The Aesthetics of Economic Downturn: Recession Core and Nostalgia

The un-bejeweled, “less-is-more” trend of TikTok’s ‘Recession Core’ resembles the fashion of an early 2000s childhood post-market-crash. While some love the distinct, minimalist look on celebrities, others find it tone-deaf.

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Photo by Andrey Zvyagintsev / Unsplash

Arts & Culture

Neutral tones, androgyny, and utilitarianism: the cornerstones of 2023’s Recession Core diverge from the blingy, technicolor styles that have dominated recent years. Found across social media platforms and on runways, Recession Core is finding chicness amid what Bloomberg refers to as “The Slow-Moving Credit Crunch.” As young people find themselves amid rising economic inflation post-COVID-19 lockdowns, they turn to one distinct look of their childhood: the everlasting silhouettes and muted colors of The 2008 Great Recession. Recession Core is repeating history, fueled by current events and escapism through nostalgia. Last year, social media feeds were filled with Y2K revival gaudiness. Recession Core and the sustainable, influencer-oppositional trend of “de-influencing” are having time in the spotlight.

The Y2K to Recession Core pipeline is not fashion’s first maximalist-to-minimalist rodeo. For instance, the bedazzled glitz of the 1920s transformed into toned-down silhouettes and practicality as the 1930s Great Depression arose. Interestingly, the nostalgia of a somewhat-recent economic downturn is fueling the current style. The modern chain of events mirrors the 2008 market crash, where simplicity replaced Paris Hilton-esque rhinestones and hot-pink mini-skirts in the blink of an eye. Like the current economic crisis, the 2008 Recession also led some designers to diverge from the “showiness” that preceded the crash. Many Gen-Zers remember the less-frilly, ‘business casual’ styles adults would wear in the late 2000s.

As young people enter adulthood amid economic duress, some are adopting the very styles that surrounded them as children. Perhaps, from a symbolic level, fashion nostalgia takes on an “adult” contemporary struggle through the lens of those who we looked up to as children. For parents, teachers, and celebrities alike, Recession-Core-esque minimalism was everywhere.  For instance, one thrift-loving TikToker, @atlantawithoutthetea, made a video adorned in a gray top, jeans, and a khaki bag. The video is captioned “Whole fit from the Obama administration” and “Recession indicator core,” modeling her chic, less-is-more outfit to an ironic song choice— ”Money” by The Drums. Her video is a quintessential example of Recession Core’s presence in Gen-Z style as something that mixes sustainability and nostalgia, a common theme in the fashion tastes of contemporary young people.

Not everyone is meeting Recession Core with ironic lightheartedness, however. Some argue that Recession Core, when specifically applied to the wealthy and famous’ fashion choices, is a superficial masquerade to appear “down-to-earth.” Perhaps such decisions are made so as not to seem tasteless amid widespread financial struggle. One can look back to the beginning of the year when many celebrities missed an expected accessory at The Golden Globes: necklaces. Is an attempt to ‘read the room’ —to appear humble as prices inflate? A point of controversy, however, is that celebrities are not partaking in Recession Core out of practicality, but instead shifting to what TikToker @ufodelaney refers to as “subtle flexes.”

Such flexes might manifest through a toned-down handbag or dress that, while simple, happens to cost thousands of dollars. The 2023 Gucci Menswear Collection is a prime example of taking the Recession Core aesthetic and putting a massive price tag on it. Office wear with t-shirts, fisherman hats, and muted duffle bags sharply turn from the flashy “Logomania” often present on Gucci runways.


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♬ original sound - Rachel 🪬

While Recession Core styles are significantly less opulent, their presence in celebrity/influencer fashion still sports a hefty price tag. Some might find designer Recession Core more 'thoughtful' amid the current situation, but the expensive costs maintain an unreachable, quiet luxury. Across TikTok, for instance, many videos made by style influencers are markedly toned-down. Maxi skirts, simple bags, and muted blouses abound. Some celebrity style brands, even, are putting out garments with a “muted” look and a designer price tag (think Kim Kardashian’s Skims). However, such celebrities are not experiencing the difficulties of a declining economy firsthand—potentially using their fashion choices to appear relatable while maintaining their luxurious status.

The rise of the Recession Core proves that fashion is fleeting and cyclical, that bling will be in one year and unadornment the next. One should dress however they want instead of copying the styles of influencers. Sustainability, self-expression, and creativity, though, are timeless.