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Cool Today, Cheugy Tomorrow - What’s the Problem?

By Lara Levetan

Think 2010s aesthetic, meets #girlboss, meets live laugh love - all of which are considered to emit the essence of ‘cheugy’. ‘Cheugy’, Gen Z’s new favourite buzzword for anything supposedly passé or outdated, has gained some serious traction across social media platforms in the recent months. According to the term’s pioneers, the label of ‘cheugy’ represents an essentially vague, indefinable, and yet undeniably discernable set of characteristics.

While, at face value, the term does not hold sinister or scathing connotations, its dismissive categorisation and inherent distancing from particular items and interests begs the following questions: how does the internet’s newest insult perpetuate fast fashion, the accelerating trend cycle and hyper-consumption, and what are its broader implications?

Although the term ‘cheugy’ was initially coined by Beverly Hills high-schooler Gaby Rasson in 2013, it gained significant notoriety by TikTok user Hallie Cain in 2021, whose video unpacking the phenomenon amassed almost 1 million views. Although notions of being ‘basic’ or ‘unfashionable’ are immemorial insults, the particular variation of ‘cheugy’ is relatively new on the scene, and seems inextricably linked to its historical context, to quote Roland Barthes’ The Language of Fashion - “clothes live in tight symbiosis with their historical context.” In this case, the precipitous rise of the snub ‘cheugy’ has gained traction in tandem with the acceleration of the trend cycle, predominantly through social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram and Pinterest - which have ultimately propelled fast fashion.

From 20 Years to 20 Seconds: The Accelerating Trend Cycle

We all know that fashion trends are cyclical. In fact, they travel through a five-stage cycle by which the trend is introduced, gains ‘acceptance’, peaks in mainstream popularity, declines, and eventually reaches obsolescence. Due to the constant state of repetition and succession inherent in the pattern, a once-obsolete trend is likely to re-enter the cycle in the future.

Trends tend to re-emerge from hibernation after 20 years to form part of the contemporary aesthetic. As such, we witnessed the resurrection of 90s chokers, dad sneakers and pastel hues only a few years ago, and in accordance, the recent resurgence of Y2K Juicy Couture tracksuits, baguette bags, baby tees, platform flip flops and UGGS has followed suit. However, it is clear that with the long-held popularity of YouTube collective clothing halls, and the more recent proliferation of TikToks and Instagram Reels, we are undergoing a rapid escalation in the momentum of the trend cycle - resembling the spin-cycle of a washing machine. Nowadays, with Tiktok and Instagram fashion Influencers constantly receiving gifted items from brands, as well as the algorithmic segmentation of particular fashion aesthetics, the ‘played out’ and ‘antiquated’ trend items are saturating people’s social media pages in a very short space of time. The medium of a non-stop video stream ultimately manifests in a content overload in which viewers are conditioned to feel like their pages are inundated with the same items, eventually pronouncing them irredeemably ‘cheugy’. The result? The duration of the trend cycle has substantially shrunk, in which the 5-stage bell curve has been compressed into a fleeting moment in time, rather than an enduring, successive and predictable pattern.

A recent and pressing example of this ‘fashion whiplash’ is that of the meteoric rise and fall of one of the most patent exemplifications of a micro-trend (a term popularized by TikTok fashion mastermind, @oldloserinbrooklyn) - House of Sunny’s Hockney Dress. During early 2021, the dress synonymous with Kendall Jenner and the in-the-know Pinterest girl was splashed across every social media platform and revered for its must-have status. However, the viral garment’s short-lived moment in the spotlight came to a starling halt, to the extent where, by the time exhilarated purchasers received the item from their postman, it was already relegated to ‘cheugy’ status.

While House of Sunny supposedly holds itself to standards of sustainability, the Hockney Dress epitomises a flash in the pan or snapshot in time in which microtrends rapidly ebb and flow, eventually culminating in their discardment and squandering into the repellent designation of ‘cheugy’. Indeed, pioneering and wielding a word such as ‘cheugy’, embedded in its context of accelerating micro-trends and the swell of hyper-consumption, boils down to a desire to distance oneself from something that used to prevail at the pinnacle of popularity - until very recently. Simultaneously, it constructs a particularly myopic scope of what is considered trendy and ‘cool’, while ultimately propelling consumers back to Influencers and ‘tastemakers’ for resolute guidance, instead of looking inward for inspiration. The outcome is twofold, a glamorisation of hyper-consumption, as well as an overall detachment and withdrawal from personal style.

The Impact of the Hamster-Wheel

The exhausting, hamster-wheeling of the trend cycle, further perpetuated by social media and harmful terms such as ‘cheugy’, hold detrimental and alarming effects on people and the planet, in that they result in a deeper entrenchment into ideals of capitalism and hyper-consumption. The short-lived nature of microtrends, as well as the consequent saturation of fast fashion reproductions of these microtrends, culminates in a frightening turnover of merchandise, fundamentally contributing to the snowballing accumulation of clothing headed toward the landfill.

While it is certainly unproductive to vilify individuals for their contributions to the pattern, it is important to make a concerted effort when entering into discourses about trends and fashion in a positive and intentional manner. Words like ‘cheugy’ allow for a detachment from any responsibility in terms of personal consumption habits. Embracing personal style, while thinking about longevity, versatility and intentionality are key when attempting to combat the trajectory of the current fashion landscape, as well as depart from the need for social media approval when choosing what to wear.

If the burgeoning popularity of words like ‘cheugy’ can illuminate anything, it’s that the pendulum of social media trends and buzzwords hold tangible consequences. Ultimately, taking steps in the right direction means that we can prevail as conscious consumers who embrace individuality over imitation.

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