A few months ago, I was scrolling through my TikTok FYP when a couple of similar fashion videos popped up consecutively. They all involved women trying Zara’s latest viral hit, a pink silk slip dress which has since amassed over 117 million views on the platform. This wasn’t the first time #fashiontiktok urged me to click “Add to cart” after showing off the most buzzed-about look of the week, but it’s one that made me miss a time when viral trends weren’t part of the fashion vernacular.
While you’d think that as a fashion writer I’d be interested in hopping on every single one of these, the reality is that, work aside, I have little curiosity in styles that make rounds on the internet. Not because I think social media-driven trends are irrelevant (they are not — much of fashion’s biggest staples today are inspired by TikTok), and not because I don’t enjoy watching some of its most popular creators (their ability to spot best-selling styles before brands is unparalleled), but because I wonder just how much the obsession with fitting into the algorithm’s fashion sense is hindering our ability to cultivate personal style. When billions of us are served up the same looks over and over, what do we lose?
As TikTok has risen from a dancing video app to the biggest fashion influencer, we’ve entered an era when fashion’s subcultures are now “core” trends, from cottagecore to coastal grandmother to weird girl. While on the surface, it may seem like a good thing that previously niche aesthetics have skyrocketed in popularity and opened the door for freer style expression, it also made everyone look the same. In place of personal style, there is a performative exercise to buy and show off the It-item or -aesthetic of the month, and then throw it away when the algorithm tunes it out. And while fashion has always been an exercise in flexing and tossing, social media has shortened a trend’s lifespan from a season to a copycat viral moment.
This wasn’t always the case.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, I adopted whatever look was on trend in the San Juan circles I hung out in. This included skinny jeans, going-out tops, crossbody bags, and lots of ballet flats. It wasn’t until I was in high school in the early 2010s, when I started reading blogs like Sea Of Shoes, Man Repeller, Lovely Pepa, and Song Of Style, that I realized that I didn’t have to dress like everyone around me. I scrolled through photos of people around the world showcasing their personal style on Lookbook.nu, learning how to style knee-high socks, Chelsea boots, and babydoll dresses — all items that were not fashionable in a Caribbean island — into what for the first time felt like an authentic expression of my fashion taste. While you could certainly see common threads, there was a sense of freedom and experimentation that allowed those creators — each capitalizing on hard-to-find items, emerging trends, and fashion subcultures — to forgo trendiness for their unique takes.
A few years later, fashion’s most enterprising bloggers migrated to Instagram. The hashtag #ootd served as its own fashion magazine, helping people display their styles of the day in over-filtered Valencia and X-Pro II posts that, much like Lookbook.nu, banked on their uniqueness to stand out on the internet. They also did this IRL: Street style photographers made careers out of spotting the most outrageous looks outside global fashion weeks, making people dress to their own tune, if albeit loud one, in order to guarantee a snap.
Yet, over time, the fun escaped Instagram’s fashion scene, replacing the ever-inspiring outfits of the day posts for overly curated feeds that prioritized aesthetics over personal expression. And every time the app’s algorithm changed, fashion folk also switched up their strategies: Grainy mirror selfies were replaced by highly produced on-the-go outfit photos that were geared toward growing a following, rather than a community.
By 2019, the fun seemed to have migrated to TikTok with fashion fans discussing trends, dissecting runway looks, and sharing their looks of the day, a phenomenon helped along by the increased digital lives we embraced in the pandemic. Through their larger-than-life personalities and unique formats, creators like Carla Rockmore and Remi Bader exemplified what a fashion influencer in the 2020s could — and should! — be like beyond curated feeds, showing realistic hauls and adding humor to the style conversations. Furthermore, the app gave a space to underrepresented demographics within the fashion industry that previously felt too-out-of-the-box in Instagram’s culture of cookie-cutter lifestyles.
But today’s fashion TikTok-verse seems bland in comparison to its early days, and so do the trends that have flourished from there. The previously-mentioned Zara dress — popular for its supposed ability to look good on almost “every body type,” despite the fact that it only goes up to size XL — is an ordinary slip dress in the hot hue of the season. The viral Skims’ long slip dress similarly offers little room for personal style expression, though it does go to a size 4X. The Gap-logo hoodie is exactly the type of lackluster fashion that made the brand fall out of favor with millennials a decade ago. Even when the trends are more exciting — mini skirts, platforms, denim leg warmers, and cut-outs have also blossomed there, too — the desire to go viral, trying out the trends and aesthetics of the moment have us all dressing and shopping like each other.
Style on TikTok has evolved into a series of peer-pressured dress-up sessions that have people jumping in and out of aesthetics, trends, and identities to fit the latest craze, a phenomenon that’s not only hindering our ability to develop an innate personal style but is also accelerating the trend cycle and increasing textile waste at a time when we should be critically taking a look at our fashion consumption. While it may seem that being a fashion person nowadays implies partaking in every single aesthetic and trend that emerges weekly, it’s worth remembering that the beauty of personal style is that it’s the product of the freedom of choice and a years-long effort to tune an aesthetic judgment.
For me, that looks like hunting at thrift shops, buying fabric for my mom to make me clothes, and collecting items that fit my personal aesthetic, “Corporate Tropical Goth Cupcake.” So far, that has yet to include a TikTok-famous dress.