Y2K, Liminal Space, and Dark Academia: What Aesthetics Ruled 2021
Illustration by Liam Hopkins

The Year in Aesthetics, From Dark Academia to McBling

The experts at Aesthetics Wiki break down the enduring allure of Y2K, the creepy thrill of liminal spaces, and other key style stories.

Once the province of philosophers and 19th century dandies, the study of aesthetics has become a pandemic-era obsession—especially among the sort of mood board-loving young people who hear the word “academia” and instantly think of Jude Law period flicks and dimly lit neo-Gothic libraries. The epicenter for discussion, for those who really love to nerd out, is an online community called Aesthetics Wiki. Since 2018, day in and day out, a revolving door of volunteers has been fastidiously classifying and cataloguing pretty much every genre of visual self-expression in history, from classics like “hellenic” and "baroque” to neologisms like “forestpunk” and “christcore.”


Aesthetics Wiki covers fashion trends, home decor styles, and music-adjacent subcultures like hyperpop and vaporwave—but some entries refer to little more than a kind of image a lot of people are posting, which is probably why a FAQ on the wiki defines the word “aesthetic,” simply, as “a collection of visual schema that creates a ‘mood.’” It’s the largest and most exhaustive archive of its kind on the internet—and, with its leaderboard of the most popular pages, a pretty good barometer of the visual-culture trends that are capturing the youth imagination at any given time. 

According to a representative from Fandom, the wiki hosting service where the archive is housed, Aesthetics Wiki’s page for the classical literature–loving Dark Academia received more visits than any other entries in 2021—followed, not surprisingly, by Cottagecore, the bucolic lifestyle trend that got TikTok obsessed with baking bread. But pageviews don’t necessarily tell the story of a year, so to get a handle on the aesthetics that defined 2021, we turned to the internet’s unofficial experts: the Aesthetics Wiki admins and contributors who record that story in real time. Here, in their own words, are the aesthetics that captured the zeitgeist this year—and why they seem to have resonated with so many people.


1. Y2K/McBling

As told by Sean, admin

What it is: The Y2K and McBling aesthetics stem from what was popular around the late 90s and early 2000s, although the McBling aesthetic extends a little past that timeframe into what one could call the “MySpace era.” Both aesthetics have a lot bright, saturated colors, but the McBling aesthetic draws more heavily from the “bling bling” of the post–gangsta rap era of hip-hop (think: Hype Williams music videos) and the optimistic feeling of the time: a lot of glitter, Juicy Couture, anything that can elicit a kind of “Paris Hilton-esque” or Pop Princess vibe.

The Y2K aesthetic focuses more on what people perceived to be the direction of the future at the time: Oakley sunglasses, shiny clothes (especially if it’s silver), blobitecture, first-generation iPods, games that come from the PS2/Dreamcast/original XBox era. Probably the best source for the Y2K would be the Y2K Aesthetic Institute, run by Froyo Tam and Evan Collins.

Why it’s popular: Who doesn’t need a little sunshine and happiness in their life? That’s certainly what these two aesthetics are all about. There was definitely this sense of optimism for the future [back then]—like we had the whole world ahead of us, and all we had to do was work hard, pursue our dreams, and we’d live out our own personal American Dream. It’s not exactly a coincidence that the aesthetics of the time started fading out after 9/11. For millennials like myself, it’s a reminder of that sense of optimism for the future that never was for us.

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2. Dark Academia/Light Academia

As told by Tea, admin

What it is: Dark Academia primarily focuses on education and self-development. But its secondary topics are mystery, darkness, and the unknown. [You’ll often see images of] dry red wine, a silver dagger, a black umbrella, and antique books. Light Academia is softer, underlining how calm, happy, and marvelous student life is: an almond latte, freshly picked oranges, book-pressed flowers, a newly bought nib. I’d say it’s a “slice of life” plot rather than an intriguing murder mystery.

In my experience, most of the people associated with [the Academia aesthetics are students]. Sometimes, though, they are just huge fans of some associated work, like Dead Poets Society [or Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray]. Education is seen as a gift and its pursuit is a mysterious adventure. You’ll often see tweed blazers with formal dress pants, turtlenecks, and half-open blouses—a perfect look for an Oxford academic. However, the color palettes are different: Dark Academia [foregrounds] darker shades, like black, oak brown, grey, and swamp green. Light Academia has lighter tones, with pastels and warm colors, cream, beige.

