The Rarest Aesthetic: On Ella Emhoff's Countersignalling, Hot Girl Maximalism and Alterna-Gurls


As the daughter of immigrants, I used to be over-eager to relate to popular culture, even if it meant moving at a velocity greater than my natural speed. I loved careening fast—harried by a culture of Spin the Bottle players and kids who ignored anti-smoking PSAs—to get to the metaphorical plane everyone else seemed like they were already on. To get to cool. Only now, as an adult woman, can I see that there’s something deeply hubristic and narcissistic about the white people who believe that they’re in possession of good taste, who fortified my own delusions of cool. These white people believe that they are on a higher plane of existence, less entrenched in the derivative and cyclical nature of fashion and culture. Somehow their style is free of commercialism, more counter-culture, alternative—a “RARE AESTHETIC.” They insist that their observations about what’s currently cool and hip are made in a rarefied silo removed from the influence of marketing, like some kind of cultural clairvoyance. It is there, in their all-black-everything, Rick Owens-inspired get-ups, where they breathe better air than the rest of us, mining the collective zeitgeist while posturing as if their ideas are magically conjured from outside of the ether. Their online bios may read trend forecaster, consultant, creative director, polymath, your influencer’s influencer. They haughtily declare trends dead, thumb their noses at what others are enjoying, arbitrarily hierarchizing and status-ordering people like eugenicists would, and they play the role of coolness hall monitor. Rest assured, their pathological desire to assert cultural superiority is WEIRD. 

If they didn’t think of it first, it’s deemed basic. Of course, calling things “basic”— a word that should have expired alongside the term “hipster”—comes from an adolescent desire to be an individual. What’s usually considered basic is, in reality, populist and accessible. These people want to divorce themselves from the sameness and meaninglessness that plagues us all, but somehow they’ve dressed that desire—the most capitalist desire of them all!—up as a signifier of their own uniqueness. They couldn’t possibly be mediocre, consuming the same trends that have been upcycled as alt for years. No, they’re different. They’re not like other aesthetes. And if they happen to be girls, well, they’re not like other girls. They’re alterna-gurls.

The alterna-gurl of the early 2000s thought Avril Lavigne’s short sleeves over long sleeves were transgressive. Delia’s Catalog was her bible. Maybe she fetishized Gen X culture by way of Reality Bites or 10 Things I Hate About You, thinking if only she were a teenager in the 90s. As she matured, so did her style. The old symbols of her coolness were eventually rendered teenybopper and mainstream. By the late aughts, she procured entirely new taste emblems, settling into a slavish, quasi-edgy aesthetic that complimented her new-found musical taste. It’s not quite goth or scene or emo. It couldn’t be that—that’s what the self-conscious plebes at school call themselves! No, it’s something even more exclusive. It’s a hodgepodge of Urban Outfitters, American Apparel, and thrift store finds. Out with Vanessa Carlton and Michelle Branch CDs purchased at Sam Goody in middle school, in with anything “indie,” even if millions of dollars have been poured into that so-called “indie” thing. In her early twenties, it’s the same shit all over again for the tragically hip alterna-gurl. Her carefully curated aesthetic is once again under threat, so it’s time for a rebrand. Now, it’s all about Modcloth. She’s scoured, and has determined that she would like to be a cardigan-wearer. ABORT! ABORT! Her aesthetic has reached critical mass, so it’s been rendered gauche. People are calling it twee. It’s officially over. Well, what hasn’t been done to death?

Under the banner of alterna-gurl, disparate styles and consumer choices like cottagecore or the e-girl aesthetic are unified. Even the style we once knew as “preppy” in our youth is now pastiche inspired by The Nanny and Clueless. It’s nostalgia factor makes it alternative. And, now that the entire internet is geared toward visual identity with Instagram and Tiktok being mainstays of present-day youth culture, there are even more choices to be alterna-gurl than in previous years. 

Hot Girl Maximalism

And anytime the alterna-gurl intuits that her fashion has reached its logical endpoint, she’s presented with another girlishly charming aesthetic.

This is is where Hot Girl Maximalism comes in.

In the last few years, the so-called “baddie” aesthetic transmuted into the “hot girl” aesthetic. It’s the trend that Sasha Obama recently went viral for with an image leaked from her private Instagram account. (My source, a friend and former classmate of Obama’s at Sidwell Friends School, tells me the photo isn't even new: "She posted it on Halloween. I was like, not even a recent one?") The “hot girl maximalism” trend, then, is an extension of this! These distinctly different styles are, spiritually, sisters. Recently, a writer and consultant made this observation about the trend:

The tweet got a lot of fanfare, mostly because people like to feel superior to others. (Admittedly, sometimes even I do!) But I didn’t like the smugness one bit. She’s basically saying, “It’s the vintage wannabe look without the vintage!.” I got the vibe she thinks people who buy 100% vintage who aren’t rich look terrible because when she got called out for wearing a checkered shirt that’s very much in the vein of this aesthetic in her avatar, she was quick to say that it’s vintage Comme des Garcons? LOL. Why is vintage INHERENTLY superior? The tweeter’s background comes at no surprise to me, and honestly, I would not be surprised if she’s a working-class girly herself. Like, only someone extremely rich or extremely working-class and overcompensating would make such a proclamation, and I have a feeling it’s the latter. ;)

But instead of saying any of that, I said this:

Ella Emhoff

In another corner of the internet, Ella Emhoff, Kamala Harris’ knitwear-designing stepdaughter is being hailed as cool by white women who are or were alterna-gurls. Emhoff attended Wildhood High School in Los Angeles, a hippie haven similar to St. Ann’s in New York City, which famously produced Jemima Kirke and Lena Dunham. She has an aesthetic that signals cool in a lower, supposedly less bombast register than Sasha. But the thing is, in the same way, that, say, dogs can hear really high sounds, true aesthetes can hear the whisper of old money. That’s the whole deal of something I've taken to calling "conspicuous minimalism": a style that calls attention to itself while it postures as if it’s not trying to do that. There's an underbelly of snobbish refinement to it, much like the "no-makeup makeup look" popularized by Glossier, or even the so-called “normcore” trend, which is really hot people daring you to not think they’re hot just because they’re wearing ugly clothes. It’s just good old countersignaling. 

According to my friend, fellow chaos merchant, immigrant princess, and Depop powerhouse Mika Kol (a.k.a. Trustfundgoth!), it’s totally a monied aesthetic:

I think it is inherently indicative of some level of wealth to distance yourself from symbols of status by wearing mostly your own craft unless you live on a literal farm. Obviously, there are exceptions to this, but those are usually sustained by proximity to wealth in my experience. The bounty of lib arts trustfund babies living in major cities making their own clothes is a rejection of what they perceive to be superficial. I think there’s this desire to feel sentimental about things and stand out without feeling ‘vain’ or materialistic. They want to look good on their own terms and they want to feel good about their consumption. I think that’s true for most people—the thing is most people don’t have the resources or time to make their own pants.

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