Inside TikTok’s Clowncore, The High-Fashion Aesthetic You Shouldn’t Laugh Off

If you follow fashion creators on TikTok, you may have seen videos dedicated to #Clowncore. As the name suggests, the aesthetic is inspired by attire traditionally worn by clowns — think: balloon pants, bows, and polka dots — with a maximalist fashion spin.

“I love how fun Clowncore as an aesthetic can be,” says Sara Camposarcone, a TikTok creator whose recent clown-inspired outfit featured troll earrings styled with a giant scrunchie worn as a collar. “Clowns and their bright, rainbow-colored outfits always made me so happy as a kid, and that’s exactly how I feel about Clowncore in fashion today. I absolutely adore the clashing prints, fun makeup, and circus-like collars that are so prevalent in this aesthetic. It’s nostalgic and expressive in the best way possible.” 

While some like Camposarcone are wearing child-like accessories and dressing up in colorful playsuits and checkerboard and rainbow prints, others are opting for more subtle, black-and-white takes on the look. The platform also boasts plenty of videos instructing on how to get the look or shop the trend.

@saracampz happy Saturday bb’s🌈 #fyp #personalstyle #maximalism #styleinspo #ootd #fitcheck #fashiontiktok #clowncore #clownmakeup #clowncheck #vintage #thrift ♬ original sound – Sara Camposarcone

Beyond TikTok, the aesthetic has taken over runways. From Dior to Undercover and Rick Owens and Nanushka, high-fashion brands showed elements of the clown aesthetic for Fall 2021, whether in the form of harlequin prints or motifs that recalled bright red noses. Givenchy’s and Saint Sintra’s Spring 2022 collections took it quite literally with clown-like prints, textures, and colors. 

“Puppets and Puppets fall and spring 2020 shows live rent-free in my head — crinoline skirts, dramatic face makeup, and quirky accessories scream Clowncore to me!” says Camposarcone, whose other favorite Clowncore references include Christian Dior’s fall 2003 runway and brands like Moschino, Maison Margiela, and Christopher John Rogers.

But what’s prompting this trend?

Fashion is experiencing an ’80s renaissance, with labels such as Chanel and Isabel Marant reinterpreting the era with vintage-inspired runway shows and retro items like parachute silk pants. “Periods like the 1980s boasted bright, bold colors and oversized clothing, and feel somehow connected to clowns,” explains Lauren S. Cardon, historian and author of Fashion and Fiction: Self-Transformation in Twentieth-Century American Literature. “Specifically, Alexander McQueen drew inspiration from clown makeup and clothing for his Fall/Winter 2001 show, ‘What a Merry-Go-Round.’ But in many cases, designers tend to embrace the darker side of clowns, the ‘punk’ or ‘gothic’ clown that scares us a little. That’s not what the Clowncore trend seems to be about.” Indeed, fashion’s new love of clowns is playful and happy.

“I love the proportions, the colors, and the un-reality of it all,” says Saint Sintra’s Sintra Martins. “I was raised watching Boomerang cartoons and the Marx Brothers. Every new year was a Marx Brothers or Charlie Chaplin marathon.” For her Spring 2022 collection, she was inspired by a clown meme. This translated to a circus-like runway show, with a carnival-like setting, plenty of feathers, see-through pieces, and mini skirts. 

As the Clowncore aesthetic gains more popularity, the brands and creators that have long embodied the aesthetic are getting their credit, too. Take, for example, Hester Sunshine of Sunshine by Hester. “The idea of Clowncore being a trend now is interesting because I have been dressing in Clowncore for almost two decades,” she says. She grew up in the punk scene of the late ’90s and early aughts that saw more rock tees, leather jackets, and ripped jeans than rainbow-colored check prints. “They called me ‘fashion clown’ and made it clear I was too colorful for their world,” she says. 

While that didn’t stop Sunshine from continuing to embrace the aesthetic, she does note how it’s only now becoming more accepted. “Today, alternative style has really become mainstream. Everyone has tattoos and dyed hair, you can buy rock tees and ripped jeans at Forever 21. As such to really stand out and show your individuality it’s sort of pushed everyone to take their creativity to the nth degree,” she says. For her part, Sunshine embraces the aesthetic for the positivity it provides: “What’s the point of clothing if you’re not making someone smile?”

As we enter year three of the pandemic, there’s no questioning the fact that maximalist fashion — and along with that, dopamine dressing — is coming even more into its prime in 2022 on the runways, in street style, and on TikTok. “Though the Clowncore aesthetic can include darker elements, its presence in fashion and beauty is traditionally conveyed as an extreme interpretation of dopamine dressing,” says Kayla Marci, market analyst of the retail analysis platform EDITED. “Humor and optimism are infused through eye-popping color palettes and childlike graphics that continue to resonate in retailers’ collections.” According to EDITED, rainbow graphics experienced an 11% increase in arrivals across 2021 vs. 2020, while smiley motifs grew 37% YoY. 

At the end of the day, Clowncore is a look that is fun and carefree, something our lives aren’t at the moment. “I think Clowncore is so deeply rooted in expressing your authentic self and having fun with fashion,” says Camposarcone. “My TikTok viewers always respond to, and appreciate that the most.”

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