How Meaningful Subcultures Died - and Microtrends Took Their Place

By Claire Wilson 

March 12, 2024

In the 1950s, the growing popularity of rock and roll, jazz, socialism, existentialism, and other cultural influences, gave rise to new subcultures, such as beatniks and bohemians. Out of these groups came the mods, bikers, hippies, and rockers of the 1960s. The 1970s saw punk rockers, hippies, disco, and so on. Each generation since around 1955 has had distinct subcultures, influenced by politics, music, art, and philosophies of the time. These groups have had lasting impacts on culture and politics, such as the Woodstock Free Music Festival of 1969. 

At Woodstock, attendees wore halter tops and fringe and flower crowns in an “anti-commercial, anticapitalist assertion of identity”, according to fashion columnist Vanessa Friedman of The New York Times. “The fashion of Woodstock was the fashion of no fashion at all.” Woodstock is just one example of a counterculture movement, a type of movement defined by its active resistance to the “establishment”, and its defined clothing, music, and lifestyle choices. These groups were lasting; often spanning a decade, or even several decades. 

In the late 2010s, there began a noticeable decline in these subcultures, a movement away from goths and punk rockers and hippies, and a shift towards curated “aesthetics,'' a watered down and insincere version of youth subcultures. Although youth subcultures still exist, their purpose has fundamentally changed. In an ironic turn of events, what used to be anti-establishment is now mass produced at Hot Topic. This corporatization of youth culture has left almost no group untouched. “Upon those trends, once meant to symbolize an alternative to the corporate ooze, an entire commercial sector has been built,” writes Friedman, about the Woodstock fashion scene. 

Before the internet, teens had to really think about who they were and what group they identified with. Julia Marolt of Student Hut explains that “during the 90s when the alternative and skater scenes were at their peak, you would have to sacrifice your personal time to join the subculture, going to gigs, record shops and skateparks. This physical commitment was essentially the only way to become a part of the different movements, as you had to make yourself known in the group.” This form of physical commitment is no longer a primary factor in the youth subcultures of today. Thanks to the rise of the internet, it’s extremely easy to pick and choose from several different trends. In the last decade, internet users have seen the proliferation of micro-trends, trends so specific and fleeting that they seem to lack any purpose, other than Pinterest board inspiration or fuel on the fast fashion fire. 

For example, in the summer of 2023,“tomato girl”, a bizarre aesthetic characterized by red gingham, freckles, and Italian food, became popular through TikTok. So indistinguishable is it from every other organic/cottagecore/thrifted aesthetic that it could just as easily be called “Mediterranean girl” or “farmers market girl” or “girl-who-wears-sundresses-and-sunbathes-in-Tuscany girl” and you wouldn’t know the difference. Each micro-aesthetic is so niche and specific, and yet is so closely related to every other one that it’s hard to see them as anything more than a mockery of micro-trends in themselves. To think of “tomato girl” as it would have been in a past decade, perhaps as a result of the tomato farmer’s union or organic food movement, is laughable. 

Punk rockers of the 1970s (Photo credit: Anarchy UK)
Woodstock attendees dressed in colorful patterns (Photo credit:
Some nonsensical "aesthetics" found on Pinterest

These trends are so lacking in any real significance that it’s impossible to really adopt any of them as a lifestyle for more than a week. Typically, they are used by influencers as trendy content, such as makeup tutorials or outfit inspiration, and just as quickly forgotten about. New aesthetics pop up like weeds, without any real history, political movement, or significance to root them, and are washed away in the never-ending stream of new trends that seems to quicken by the day. And it’s becoming increasingly common to see bizarre combinations of these trends, such as “blokette”, a juxtaposition of the coquette fashion trend and tomboyish athletic wear. 

Vintage has become an increasingly popular alternative to fast fashion trends, which is hardly surprising when almost all modern clothing lines produce cheap, ugly, and poor quality items. Clothes from other decades were produced with higher quality materials and have stood the test of time. They’re typically nicer to look at, as opposed to the mind-numbing fluorescent Barbiecore Shein marketing campaigns that seem inescapable in today’s Instagram feed. But vintage fashion is a finite resource, and as older clothes get worn out and thrown away, the supply of vintage clothes shrinks like a wool sweater in a dryer. Walking into a thrift store in 20 years only to find that all the fisherman sweaters and All That Jazz dresses have been replaced by Forever 21 and Brandy Melville castaways is one of the most frightening thoughts that keeps me up at night. 

Subcultures were once meaningful, sometimes counter-culture, movements with distinctive clothing styles, music, and ideologies. Today, they have metamorphosed into fast moving trends, defined only by hashtags and collages. In a digital era full of online personalities, Gen Z is feeling the pressure to be unique more than ever. But in our search for identity, we have obscured the meaning of identity, turning it into a collage of products and brands and filters. Style is no longer a vehicle of self-expression, but a means for corporations and influencers to make a quick buck. It is a commodity to be bought and sold. We are now walking brands, waiting until our style is no longer relevant and we must rebrand ourselves with the latest aesthetic.