe”. And you can do more than just admire an aesthetic: it’s now something you can be too, if you wear the right clothes and listen to the right playlist. As the wiki itself puts it, “There is currently no dictionary definition that captures the complexity of this phenomenon, which arose in the Internet youth.”

The last few months have seen a significant rise in backlash to the wiki. Viral videos critiquing “vibes culture” and wheezing with laughter at the more bizarre aesthetics have amassed millions of views. The “Tomato Girl” aesthetic in particular has raised eyebrows. Tomato Girl was born in July the way most aesthetics are: with a video collage on TikTok— all white women in floral dresses gambolling around the Mediterranean and eating burrata. It soon amassed over 150,000 views and had brands such as Jo Malone and M&S scrambling to churn out tomato-scented candles and linen trousers.

But while this is undoubtedly one of the most popular aesthetics so far, it’s also been a magnet for general contempt of aesthetics culture. The most common critique is “this doesn’t make any sense”. To the untrained ear, “Tomato Girl” sounds more like a playground insult than a cultural movement. Others have darkly referred to this summer’s deadly heatwave in southern Europe, suggesting that turning everything into an aesthetic is insensitive—a way of prettifying the unpleasant.

All this is easy to patronise. This is Gen Z at their most Gen Z, compulsively classifying things with hyper-specific neologisms, connecting the dots between their eye colour and their favourite Friends character, searching for self-identification. In fact, the Aesthetics Wiki is incredibly similar to the MOGAI Wiki of the 2010s, another open source site that allowed—and still allows—anyone to create a page defining their gender or sexual orientation.

As bewildering as this activity must be for older generations for whom empowerment was all about shunning labels, it is surely harmless at worst—and lovely at best. Yes, these labels are clumsy at times: it’s hard to argue there’s any difference between “Wetcore” and “Soggy”, for example. But it’s wholesome, and the stakes are low. I like Canadian filmmaker Lily Alexandre’s theory that, because culture is now at every smartphone user’s fingertips, “it’s easier to come by media that’s totally unfamiliar, that none of your existing language accounts for.” Weird coinages are partly young people’s response to uncharted cultural territory.

It makes sense, then, that relatively few of the aesthetics on the Wiki are new artistic inventions: they’re old styles that have been given names. For example, TikTok did not invent holidaying in the Mediterranean in long dresses, it was just the first to name it “Tomato Girl”. Neither did Gen Z invent the American Revolution, vikings or cubism, all of which are aesthetics on the wiki. Internet aestheticisation is much more of a classification project than an art project. But some of the aesthetics are genuinely innovative and, at the risk of generalising, coalesce into some revealing patterns.

Perhaps the most common aesthetic trend is a nostalgia for the early 2000s that goes far beyond low-rise jeans. Pictures of flip phones, Hannah Montana and Tamagotchis (remember those?) are being revered online like relics of a lost utopia. “Frutiger Aero”, one of the most popular pages on the wiki, is characterised by screenshots of early Windows and iOS interfaces, deliciously archaic canvases of royal blue that bulge with skeumorphic apps. It’s transportative, and you can’t help but smile. This kind of antediluvian tech style is a hallmark of a lot of aesthetics, from “Weirdcore”, which superimposes inelegant text boxes and emoticons on top of colourful stock images, to “Bastardcore”, which does the same thing but uses depressing stock images instead.

The most striking trend—by far—is dark irony. Beautiful images of sunlight-dappled forests emblazoned with slogans like “WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE” are pretty ubiquitous on social media these days. Earnestness is absent from almost every aesthetic on the wiki: the scarier images are almost always undercut by a knowing joke, and the styles with lighter colour palettes are getting more grungy. “Lobotomy-Chic”, for example, is characterised by pictures of women wearing white or pink, with lolling heads and glassy eyes, utterly disassociated.

These aesthetics suggest that Gen Z is disillusioned by the present—and longing for the recent past. If we see these visuals as artistic responses to a difficult coming-of-age for this generation, it all becomes quite exciting and empowering. Except it’s not really about art—remember, these aesthetics are pitched to Gen Z as something to be. So it matters that the most mainstream aesthetics, including Tomato Girl, are almost always consumerist, unattainable and geared towards women. The “That Girl” aesthetic, which clogged every woman’s algorithm in early 2023 with imperatives to get up at 5am, drink green smoothies and smear £100 moisturisers into your already glowing skin, has birthed hundreds of variants. It only takes a quick glance at “Coquette”, “Babygirl” and “Baddie” to see that they’re all essentially repackaging old beauty standards under new nametags. Even Lobotomy Chic is catering for a sexualising male gaze. As its creator, Rayne Fisher-Quann, wrote about these women’s dead-behind-the-eyes pouts: “She still cares about being sexy, but knows there’s nothing sexy about caring too much.”

There’s a superficiality about these aesthetics, designed to be swiped through quickly on a small rectangular screen, that makes it easy to forget about things like misogyny or climate change. New names can forge communities, but can also disguise old power imbalances. It’s probably good to be a little bit wary, especially where aesthetics are being pitched as prescriptive lifestyles. Seeing culture (or yourself) purely as a collection of styles means you’re in danger of focusing on how stuff looks rather than how it works.