TikTok: From “Tomato Girls” to “Old Money”: Why microtrends are so popular with Generation Z

Early 2000s fashion is back.

TikTok: From “Tomato Girls” to “Old Money”: Why microtrends are so popular with Generation Z

Early 2000s fashion is back. Generation Z in particular flaunts themselves on social media in colorful, flashy “Y2K” outfits. Followers of the “Old Money” style, on the other hand, wear modest but as luxurious clothing as possible. The "Tomato Girls" could be found in summer in 1950s Italy with ruffled blouses and red lips, while the "Coastal Cowgirls" danced on the Californian beach in western boots. Anyone who wears the “Dark Academia” aesthetic prefers to sit in dark colors in the library of an elite university. “Cottagecore” supporters, on the other hand, would prefer to spend their days in dresses or dungarees in a flower meadow or in the garden at home.

All of these fashion trends, which are mainly celebrated on TikTok, are extremely individualized, often contradictory – and very short-lived. New styles appear on the social network almost every week. Adding “-core”, “-aesthetic” or “-girl” creates the appropriate hashtag that can collect millions of clicks within a few days. The corresponding videos show what the respective trend should look like: outfits, fashion tips, make-up tutorials, mood boards with the right accessories and - particularly often - compilations of places, films, activities and music that are supposed to fit the style. Because the trends are not just limited to the appearance, but rather want to represent a harmonious overall picture, a complete lifestyle.

"There used to be the gothic scene and the punk scene, but very few people were members of such a scene. Today it is normal to belong to at least one community," explains Nina Kolleck in an interview with stern. The professor of educational and socialization theories at the University of Potsdam researches, among other things, Generation Z and social media. Today's fashion trends have not only become more diverse, but also more differentiated. TikTok plays an essential role in this: The video platform has “revolutionized the landscape of trend development,” says Stefan Tewes, trend researcher and director of the Future Institute.

“TikTok is characterized by its ability to make trends go viral in a flash,” the scientist explains to the star. A single video can spread a completely new style in just a few hours. In particular, when influencers with large followings pick up on a trend, "this can increase its popularity exponentially." Just as quickly as certain movements gain popularity, they disappear from the scene again. Because of their short shelf life, the styles popular on TikTok are referred to as microtrends. These are “short-lived currents or developments within a larger trend,” explains Stefan Tewes.

The volatile currents are primarily supported by Generation Z, says Nina Kolleck. Young people identify themselves with the currently acclaimed aesthetic based on the clothing, interior design and lifestyle they show on TikTok. They proudly showcase the respective scene style and share the trendy self-presentation with thousands of like-minded people around the world. The community factor is one of the appeals that makes microtrends so attractive to Generation Z. It's about self-discovery, explains the educational scientist: Young people want to feel confirmed about their personality - a feeling that is conveyed primarily through association and community.

In a phase of life that is characterized by the search for belonging and the desire to differentiate from the older generation, microtrends “offer young people a platform for self-expression and identity discovery,” confirms Stefan Tewes. The short-lived fashion trends are perfect for playing with different styles and identities: via platforms like TikTok, both influencers and the general public can react immediately to newly created aesthetics "and integrate them into their personal identity formation," explains the futurologist.

In addition, microtrends can also be seen as a reaction to social changes. As a stylistic device to signal opinions and attitudes on current topics. For the young audience, microtrends are not just a fashion or cultural trend, "but rather a means of self-discovery and communication in a constantly changing world," the expert sums up.

But microtrends can also represent a refuge, says Nina Kolleck: "The short videos offer an escape that protects you from the challenges of everyday life." The many crises - climate change, Corona, wars - that accompany Generation Z's coming of age are fueling a longing for more peaceful times. No wonder that nostalgia and the supposedly simpler life (in the country, in your own four walls, in financial abundance) are recurring motifs that run through almost all microtrends.

Nobody can predict which microtrend will develop into the next hype. The only thing that is certain is that it won't take long. The constant change of trends can lead to a fluid understanding of the self, says Stefan Tewes. Adapting to this rhythm "can bring both advantages in the form of cognitive flexibility and challenges in the form of uncertainty," explains the trend researcher. Nina Kolleck examines the advantages and disadvantages associated with this.

The scientist highlights the diversity of fashion trends as particularly positive: "Microtrends are not one-dimensional, but describe many facets." This could benefit personal creativity and self-esteem, “because the young generation can express themselves and are encouraged to do so by the community.” The body types depicted are also diverse: the people who appear in the TikTok videos often do not correspond to common beauty ideals. "This means that young people who have certain body characteristics - who feel too fat, too big, too small - can also find confirmation."

But the effect could also turn negative. According to Nina Kolleck, microtrends can also mean pressure, "a kind of pressure to conform to what is presented there." Even if the scenes staged on social media often do not correspond to reality: "This romanticized country life in particular has little to do with actual country life."

Their research also shows that young people who spend a lot of time on TikTok compare themselves more often, which in turn reduces their self-esteem: "Those who constantly compare themselves don't feel valuable enough and are more likely to put themselves under pressure to look like them someone else." This could, for example, have an impact on eating behavior. Anyone who doesn't join a trend can also feel excluded - a further dampener on self-esteem, says futurologist Stefan Tewes.

As important as microtrends may be for self-discovery, TikTok videos and mood boards are limited to appearance. The focus is on an identity that focuses on external appearance. An identity that results from certain trends rather than from inner values, says Nina Kolleck.

The search for the right label; for the right community; Finding the right lifestyle can feel almost endless due to the constant spiral of TikTok trends - and can sometimes become a burden. The pressure to externally define oneself as part of a group is enormously high within Generation Z, explains the educational scientist. This is due to the enormous insecurity that affects young people: “This generation is one of the blatant losers of the Corona period.”

Generation Z has had little contact with the real world, nature and social relationships outside of the internet during the pandemic. This has left its mark: "As a result, young people have lost a lot of access to their own bodies and their own feelings." This results in profound uncertainty, which can be partially cushioned by microtrends. The sense of community that the individual subcultures suggest can restore some of the lost security.