Dark Academia was, and still is, widely criticized for its Eurocentrism. You barely get to see any authors outside of Western Europe, unfortunately. Nowadays, though, you can find book recommendations with diverse authors and thematic collages of Asian architecture and poetry. For example, there’s Desi Academia, a frequently updated Tumblr tag, created by Desi academics.


Why it’s popular: Many students were isolated [this year] and couldn’t get to feel what their lives used to be like. So they indulged in these romantic stories, horror tales, and images of tranquil libraries and museum trips to cope with current events.


3. Liminal Space 

As told by Sean

What it is: Liminal Space [is a photo-based aesthetic that] can probably best be summed up by seeing an image and feeling a sense of nostalgia, accompanied by unease and dread—like, I’m not supposed to be here. You’re seeing a space at a time that is disconnected from normal experience—like, a doctor's office before the office opens, or a mall or shopping center after closing time, and everybody's supposed to be gone. A lot of empty hotel pools. You’re seeing something very familiar, but in a new light... a state of transition, if you will. 

Why it’s popular: Things are starting to open again after COVID absolutely ravaged the world throughout 2020, so there might be a subconscious question of, How have these closed areas been faring while everybody’s in lockdown? or Will these places become the permanent liminal spaces of tomorrow at the rate COVID is still ravaging the world? That sense of curiosity and, to a lesser extent, exploration, are at play with Liminal Space, but there's also that nagging voice in the back of your mind telling you, You shouldn't be here, that kinda gives you a bit of a rush, no matter how small, since you’re only experiencing it through the comfort of the internet. It’s very popular within certain pockets of the horror community.

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4. Indie Kid

As told by Katherine, content editor and community assistant

What it is: Indie Kid is kind of a more present-day version of the indie that came out around the 2000s, late 90s. This version of indie is very bright, very poppy and happy. [Fashion-wise, it’s common to see] any real baggy clothes—definitely baggy jeans and sweatshirts. I’ve seen a lot of crop tops, bucket hats, Converse, Vans, and Air Force 1s, white tennis shoes. I’ve seen a lot of cow print; a lot of stuff that’s handmade, like embroidery. There’s definitely some notes of vintage in there, though I think it’s definitely more 80s throwback and some 90s throwback, rather than going back to the 60s or 70s, like the previous indie movement did. I think it started out as counterculture, but it’s really picked up speed this year, so I think it’s starting to become more out of counterculture.

Why it’s popular: Indie Kid is not really that deep, but it still has some pretty significant values to it: Individuality, some innocence, just having fun all around. I think that’s a reason why it’s popular: It's so easy to understand and get into. With COVID, all the restrictions that are going on, the quarantining—you need to live your life a little bit, not worry about school or work or what other people are thinking of you. Just not worrying too much about anything and being true to who you are.  


5. Kawaii Gamer

As told by Angela, writer and researcher

What it is: Kawaii is a general term that encompasses multiple aesthetics and calling things “cute,” but in Western culture, we’ve associated it with the specific Japanese consumer culture that explores this concept with cute characters and a variety of home goods. Kawaii Gamer is an interpretation of Japanese Kawaii associated with TikTok-using fans of video games and anime in the West. This aesthetic in particular prioritizes certain products in the set-up, which is the space where gamers have their PC, snacks, plushies, etc. People in this community customize their gaming devices to pink and white, surround their space with figurines and merchandise of their favorite characters, and have a variety of wall decorations, such as posters and neon flowers. 

Mascot characters, such as Sanrio and Pokémon, are extremely popular amongst this crowd, as there’s a strong emphasis on collecting them. Kawaii lo-fi music and certain musicians—such as Snail’s House and Moe Shop—light-up keyboards, and tennis skirts are also common. In terms of fashion, many pieces originate from AliExpress, Amazon. It’s very different from the old J-fashion culture (where I’m from), where the emphasis is on getting clothes imported from Japanese brands who have smaller runs.


