Digital media has revolutionized the way we communicate and interact. This is not a controversial statement. More interesting is the way it does so and with increasing frequency with the emergence of each new medium. Every time a new social media platform rises, it brings with it a cultural revolution in which our modes of speaking, looking and [self-]expressing completely transform. This was as true for long lost relics like AIM and MSN Messenger as it is for Instagram, Twitter and Emoji.
In this regard, TikTok is no exception. In fact, the video-based social media platform, which launched in 2016 and rose to international prominence two years later, has been so all-encompassing in its optical takeover that even traditional media has been left with no choice but to try and get in on the action.
With its immersive, audio-visual mode that’s designed to takeover your entire phone screen, as well as your ears, TikTok has proven to be a rich ground for the cultivation of personas, characters, memes and visual signatures which users of all ages then reproduce and replicate, over and over. In fact, while ‘Old Town Road’ singer Lil Nas X might now be an international superstar grabbing headlines with his provocative award shows and media-savvy trolling, it’s possible he might never have hit the big time without the TikTok dance trend the aforementioned song inspired, sending the track pinging around on speakers and screens throughout 2019.
Again, this is not necessarily a new phenomenon. Lots of social media platforms have their sub-cultural stereotypes: Tumblr has Tumblr Teens; Instagram has sad boyz, IG vixens and pumpkin spice latte girls; Twitter has the community known as “Weird Twitter”, best represented by the likes of Dril and Pixelated Boat. What makes TikTok comparatively unique is the all-encompassing manner in which its audio-visual language completely encompasses the person, and persona, being presented. It’s not just a voice, a look, a face or a soundtrack; it’s all of those things, right down to minute facial expressions.
Like the platforms before it, this comprehensive sonic and optic vocabulary is transforming the way people discover, engage with and consume fashion. And it’s doing so in a comparatively comprehensive manner.
First of all, TikTok’s combination of the dynamic, live-action feel of video with the carefully crafted aesthetics of social media blends two of the fashion industry’s favoured visual modes – the runway and the glossy advertisement. It provides an opportunity to see models (both professional and amateur) in immaculate outfits, in motion, in real-life situations in a way that has never quite been possible before. And, of course, that so much of this content is being produced by amateur enthusiasts adds a layer of authenticity to even the most carefully-crafted shots. It’s been so influential that TikTok influencers like Wisdom Kaye are now signing contracts with major modelling agencies.
On another note, it’s impossible not to note the theatricality to TikTok, and how this has influenced style created and propagated on the platform. With TikTok stars using every aspect of their videos to construct personas, from make-up and hair to their outfits and facial gestures, it’s interesting to note how movie stars, music subcultures, and even many of the forgotten style tribes that have fallen by the wayside in recent years, have been revived on TikTok has characters for creators to “step into”.
Again, Lil Nas X’s example is instructive. The artist’s ironic embrace of country music aesthetics, when combined with TikTok’s natural cultivation of memetic spread, led to a real world revival of cowboy fashion aesthetics. This same hyper-real incorporation of storytelling and narrative into simple fashion items can be observed in numerous other trends and the names they acquire in popular discourse, such as “Cottage Dresses” (traditional dress styles with pastoral elements like lace, floral patterns and rustic fabrics), “Chill AF Denim” (washed out, loose-fitting jeans as opposed to more prevalent skinny-fit styles), “Cool Girl Sneakers” and “Dad Hats” (hopefully these two speak for themselves). It’s not just about the way the clothes look, but a comprehensive backstory they construct around the wearer. Of course, this has often been the case when discussing high-fashion adverts in glossy magazines, but the manner in which these narratives are being crafted and propagated by regular people feels like a marked shift on the consumer side.
On top of the narratives contained within the clothes themselves, TikTok has also proven popular as a space for critical discussions on a range of issues, many of which have directly impacted the fashion industry. Alongside the irreverent dance challenges, reaction videos and absurd comedy sketches, young people have embraced TikTok as a medium that’s primed for the dissemination of educational and informative content in digestible, minute-long videos. The types of videos made possible by the format have proven so striking and shareable, it’s likely you’ve encountered them on numerous occasions, no matter what your own social media platform of choice is.
At their base, these videos come packaged with titles like “Things you probably didn’t know about X”, and provide condensed information and statistics about various subject matter. In the fashion world, this has included educational videos about the wastefulness of particular fashion business practices. Others, like Denise Mercedes Marte and Maria Castellanos, have cleverly leveraged TikTok’s informal and visual medium to provoke deeper consideration of body inclusivity in fashion, posing alongside each other in the same outfits to show how different body types can style the same clothes. It’s a trend that’s run throughout social media in the 2010s and onwards: Now that regular people have greater access to mass communication and international audiences, they’re using that power to push conversations in directions that might have taken much longer if left in the hands of the old guard.
The aggregated result of all these trends and shifts has been as diverse and varied as the content that has provoked them. It would be naive to suggest that many of the predominant trends and tendencies in fashion have ebbed away. TikTok, like Instagram and YouTube before it, has generated a plethora of micro-celebrities (as well as out-and-out celebrities) with millions of followers, and with that kind of visibility inevitably comes the big brand partnerships and celebrity wardrobe du jour.
French fashion houses and fast-fashion behemoths alike remain as prevalent as ever on TikTok, and the platform’s conscious provision of advertising, click-through and “shop now” features indicate that both TikTok and brands alike are enthusiastically embracing the platform’s ability to convert wildfire social media trends into cash purchases. It’s a business, like any other, just one with an often diverse, thoughtful and considerate base of creators.
Nonetheless, there’s something undeniable about the way TikTok propagates different forms and modes of content, boosted by its interest-led content curation method, which shows users content based on their tastes and previous interactions, rather than simply who they follow. Because browsing TikTok feels more like flicking through a rack of cultural curiosities rather than a feed of familiar faces, you’re that little bit more likely to stumble upon something unexpected, or discover a lifestyle, trend, or styling technique you might not have otherwise seen.
TikTok takes all those elements of the strange and unexpected that take us by surprise during a typical walk through the streets, jumbles them up in a bag, and fires them at you in a chaotic (but considered) manner that’s intended to take you by surprise. It’s why you’re just as likely to find a video teaching you how to resew a button, mend a pair of jeans or revive an old shirt as a video about the trendiest designer sunglasses or best new sneaker releases.
Attempts to characterise any digital revolution or cultural shift as “the great leveller” always feel somewhat hyperbolic. This case is no different. There are ways in which TikTok has transformed, and is transforming the way we view, think about and consume fashion, and there are ways in which it has simply adapted enduring trends for contemporary audiences. Nonetheless, there is a way in which the platform has “flattened” so many of the distinctions and barriers between different groups, creating a richer terrain for interaction and cross-pollination. The luxury fashionistas and fast-fashion kids might be the same as always, but if they’re using TikTok, they’re probably seeing and engaging more in meaningful discussions about what it means when we use and abuse clothes, the kinds of people those clothes are designed for, and what our fashion choices really say about us. That’s something that simply wasn’t happening a few decades ago. Where it will ultimately lead, we’ll just have to wait and see.
Words by Gregk Foley.