The upper echelons of the fashion industry have long reinforced the aesthetics of the elite. The glossy pages of magazines, runways and their exclusive audiences, and catalogue campaigns have proliferated images of purportedly aspirational figures: thin, white, paragons of Western beauty.

However, as diversity becomes increasingly important within the fashion industry. and new types of beauty are being shown in the most coveted campaigns — from skin tones, to body types, to non-Western features — the industry seems to be moving away from selling aspiration to selling representation.

Screenshot of the Rowing Blazers Instagram Account featuring images of British Royalty

Screenshot from the Rowing Blazers Moodboard Instagram (@rbmoodboard)

Major brands who have found success with this line of marketing are leading the way for the rest of the industry to follow suit. Glossier, for example, became an empire by anticipating the consumer shift towards wanting to relate to a brand and to see oneself reflected in their campaigns. According to Andrew Stephen, L’Oréal professor of marketing at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, Glossier earned itself a place in the zeitgeist from the beginning, when it “differentiated itself from incumbents that traditionally focus on aspirational images of luxury and glamour by, for example, featuring regular people in its ads.” [1] Major players in the industry followed suit to create the brand ecosystem which we see now: a mix of influencer marketing and curated studio ads, all of which use the airs of relatability to create a more approachable aesthetic.

But as major fashion players shift their messaging, niche communities are forming around the images of the past. From emerging small brands with cult-like audiences, to popular Instagram accounts, nostalgia marketing is becoming ubiquitous within the industry. The sense that things were better in the past is not a new one, but the home this sentiment is finding in the form of Instagram moodboards is aestheticizing the problematic elements of the past under the guise of “good taste.”

Many popular Instagram moodboards, the ones that draw hundreds of followers, use nostalgia marketing to equate their collection of Vogue Italia outtakes and Prince Charles candids with a superior sense of taste. Dismissing our current era as gauche, brands like Sporty & Rich and Rowing Blazers fill their feeds with grainy vintage ads and architectural spreads, while touting their products as proximal to the dream life, profiting on a desire to return to some fabled past. The collections of old Ralph Lauren ads and Rolex watches, vintage Porsches and Portofino homes use status symbols not just to gesture at wealth, but as virtue signals to an unattainable past.

Screenshot from the Sporty & Rich Wellness Club Instagram Account, featuring images of men and women exercising, tanning, and being outdoors.

Screenshot from the Sporty & Rich Wellness Club Instagram Account (@sportyandrichwellnessclub)

Oh the good old days,” these grids seem to sigh, highlighting the “well made” design of whatever fashion, architecture, branding relic they’re highlighting while ignoring the purposeful elitism those artifacts carried. These brands seem to suggest that the only reason that more people aren’t obsessed with the same cultural signposts as they are is less refined taste. But it’s not just a lack of discernment — really, most people have been gatekept out of the institutions these things symbolize.

This emergent fairytale future-nostalgia is breeding an aesthetic that privileges  whiteness and elitism. Yet, as mainstream culture moves towards social-driven messaging [2] to appeal to new audiences and away from values of excessive wealth, prohibitive body shapes, and a lack of diversity, the fashion moodboards that proliferate social media today have allowed a safe space for those who have always been represented. 

The popularity of Instagram moodboards is indicative of the dangerous resurgence of exclusive aesthetics disguised by an understandable escapism — aspects of the past may seem better than the present, but washing over their faults is not the way forward. One of the most popular moodboard-turned-brands is Emily Oberg’s Sporty & Rich. Oberg started the brand as a personal moodboard in her free time. But as she amassed followers, the project went from a hobby to a brand whose growth has been exponential. [3] But this has not been without criticism.

On @Sportyandrichwellnessclub, the accompanying health and wellness account to her original moodboard, Oberg came under fire in 2020 for posting an out of touch image claiming that “You Don’t Need to be Rich to be Healthy.” She later apologized for her misstep, but this post was representative of the flaws and faults with her entire brand. Sporty & Rich is built to serve a narrow community, one of privilege which adheres not just to Western standards of beauty, but the Western glorification of the rich and powerful. Instead of critiquing the systems which benefit them — an ideal which moralizes those in power, these brands suggest that if the rest of us worked harder we too could be like them: sporty and rich, so to speak.

Screenshot from the Sporty & Rich Wellness Club Instagram Account, featuring images of

Screenshot from the Sporty & Rich Wellness Club Instagram Account (@sportyandrichwellnessclub)

In images like these, Oberg and her followers enforce beauty standards based in whiteness and thinness, as well the aspirational lives of the obscenely rich, becoming gatekeepers from the ground up. As large brands fill up their feeds with diversity, the moodboard trend fills in the gap to reassure us that despite the profitability of relatability, many people still regard the aesthetics of the past as classic and as the paradigm of culture.

Without analysing why these aspirational images are so popular, switching as most brands did with the tide and without any real purpose, diversity becomes a money grab, and public consciousness does not change. Without analysing and being critical of the privilege and the power dynamics present in the nostalgia we are reaching for, the cycle will just continue, endlessly.

References

[1] Turk, Victoria; “How Glossier turned itself into a billion-dollar beauty brand;” WIRED UK; Published: 06 Feb 2020;  https://www.wired.co.uk/article/how-to-build-a-brand-glossier

[2] Schott, Ben; “Gen Z, you’re adorkable;” Bloomberg Opinion, Bloomberg; Published: January 24, 2021; https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-01-24/the-gen-z-brand-aesthetic-is-both-disruptive-and-adorkable

[3] Grande, Ilaria; “The evolution of Sporty & Rich, the brand by Emily Oberg;” G-Club; Published: September 2nd, 2020; https://www.nssgclub.com/en/fashion/23358/sporty-rich-emily-oberg