Why it’s popular: Gaming culture as a whole is becoming more popular, and with that comes the fact that young women are looking for a way to participate in gaming culture and express their femininity at the same time. Because they admire these visuals from anime, games, and Kawaii art, they decide to combine the two. It also allows for skill-building, as many of these people need to customize their PC. Collecting and making their set-up/room becomes a hobby in itself.


6. Fairy Grunge

As told by Angela

What it is: Fairy Grunge is a nature-inspired fashion aesthetic that combines edgy, goth-inspired casual pieces with more floaty, fairy-like outfit details. The colors are predominantly brown, black, olive green, and cream. [You see a lot of] zip-up hoodies, fairy-inspired jewelry, leg warmers, and tutu/gathered skirts. Fairy Grunge is definitely a celebration of clothing found through thrifting or unusual pieces, as opposed to the more polished look of traditional fast fashion. The aesthetic is connected with a renewed interest in the Twilight films, which has the same color palette, layered 2000s pieces, and a woodlands feel. 

Why it’s popular: In general, Gen Z teenagers are starting to have more interest in the 2000s aesthetic, which was a time we barely remember because we were children back then and didn’t get to participate in the predominant fashion trends. [The Twilight sequel] Midnight Sun was released in 2020, and the popularization of Twilight and Vampire Diaries definitely led to people admiring the fashions of the main characters, rather than seeing them as wearing normal clothes, as the 2000s audience would have. 

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7. Lo-Fi

As told by Sean

What it is: Lo-Fi kinda goes for a nostalgic feel, with a lot of grainy and/or VHS-inspired filters. It has the feeling of going through an old photo album, or looking at old movies you made in your past. There’s no recurring imagery, [but it does have] a recurring color palette, which generally has more of a muted color scheme—almost like you're capturing a fading memory, and it’s gotten to be aged and weathered, but somehow is still recognizable enough that it sparks that memory. The fashion rules tend to be a little looser than with most aesthetics; generally, as long as it’s something that looks good through those sorts of filters, anything goes.

Most people will associate Lo-Fi with music—specifically lo-fi hip-hop, although there are other lo-fi genres out there, like lo-fi house, lo-fi jazz, and even chillwave. There is a connection to Lo-Fi Beats to Study and Relax to, but I think you can actually trace its roots back to the early days of [Adult Swim], when they first debuted the black and white bumpers between shows; not only would they use a lot of those style beats, but they also aired the anime Samurai Champloo, which utilized a lot of that style music for its soundtrack. The opening theme was done by the late Nujabes, who, along with the late J Dilla, is considered to be one of the pioneers of the genre.

Why do you think it was so popular this year? Lo-Fi is one of those rare aesthetics that has always kinda been there—like an evergreen tree, just growing at its own pace. Much like with Y2K, it taps into nostalgia, but it's more of a sense of universal nostalgia as opposed to trying to recreate a particular time period; rather than focusing on grand, sweeping social changes, it’s a lot more low-key and personal to the individual in question—small-scale, if you will. In the case of younger generations, [there may be] a curiosity for how things were pre-internet, due to the fact they’ve grown up in a world that's always had the internet and that's all they’ve known.


8. Peoplehood

As told by Angela

What it is: Peoplehood is a Tumblr aesthetic that focuses on moments of universal human behavior, centered on love and nurturing. Users create compilations of poetry fragments and candid images of diverse peoples interacting with each other and existing in their environments—[photos] of people of all ages, races, etc. having moments of tenderness. Food is also an important part of the aesthetic, with images of pasta, family style dinners. It’s [also about] performing labor for other people—especially the domestic labor of cooking.

Peoplehood is all about the love people have for each other in what we do: We help elders cross the road, carry things for strangers. There is the constant belief that human beings are good and generous at their core. “The Orange” by Wendy Cope is the poem that started this trend. It also builds on Tumblr aesthetic history in that many people got into poetry because of Dark Academia and romanticize labor because of Cottagecore. The musician Mitski is also popular amongst this crowd, because of her emotionally intense music. 

Why do you think it was so popular this year? In the late stages of the pandemic, many people are starting to appreciate contact with other people and the love present in mundane routine. There’s also this made-up word that’s been floating around for a while: sonder. Sonder is the realization that everyone on earth has their own rich inner life.