Is TikTok’s ‘Clean Girl’ Aesthetic Making Fashion, Well, Boring?

By Jessica Beresford
The ’clean girl’ beauty aesthetic has taken off on TikTok, garnering multiple iterations and sparking debate over its origins and relevance to different communities. Collage / Alessandra Banal

From niche trends to super trends, social media algorithms have reshaped the way we dress now. But if everyone looked the same, will we get tired of looking at each other?

Those familiar with Swedish influencer Matilda Djerf will know her as a young entrepreneur with an impressive

Those who don’t know her will at least be familiar with her aesthetic: minimalist, effortless and soft, dubbed a “clean girl” or “coastal grandma” by those who categorise things on the internet.

Djerf didn’t invent these trends, but she has certainly perpetuated them, with her style, beauty routine and “butterfly” hair cut endlessly shared and copied on TikTok, Instagram and Pinterest.

Like many, I first came across Djerf on Instagram’s Discover page, before seeing countless others with her likeness appear across the platforms.

Offline, I saw her doppelgängers walking around the streets of London, then Paris, then Sydney. They all had either freshly washed, bouncy hair or a slick-back fastened with a hair claw, as well as brushed up eyebrows, blushed cheeks, glossy lips and glowing skin. They clothed themselves in fashion ‘basics’ in neutral colours — boxy suits, oversized shirts, slinky slip skirts, baby tees, baggy, low-slung denim and the occasional going-out top.

It’s a look best summarised as 90s minimalism crossed with early 2000s youth culture, with a dash of Scandi style for good measure.

Swedish influencer Matilda Djerf in a look copied by millions. Photo / @Matildadjerf
Swedish influencer Matilda Djerf in a look copied by millions. Photo / @Matildadjerf

This aesthetic was born during lockdown, according to Amélie Rotsen of Heuritech, a Paris-based forecasting agency that identifies trends through image recognition, and then analyses those through its own master algorithm to predict what is coming next.

“It was when the whole world was centered around productivity, routines and self-development, channelling a clean, minimalistic and romanticised way of living.” The clothes are usually oversized, and therefore comfortable to wear; the beauty routine looks simple and pared-back, even though it’s complex and time-consuming in reality.

What has happened in the time since is a decidedly modern phenomenon, whereby this singular look — which might have once remained as a relatively niche trend — has transcended borders, demographics and cultures to exist as an overarching, global mood informing the worlds of fashion and beauty.

Its arc from trend to super-trend is perhaps due to its perceived ease: a subtle balance between aspirational and relatable. The “clean girl” is curated and romanticised yet, in the case of Djerf, is seemingly unforced.

“Their style is easily reproduced for less, and they propose countless five-minute makeup tips,” adds Rotsen of the influencers who endorse it. “They’re the girl anyone could be.”

The algorithms that curate our social media feeds have had, of course, no small part to play in its ubiquity. “They are crucial in spreading trends,” says Rotsen.

“The algorithm gives you access to the main trends by promoting, on one side, massive accounts with significant engagement and therefore having the power to push a new trend. On the other side, they also understand your “niche” and that of the people surrounding you in real life and in the digital realm, and therefore give you extensive iterations of a singular trend depending on your ‘aesthetic interests’.”

The look bolstered by Djerf is so strong that fashion brands, particularly those in the contemporary category, are now designing to align with this prevailing aesthetic.

This isn’t necessarily a new situation, whereby brands design according to what their customers are wearing, but what is taking place now is a more extreme version of this phenomenon.

Djerf even has her own brand, Djerf Avenue, which caters specifically to this audience — and according to The New York Times, this year’s sales revenues are forecast at US$22 million, up from $8 million in 2021.

“It’s not new that fashion follows street style now, and what people want, rather than fashion dictating what people are going to wear,” says professor Carolyn Mair, a behavioural psychologist, PhD and author of The Psychology of Fashion.

“It’s been a shift over the last decade — designers see the popularity of trends that are coming up from the street, so they’re designing according to those. And it makes sense because they don’t want to be left with stock that nobody wants to wear because it’s not fashionable.”

It does, however, lead to a certain homogeneity across the collections, as well as a feedback loop of brands creating clothes that their customers are already wearing.

Walk into any multi-retailer and you’ll likely find minimalist clothes with similar silhouettes produced by brands from all over the world.

“It shows a lack of originality of thought, of real creativity,” adds Mair. “It’s kind of the reverse of what people used to do, which is be inspired by designers. And now we’re getting designers inspired by ordinary people. And it just goes round and round.”

As an aesthetic, too, it’s not without its criticism: “It has also been coined to be quite elitist, as the lifestyle it promotes — workout classes, high-end skincare, organic grocery shopping — is not achievable by all,” adds Rotsen. “Also, the issue of inclusivity for all shades and sizes and cultural appropriation are frequently discussed by its detractors.”

Rotsen argues that content creators and algorithms are so influential now that social media is a place where trends can be born and die without brands or designers even being involved.

Oversized blazers and a minimalist approach to dressing as seen at Zara. Photo / Supplied
Oversized blazers and a minimalist approach to dressing as seen at Zara. Photo / Supplied

“Brands need to understand that through meme culture, the second-hand surge and curation accounts, Gen-Zers are now twisting fashion history to their liking and reappropriating brands and their codes with a post-irony take,” she says.

“That’s not to say that brands do not create trends at all anymore — hit products are still very much relevant in this society, but at the same time, they need to listen carefully to see where market opportunities lie for them.”

She cites Miu Miu, which enjoyed a moment of virality with its SS22 pleated mini skirt and recent early 2000s-inspired collections, as a brand that has done this well.

“They have tapped into aesthetics such as Old Money, ballet core and tennis core with great success, reaffirming the trends’ relevance while remaining extremely on brand.”

The internet’s ability to amplify such aesthetic codes, and the relentless availability of products that play into them, is seemingly suffocating micro-trends and sub-cultures that once thrived in corners of the world.

“Everybody looks the same,” says Mair, also noting the adoption of cosmetic enhancements that go hand-in-hand with the “clean girl” look, including lip fillers, brow lamination and eyelash extensions.

“And rather than having their individuality or belonging to a particular subculture, they belong to these groups because they are seen as the most successful, the most affluent, having the most fun, the most desirable,” says Mair. “And so their lifestyles appear to have those characteristics as well, which they probably don’t in reality.”

Mair notes that subcultures still exist, but they are perhaps less visible now.

“When I think back to the 60s and 70s, when they were more unusual, it’s because we didn’t have social media to the extent we have now, and that just amplifies the majority voice... These people want to belong to a social group — we like to conform. And their alignment is according to what’s popular.”

The “clean girl” look is certainly popular — and isn’t showing signs of abating. And perhaps it’s just an example of how subcultures now play out in the era of algorithms, mass-amplification and hypercapitalism. We’re all destined to exist in a world curated by Matilda Djerf.

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