The Rise of Aesthetics
Digital culture has allowed a multiplicity of identity types to flourish and express themselves.
On August 9, 2019, a creator named Caroline Elizabeth uploaded this video — one of the earliest existing video on YouTube to have the word “cottagecore” in the title.
Nearly a year later, the term — and the trend it represents — would break into the mainstream thanks to social media and Taylor Swift, whose surprise album “Folklore” and related videos were steeped in the signposts and signifiers of cottagecore — simple, homespun-looking fashion, candles and florals, and earth tones and vintage vibes all around.
But while there’s a good chance you’ve encountered cottagecore by now, its rise is part of a much bigger, growing trend in pop and youth culture that gives mostly younger generations a way of finding and forging an identity: aesthetics.
As it’s used today, the term aesthetics can be defined as the thematic expression of visual and musical tastes as a representation of self. There are hundreds of types, and youth movements have always played around with them. The difference between previous eras and now is twofold: one, the quantity and accessibility of different kinds of aesthetics, and two, the conscious engagement with the idea of aesthetics itself. Social media platforms have facilitated both things, and YouTube is no exception: there have been over 1 billion cumulative views since 2015 on popular aesthetics such as e-girl, cottagecore, Y2K, and dark academia.
To understand the phenomenon better, we matched aesthetics listed on the Aesthetics Wiki with keywords in YouTube video titles or descriptions.
The results were fascinating, but because the broader universe of aesthetics and the myriad facets and variations of each can be hard to summarize, it’s useful to return to the example of cottagecore as a point of entry.
As the name itself implies, cottagecore evokes a pastoral world of simpler, comfortable, closer-to-nature living. Like every other aesthetic, cottagecore needs to be subjectively interpreted to be practiced. While it has identifiable characteristics, there’s no one right way to represent or express it, as this sample of images shows.
1,000 Images From Videos With in the Title
Drag/zoom images to explore »
Click images to explore »
But where did this come from and why now? Amanda Brennan, a social media strategist who has been called the “librarian of the internet,” began seeing the antecedents of the cottagecore aesthetic as early as 2014, when she categorized trends for Tumblr. Back then the trending hashtag was #cottage, which evolved into #cottagewitch in 2016 and eventually emerged as the coinage #cottagecore in 2018. But it wasn’t until 2020 that cottagecore really took off, with 50 million views on YouTube. As Brennan points out, its rise, during the pandemic, is probably not an accident.
“When so many people were stuck at home -- worried, scared, and with the Internet,” says Brennan, “aesthetics offered a way to [escape] the pandemic with pre-Internet, romanticized imagery.”
Cottagecore was not the only aesthetic to see a surge in interest during the COVID-19 era. In fact, the very use of the term “aesthetics” itself has exploded.
While the concept of aesthetics has been around since the 18th century, its modern resurgence came with digital culture. In the 2010s, the term became very closely associated with the vaporwave culture that originated on Tumblr, which developed a very defined genre of sound and visual style that drew primarily on cultural sources of the 1980s and 1990s.
Among the most popular aesthetics right now are bardcore, dark academia, dreamcore, Y2K and royaltycore, each of which surpassed 5 million annual views on YouTube in 2020 to 2021.
Y2K“Y2K is an aesthetic based on the look of the late 1990s and early 2000s, a time where the internet was clunky and raw, but most of all, could be turned off. The post-millennium look has many iterations that range from boy-band fangirl inspired looks to Paris Hilton-era Juicy tracksuits.” - Amanda
Examples of Y2K Videos
Dreamcore and Weirdcore“These are like an offshoot of Y2K / webcore that's not concerned with a typically beautiful-looking aesthetic, but is more aligned with feeling out of the norm. [Practitioners] don’t follow the typical ‘rules’ of social/aesthetic commentary, but the ones that feel right to the person making or consuming the content. Dreamcore is very soft and light whereas weirdcore is like, the odd side of a dream, the parts of your brain that might have you saying ‘WTF?!’ If dreamcore is kawaii, weirdcore is ‘Twin Peaks.’” - Amanda
Examples of Dreamcore Videos
Bardcore“Bardcore is what happens when musical theater kids get really into Dungeons & Dragons. This exploded after ‘The Witcher’ came out and people got really into the minstrel character Jaskier's vibe and musical stylings. On YouTube, this is reflected in covers of songs done in a medieval style, accompanied by artwork from things like the Bayeux Tapestry, which has been memed on since about 2003.” - Amanda
Examples of Bardcore Videos
Dark Academia“Dark academia is the vibe of a gothic collegiate murder mystery. It involves a desire to look erudite while looking like you're also trying to solve crimes in the wee hours of the night. In a contemporary sense, it's got ‘Cruel Intentions’ vibes and is edgier and more into exploring the shadows of the self than its light academia counterpart.” - Amanda
Example of Dark Academia Videos
Royaltycore“Royaltycore has vibes of dark academia, but instead of a school setting, this is in some sort of monarchy. Think of the lush lavishness of the ‘Marie Antoinette’ movie from 2006 with a gothy spin. All the gritty reboot vibes of a CW show but in the context of a Victorian palace.” - Amanda
Example of Royaltycore Videos
While identity-seeking is one of the core pursuits of any youth culture, for Gen Z, identity is a journey, not a destination. This generation has grown up creating their identities for online spaces, where identity is transient by design. YouTube is an ideal platform for people to learn how to adopt and adapt aesthetics they’re interested in. “For people who want to explore, watching a video is going to give them a fuller picture than anything else,” says Brennan.
