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THE TIKTOK BOYS: AN EXPLORATION OF INTERNET STYLE AND THE ECONOMICS OF ENGAGEMENT 

January 24, 2024

Sean Toomey

We’re way too far gone into the internet age for any semblance of monoculture now. There’s prep revival, 2000s kids hanging on to pop punk best-of shows and fanged threads of metafiction. There’s the vintage market guys hanging over the most tattered sawtooth shirt, dresses with cowboy boots, Aime Leon Dore core, George Costanza guys, “just a twenty-one year old teenage girl” girls, dark academia, light academia, cottage core, whateverfuck core who knows anymore. So, for all this fracturing, why is it that it seems that every menswear guy on Tik Tok and Instagram dress the same exact way? No one is immune to the sickle – a baggy fit nineties variety inscribed sickle – of trends working their way into fashion; ignoring them entirely often leads to a lack of interaction and communication with the wider scope of fashion beyond one’s wardrobe. But within the insular and bizarre world of menswear there seems to be a general coalescence, beyond the ebb and flow of trends, into a distinct sort of fashion homogeneity seen amongst the veritable legion of online influencers handing out their tips. How did this occur? 

Personally I think it helps to get a broader scope of the menswear scene from me, the outsider looking in. Online menswear can be generally divided into three or so categories, allowing some room for generalization, that make up the vast majority of media that take up your explore or for you page when you lazily scroll through your phone.

 In one camp we have the old breed; guys who were around and active in the heyday of the #menswear movement and built their lasting brand off of its momentum. Their style is firmly rooted in the coat and tie (sometimes sans tie) look of classic menswear but retaining what can often be a rather fruitless struggle to reclaim a sense of modernity to what is rapidly becoming a more historical sense of dress. Their stylings are mostly conservative, having weaned off the slim fit italian jackets, sextuplet pattern matching, cutaway collar, tan double monk strap excesses of the 2010s, and settled into modern cuts of the suit and tie with a little bit of rebellion still left in them from the previous decade. They are established – knowing all the tailors, bootmakers, shirtmakers, and outfitters – and most of their media output is formed around education, product launches, and collaborations with new and exciting makers to add spice in what is an increasingly small circle. You find this camp in expensive magazines, occasional crossovers into Esquire and GQ, and in the likes of The Armoury and Drakes – both making brilliant and exceptionally high quality garments for the more conservative dressers in the menswear sphere. They wear loafers and sometimes belgians and navy suits and gray flannels. 

Another camp is the anti-influencers, or rather, those who are popular more for their taste and their willingness to share it rather than any desire to sell or promote. If you’re like me this makes up most of your instagram feed. These people come in many forms but most often that of an anonymous image board of a particular era – the pinterest overflow – or in older men who enjoy dressing well apart from being a little too interested in the contrasting waistcoat look. You also see this grouping in the accounts of Derek Guy – now Twitter famous – and Ethan M. Wong and all the guys from the Style and Direction podcast. They are well versed in menswear but are more interested in the personal journey of their own expression and own style rather and their true aficion for menswear and inviting you to be along for the ride. Personally I find myself most in kindred with this grouping; who else can I turn to to share an interest with foulard ties from the 1930s? 

The final grouping, our titular tik tok boys, are the interesting ones in this mix. They are most firmly the new breed, not necessarily in age but in their interaction with the medium of social media and menswear. They are not promoting their own brand rather than their own idea of a lifestyle that you might be able to buy into provided you wear the same pair of vintage levis as them. They’re not scrounging around a goodwill in Colonie, NY for two hours to sniff out that one made to measure jacket from 1985 in a sea of fused polyester blend junk as they are looking for a band t shirt, a windbreaker, whatever trend has latched upon menswear for the breaking moment of the day. Their output on the menswear scene is disturbingly uniform. In short, they have no personal style of their own. Is it trends then? Can we keep blaming the shifting fashion cycle as the progenitor of all our problems and the Ur and only reason why our outfits suck? To me that’s not a satisfying answer. Trends, as mentioned above, are always part of our expression regardless of our intent to express them. No, it’s more of metalayer of expression, the trends of trends that have coalesced all these disparate fashion ideals into the uniform content of guys selling you t shirt and jeans combo but this time the jeans are wide style outfits with perhaps the occasional, rather coded reference, to the stark reality that we are consuming advertisement in a constant and universal manner. I suppose then we’ve narrowed it down. Money, the mandrake root. Or, if you subscribe to the litany of HR speak flowing down the pipeline, “engagement”. 

Now your style is no longer a measure of your own personal expression as it is how much media you consume. And we do see this time and time again. Loads and interesting voices and dressers falling under the inescapable pressure of getting clicks, likes, retweets, etc. This produces uniformity and it’s one both forced and accepted as the potential financial and social rewards often prove much more enticing than staying true to one’s own expression. This uniformity gathers up trends into its own handbasket, casting the widest net in order to get the most views and interaction with their content. As of right now, it has settled into a mix of the bland casualness of men’s dress today mixed with the loose fitting silhouettes of the 90s, jumping aboard the wide fit trend as previous cycle’s menswear guys and their seven inch pant openings are left behind. Baggy jeans, t-shirts with suits, new balances and any vaguely retro sneaker. Suits should be casual or not at all, preferring to mismatch various odd jackets and trousers. When a button up shirt is required it has to be a button down as it’s the most casual dressy shirt option and can be worn without a tie. Fatigues can be worn with tailoring to interesting effect but more often than not are paired with a random sweatshirt or merino crewneck. They are mining the tradition of the nineties, a very interesting decade for menswear and tailoring – I was early on the vintage armani revival trend – and at every step undercut themselves to appease a wider audience scared to death at the idea of tying a four in hand knot and wearing anything more than the bare minimum to avoid a public indecency charge. 

I think it’s just boring, honestly. There’s no life to what they're doing because they are not selling clothes or letting us peek into their personal style, they're just selling the unobtainable variables of their life. You don’t want that outfit you want his face and his life his money and his


“Fame”. They cast the widest net they can and all they catch are fistfuls of mud. When you build an audience based around engagement you attract those whose relationship with clothes are purely functional and while that business might be sustainable for the clothing companies it sure as hell isn’t for the influencer. The moment they lose a step or fall behind on the trend or become surpassed by someone else who better suits the present moment it’s over. This is true for all artists but at least a poet or a painter has a legacy to be looked back on. All we have now is link decay and fleeting apps. How do we look back on pastiche, the impossible future being replaced by the repeated past and nostalgia. Ten years from now, when someone is looking for inspiration from the casual nineties J. Crew lookbooks and relaxed ivy looks, will they first go to the long past influencer who pastiched this for their own enrichment or the actual lookbooks and actual pictures of the time? I’m not sure. All we can be sure of is change, and I fear it may not take too kindly to the corps of influencers who would rather sell you their world instead of showing it

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