Variations on a theme: is minimalism just another social media trend?

As we wait for Tidying up with Marie Kondo to get renewed for a second season and even the Scandinavians are abandoning neutrals and paired down silhouettes, we discuss the roots of the minimalist movement and ask whether or not it’s still relevant.

Thanks to Instagram, we all tried to be minimalists over the last five years. There is something tantalising and slightly morally superior about a perfectly organised desk or well-designed spartan bedroom, but it seems that the pendulum has shifted.

Along with the fashion movement of over accessorisation, popularised by Alessandro Michele at Gucci or cult British designer, Ashley Williams, tastes on social media have shifted to favour the “extra.” But while aesthetic tastes may have changed, the minimalism movement wasn’t just about looks. Minimalism has become something of a catch-all term that is bandied around on social media almost as often as its millennial #selfcare counterpart.

It’s the antidote to an era of fast-paced, fast food and fast fashion-filled material obsession. Its increasing popularity could be seen as something of a cry for help from a generation who are overwhelmed with pleasure excess and increasingly concerned about how this lifestyle not only affects but also our planet. So, now that we are rolling our eyes at those who quote Coco Chanel, telling us to take off one thing before we leave the house, is minimalism still relevant?

Just like self-care, minimalism wasn’t invented on Instagram, but the emergence of the term itself, in so many words, was relatively recent. Minimalist guru Regina Wong of Live Well With Less began her own minimalist blog and mentoring course in 2016 with the aim of sharing her own minimalism journey and helping inspire others to design a simpler way of living but attests that this is no new trend.

“A good number of people were already interested in or practising minimalism before it got into the mainstream. It was just they wasn’t a term to properly define it,” the writer tells WOM.

“I define minimalism simply as a way of life in which we find out what’s truly important to our happiness and that adds value to our lives, and focusing on them; eliminating the rest of the stuff,” Wong explains.

“These will include beliefs, values, priorities, physical possessions, financial and time commitments and relationships. To me, minimalism is an umbrella term that focuses on what gives us joy across all areas.”

The world minimalism was popularised in the 1960s to describe a growing art movement that focussed on a simplistic and abstract aesthetic. Whilst sharing the same name, minimalism as a lifestyle is rooted in the traditions of spiritual focus and rejection of material possessions more akin to the beliefs of Buddhist monks. The notion is simple – it’s all about a metaphoric rehab from material desire, and speaks to a collective longing to reconnect with nature, with our sense of self and with the present.

On the surface, it represents both a timeless aspiration of seeking a carefree and authentic way of living. But as minimalism feeds into the cycle of social media generated trends, many are questioning the longevity of alternative lifestyles in the technological era.

View this post on Instagram

Guten Morgen✨ . Ich wünsche euch einen schönen 3. Advent 🕯🕯🕯

A post shared by Viktoria (@tthese_beautiful_thingss) on

Those who believe that the concept has become another purely visual aesthetic lost to the Internet ether suggest that the minimalist trend is no more than a thinly veiled evolution of material capitalism. Don’t have time to change the world? Just clear your desk, it will make you feel better! Want to look like you are committed to sustainability? Out with the old, but yes – in, in, in with the NEW clothes you need to complement your NEW austere aesthetic!

However, this criticism somewhat undermines the concept of minimalism as a holistic approach to physical, social and mental wellbeing. As the number of blogs, books, courses, YouTube channels and podcasts about the subject continues to increase with an ever-growing audience, we can assume that there is something greater driving the trend’s popularity than a hashtag.

So what has caused the sudden boom over the past few years? The answer lies in a hybrid of cultural, social and economic influences. Whilst some have argued that the Marie Kondo effect is purely endemic of a positive and anti-materialist movement towards an all-round better wellbeing for self and society, others have suggested that the movement was an inevitable outcome of the economic pressures faced by the current generation of young professionals.

After having watched their parents suffer with the burden of rising mortgage costs and economic crisis after economic crisis, the desire to own has simply decreased. A study conducted by Harris in 2016 presented rapidly increasing growth in the so-called “experience economy”. The report showed that 78% of millennials (defined as those born between 1980-1996) would choose to spend money on an experience or event over buying something desirable. The rise of YOLO, FOMO and a demand for real-life thrills over material goods is not only symptomatic of the growth of a new economy based on experiences, but could also explain where the roots of minimalism for millennials took hold.

Besides economic woes and mental health crises, perhaps the greatest underlying factor for the engagement with minimalism in recent times is the environment. Wong states that becoming a minimalist does not mean that we “stop consuming, we just consume with intention rather than impulse,” a sentiment that resounds with the greater contemporary discussion about sustainability. “I think the depleting resources of the Earth and the harm meted out to the environment have pushed many to question their lifestyle and choices, and what’s really important and valuable in their lives.”

We are living in an age in which young people are increasingly shunning capitalist, consumerist trends and are proving themselves to be often more socially ‘woke’ than their predecessors. When it is so intrinsically linked with issues of sustainability and re-adapting lifestyles in the face of an on-going mental health crises and climate change. Minimalism goes beyond an aesthetic, it asks us to re-evaluate our priorities and decide not only what we can throw out when Marie comes to visit, but what we really can’t live without.