Video guides instruct people on how to pull all the elements of an aesthetic together to create the intended vibe. “In a video, you can see a creator go through their Y2K look,” says Brennan. “Or ‘here’s what I do when I’m vaporwave.’”
Here’s the growth of just aesthetic guides, the chart below depicting views of videos related to key aesthetics with “guide,” “tutorial,” or “how to” in the title. These could be videos, for example, that’d appear in searches for "Guides to Cottagecore Aesthetic."
Another popular self-discovery tool is the aesthetic quiz, where a video cycles through questions to help you choose an aesthetic. Quiz videos have earned over 7 million views in 2021 so far.
Here’s the growth of aesthetic quizzes, representing videos with “quiz” in the title.
This quiz from April 2021, for example, has over 1 million views.
YouTube also allows people to create and explore endless variations of an aesthetic in a way previous generations never could.
“This particular cycle is about hyper-niche identity creation,” says Brennan. “It allows people to go more narrow. Say you’re a jock — are you a volleyball jock? Or a basketball jock? And it’s happening at a deeper level, bleeding into all aspects of life.”
That can be seen in the different categories that aesthetic videos can be organized into. Craft videos, for example, help people endow their physical environments with visual traits of their preferred aesthetic. Gaming videos follow the same idea, with examples of how to modify a game’s environment to match an aesthetic.
Breakdown of Videos, by Category
The top 200 most-viewed videos for each aesthetic were manually categorized. Circle size depicts the percent of views for each category.
Music is, and always was, a big part of youth identity. (Think grunge, emo, vaporwave, etc). So it’s unsurprising that it’s usually the biggest category of videos for a given aesthetic.
Here are example videos and common characteristics for each of the categories of cottagecore videos.
Video Examples by Category for
There’s one more fascinating aspect of aesthetics online, and that’s the fact that unlike much of internet culture, the culture of aesthetics skews heavily female. This is especially poignant in the way older aesthetics are reclaimed, reinterpreted and repurposed.
“In the ’90s, grunge was a very specific thing: Nirvana, jeans, plaid,” says Brennan. “But on Tumblr in the 2010s and now on platforms like YouTube, it took on its own meaning in primarily feminine-led communities. For grunge, girls in 2014 saw like one black-and-white image, and said, ‘Yes, I’m going to build my entire life off of this.’ They are making their own meaning of the word.”
Ultimately, the variability of aesthetics may be the biggest reason for its Gen Z-fueled rise. In online culture, you can adopt and abandon identities as quickly as you can start a new Instagram account. And the sheer amount of aesthetics being created and explored means a teen has a good shot at finding a way to say, “This is who I feel I am right now.”
As Brennan puts it: “If you feel good by saying you want to live a goblincore life because that's what you identify with, I'm glad there’s a word to articulate it.”
To further explore the world of aesthetics rising on YouTube, have a look at some creators who exemplify the forms:
Selected Creators in
This research project examines the prevalence of aesthetics on YouTube. We matched aesthetics listed on the Aesthetics Wiki with keywords in YouTube video titles or descriptions. Some aesthetics were too broad or produced too many false positives to be included (e.g., emo, indie, nerd).
Views of each aesthetic are depicted using a 3-month moving average.