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Celebrating the Black and Brown Women Who Did “Clean Girl” Style First


By Boulevard

Women of color invented the look that became today’s clean girl aesthetic decades ago and the beauty world owes them everything

Social media trends are one of the most influential factors guiding fashion and beauty today. So when the clean girl aesthetic took off on TikTok in 2022, it didn’t take long for the look to infiltrate wardrobes (and bathroom counters) nationwide and around the world. But even though it has racked up hundreds of thousands of videos and millions of views, the #cleangirl look wasn’t born on TikTok. Black and Brown women pioneered and perfected the look long before it became a social media juggernaut.

What is the clean girl aesthetic?

The clean girl trend promotes a we-woke-up-like-this sort of beauty. Although it’s actually often quite hard to achieve, a big part of the aesthetic is creating the illusion that the perfection was effortless. Instead of flaunting wealth, clean girls exude total confidence in their own skin. Here are some hallmarks of the look:

  • Hair: A low bun with a gentle center part, a braided ponytail with hair ties at the top and bottom of the braid, or any other slicked back, no-frizz style.

  • Nails: Clear, neutral, or barely-there polish colors instead of loud, attention-grabbing hues, with a particular focus on perfect shaping.

  • Makeup: Toned-down hues that accentuate natural features with blush and high-gloss lips, fluffed up brows, and glowing, dewy skin.

  • Clothes: Neutral basics, matching two-piece sets, and high-quality fabrics are clean girl must-haves. Cropped t-shirts with low-slung baggy jeans are also popular.

  • Jewelry: Lots of delicate gold jewelry in necklace stacks and earscapes, or simple classics like one gold chain and a pair of hoop earrings.

Is #cleangirl cultural appropriation?

Black women and women of color from around the world have been curating minimalist styles, celebrating natural beauty, and engineering effortless elegance for decades. Over time, they laid the groundwork for what TikTok now celebrates as the epitome of chic. That’s why one of the newest trends to arise on TikTok in direct response to the clean girl aesthetic is all about clean girl cultural appropriation.

A quick scroll of the hashtag reveals a treasure trove of hot takes about the viral trend. Many of the women who were once bullied or shamed for their slicked-back low buns and no-makeup looks feel understandably resentful. No one person can own a look, but all it takes to turn cultural appropriation into cultural appreciation is giving credit where credit is due. Let’s take a few minutes to give Black and Brown women their flowers.

Where did the clean girl look come from?

Virtually every element of the clean girl aesthetic can be traced back to Black fashion icons and women of color that rocked the scene wherever they went. For example, gold hoop earrings have long been a trademark among Black and Latine communities, from disco in the ‘70s to hip hop in the ‘90s. André Leon Talley, infamous and beloved editor-at-large of Vogue Magazine, attributed hoop earrings to African beauty and called them “a beautiful ethnic symbol”. 

Some of modern history’s most stylish — and impactful — women wore hoop earrings; Donna Summer, Diana Ross, Nina Simone, Angela Davis, Salt-N-Pepa, and more all made hoops part of their signature looks.

Gold jewelry was also a symbol of the ‘90s chola aesthetic pioneered by Chicana women on the West Coast. High-shine clear lip gloss and slicked back hair are trademark chola styles in California, where women used the aesthetic to symbolize their struggle to establish a unique cultural identity and assert their autonomy. Chola aesthetics can be traced back even further, to the Mexican-American pachucas of the ‘30s and ‘40s who dressed specifically in protest to the values and styles transported through colonization. 

Today, there is a glorious resurgence of the originally Black and Brown looks that many young women were once discouraged from wearing. It’s encouraging to witness women reclaiming the styles for themselves while the TikTok trends that borrow from their vision continue to dominate the culture

What happens to the clean girl trend now?

The clean girl aesthetic has officially gone viral; there’s no turning back now. So what we can do as an industry is take the time to learn about where the look originated. Studying the Black and Brown style icons and pioneering fashionistas of color who slicked back their hair, glossed their lips, and donned gold hoop door-knockers long before it was cool.

TikTok’s “for you page” is one of the most popular features of the platform, and with good reason! It’s an incredible source of inspiration for beauty professionals of all kinds, from nail and hair salons to makeup artists, aestheticians, medspa managers, and more. To turn appropriation into appreciation, let’s pay closer attention to what the algorithm is serving us. 

Let’s think more deeply about how trends emerge and gain momentum, and notice who gets praised for wearing them. The more we follow and praise the original Black creators and women of color who are changing the game, the more we’re doing our part for ourselves, our businesses, and our clients.

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