On occasion, I’ll take a look in my closet, my apartment, and my social media accounts and wonder, what does all this add up to? Is there any throughline between the Bed Bath and Beyond beige plates, the Hermès champignons scarf I tracked down on eBay, the nun-shaped candle on my desk, and the crispy oven mitt printed with a 1950s housewife saying “I’ve got a knife”? Is there any visual connection between the table I found on Facebook marketplace and the IKEA Billy bookshelves present in many millennial households? (Mine are painted in Benjamin Moore’s Alligator Alley green). What I’m asking in these moments is, in internet parlance, what is my aesthetic? I’m wondering if I have successfully arranged my life to adhere to some cohesive vision. If I look too long, anxiety sets in. Maybe the answer is no?

Pinterest then promoted even more: random aesthetic, aesthetic images, ethereal aesthetic, aesthetic photos, delicate aesthetic, royalty aesthetic, anglecore aesthetic. When I went to search just “aesthetic,” the nonsensical search term “aesthetic girl” popped up. The results are, as you may expect, pretty, thin women ran through a VSCO filter. Pinterest says that there has been a growing interest in aesthetics since 2018, with a “large spike of 60% in searches for simply “core aesthetic” as Pinners discovered different types of aesthetics to shape their identity,” last February. It implies an element of rigor, an ability to control the entire image the way you only can in a painting, a movie, or on social media. You are the master of your canvas, making every decision like Wes Anderson is lining up his shots to get perfect symmetry, a perfectly cohesive color palette. Merely having a sense of style seems so prosaic; wouldn’t you rather an aesthetic?

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 25: Billie Eilish at Apple’s “Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry” Live Premiere Event. “Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry” film is now streaming on Apple TV+. (Photo by Koury Angelo/Getty Images for Apple)

The goal implicit in these videos is to live in such a way that all your visuals align and can be clearly described and pinpointed. “Your life is Light Academia” read a comment on a Russian ballerina’s “Day in My Life” TikTok, which showed her alternating between classical dance class and art history notes, with a pause for an apple in between. It’s not limited to Gen-Z. This modern usage has been used on Tumblr at least since the early 2010s. Since then, it’s just become how we talk about visual phenomena encompassing more than just fashion. Rachel Tashijan, a writer for GQ and author of the newsletter Opulent Tips, which champions eclectic, trendless personal taste, wrote in a recent missive, “Close your eyes and you will probably see a ‘cool aesthetic’—which is anathema to cool.” Later, she clarified to me that the “cool aesthetic” she was talking about was the milky pink Instagram visuals utilized by millennial companies to advertise everything from office space to scrubs to erectile dysfunction medication.

For this exercise, I sat in my apartment and looked around. My white, wide leg jeans and chunky black belt with a gold buckle and black muscle tee feels very classically American. A little Katharine Hepburn, but let’s put her in Texas, as my ever-present cowboy boots suggest. But I like an element of whimsy, something blobby, like the nun candle or the earrings I wear that I think look like little Brancusis. Flashes of Texan socialite Lynn Wyatt and Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits pinned themselves to my mental moodboard, along with both Hollywood Hepburns (particularly Audrey in Two for the Road), Phoebe Philo’s Céline, Tina Chow in a white, cutout dress, Elsa Peretti at her desk smoking a cigarette with oversized glasses, the elegance of her bone cuffs, Prada’s ’90s cowhide mini skirts, and Tracee Ellis Ross’s madcap devotion to dramatic shapes. Thinking about how these clothes made me feel, rather than any tangible connective tissue, the phrase “wayward West Texas art collector” popped up. I don’t know, what would you call it?

Courtesy of Vogue