Fashion on TikTok: sponsored self-expression

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Although it started out as a platform that encouraged experimentation, TikTok’s fashion content has been taken over by business-focused “microtrends.”

by Alexandra Surprising | 04/21/22 02:05

Like many, I joined TikTok at the start of the pandemic – almost jokingly, perhaps, but also because I longed for some real semblance of community. TikTok offered an effective (albeit dystopian) way to connect with my peers on a diverse range of content: dance videos, comedy, makeup. I was immediately drawn to the endless stream of fashion videos – produced not only by the typical “influencers”, but also by normal people. I was watching an outfit video made by a student stuck at home followed by another by an eccentric grandma.

When clothing stores closed, people turned to their own closets, experimenting with the clothes they owned rather than buying new ones. For consumer and creator (often uniquely blurred roles on the app), TikTok provided a method of escape. A non-judgmental space emerged, located at the intersection between an inability to leave home and a need for self-expression.

Unexpected outfit combinations flourished: clashing patterns, homemade tie-dye shirts, old cowboy boots paired with long dresses. Some designers have even revived the trend of “upcycling” by reusing old items: jeans have been cut and sewn into tops, while oversized buttonholes have been transformed into skirts. People experienced fashion from the safety of their own homes, without the threat of judgment from classmates or colleagues. Stylistic freedom was found through restrictions, not in spite of them.

Last weekend, my TikTok feed was overwhelmed with a flood of influencers at Coachella – all dressed in glitter and designer clothes. TikTok’s old fashion content imagination felt absent as I browsed through a stream of sponsored posts and brand new expensive sets. How did an app originally praised for its laid-back authenticity turn into a parade of consumerism and superficiality?

Something has changed. The app has largely become a vehicle for advertising, with huge fashion companies such as Shein and Revolve realizing TikTok’s incredible selling power. Sponsored posts (marked with a subtle “#ad” in the caption) are typical, with influencers giving brands stilted endorsements.

My feed contains a steady stream of non-durable clothing transports. A new term, “microtrend”, has materialized, attributed to the brief style trends that regularly run through the app. Within a few weeks, clothing items will gain popularity and then drop until they become insignificant.

Stephanie Lee ’24 explained how quickly “trendy” posts lose relevance on TikTok.

“It’s really interesting to see how quickly trends are changing on the app,” Lee said. “It’s so much harder to analyze trends and find more lasting style inspiration.”

According to some students, TikTok’s microtrends haven’t had a noticeable impact on style at Dartmouth. rather than following an entire trend.

Sadie Weil ’25 noted that weather conditions, like snow and freezing temperatures, may be inhibiting “Dartmouth style” – a concept that is difficult to define as a single category.

“[Dartmouth style is] much more dressed up and laid back,” Weil said. “People embrace trends but they don’t sacrifice their own comfort.”

Weil noted that the informality of the Dartmouth style is often comforting. Luckily, sweatpants and leggings are never discouraged. Although elaborate outfits are taking over TikTok and Instagram, there’s no pressure to dress up on campus. Weil and Lee both pointed to the presence of athleisure – athletic casual attire – on campus, influenced by the large presence of student-athletes at the College.

On the other hand, Nate Gordon ’25 said this relaxed, more cohesive style environment can make it daunting to take fashion risks in Dartmouth.

“Many people [at Dartmouth] don’t really use fashion as a form of self-expression,” Gordon said, “style doesn’t seem to be that big of an issue here, which can put people off experimenting with fashion.

For many, it’s a fine balance between embracing the style and acknowledging certain constraints, such as weather conditions or campus style standards. Evenings provide a rare opportunity to wear brighter colors and style, especially for themed events. With these campus-specific considerations, Lee explained that her style has changed since arriving at Dartmouth from Los Angeles — though she still looks to the internet for inspiration.

“At the end of the day, I’m a student of Dartmouth. It influences my fashion the most,” Lee said. “I will bring together influences from TikTok, Instagram and all types of social media. I’ll find trends that way. What really guides my purchases is what I will actually wear on campus.

Does TikTok fashion content have relevance among students? It seems TikTok, once an anomaly among other forms of social media, has fallen victim to the same fate as Instagram: a sleek, over-organized platform fueled by endorsements and brand envy. Previously, TikTok’s fashion videos mainly encouraged creativity. I would go back to my own closet with enthusiasm. Now they inspire a distinct desire. A craving for more clothes. Exotic vacation. A weekend at Coachella.

With style, it is admittedly difficult to separate self-expression from materialism; maybe they are still connected. I hope to remember the original spirit of TikTok – a momentary flash of funky outfits and unbridled ingenuity, with limitations forcing experimentation. With a return to that attitude, I want to imagine new possibilities with my own closet, and maybe (surprisingly) New Hampshire winter.

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