Elizabeth Goodspeed on coquettism and “girl design”

Our US editor-at-large ties a neat bow on 2023, discussing the proliferation of a “coquette aesthetic” in design and visual culture.

I’ve been thinking about bows a lot this month, if you even care. Spend any time on Tiktok, or wherever Tiktok content trickles down to these days, and maybe you’ll see them too: dainty bows on ice cubes, spiders, and Taco Bell sauce packets, bows made out of bacon, and cereal bowls full of bows, typically set to a soundtrack of Lana Del Rey. Besides their undeniable festive charm this time of year – brown paper packages tied up with string, oversized red bows tacked onto new Land Rovers, etc. – the fever-pitch obsession with bows can also be chalked up to the rise of a new aesthetic trend: the coquette. One of many girlhood-adjacent fads that has gone semi-viral in the past year, coquette, or “the coquette aesthetic” refers to a range of feminine, whimsical and nostalgic visual cues blooming across fashion and culture.

But what is coquette? Coquette is girl world. It’s linen house dresses and eating cornichons on vintage china (probably from Salter House). It’s quiet luxury, affordably. It’s pearls, peter pan collars and ballet flats. The bow is the sacred object. As Viv Chen points out in her newsletter, The Molehill, the charm of the bow, and much of aestheticised girlhood, lies in its unfussiness and basic form; with just a piece of string or ribbon, anyone can create their own take on the style. Coquettism rejects the chrome-plated ongepotchket of Y2K and all the rest of the lurid grossness punctuating the zeitgeist. On the other hand, it’s an undeniable moreness – giving in to the urge to gild the lily, to have one more slice of sheet cake. Ornament as virtue, not crime.

I’m not a coquette girl. Quite the opposite; I’ve always had a bit of a complicated relationship with “girly” things. Growing up in the androgyny-forward 1990s, I absorbed the message that my draw towards the traditionally feminine – the allure of dolls, the intricate ruching on dresses – was an indulgence I should be wary of if I wanted to be taken seriously. My liberal parents, somewhat unwittingly, provided additional lessons in gender norms through their sartorial choices for their kids. My twin brother and I were often put in matching primary-coloured outfits: denim overalls for him, a denim pinafore for me; white-and-red pants for him, a white-and-red skirt for me. It was clearly important to society that, despite my brother and I looking nearly identical, my femaleness be visibly cued through my clothing – maybe the same kind of impulse that leads some pet parents to give their female pit bull a pink collar. But it was clearly equally important to my liberal, feminist parents that I not present as too saccharinely girly, replete with dainty embroidery and itsy bitsy bows. Instead, these his-and-hers outfits tapped into a form of girl-ness that still fit within the symmetrical framework of tidy, minimal modernism, like the streamlined gender symbols on bathroom doors.

Over the past decade, the design world has often relied on a similar “same-but-different” approach to signalling girl-ness – flirting the line between traditional femme aesthetics and a more modern, gender-neutral approach to design. Throughout the 2010s, commerce-darlings like Thinx, Glossier and Acne followed this model, using cues like soft pastels and round geometric sans serifs in an attempt to acknowledge their femininity without being defined by it. It was an approach to femininity that borrowed the visual lexicon of VC-backed, male-dominated tech companies and simply bathed it in millennial pink. Minimum viable girl-ness. But it seems only inevitable that as coquette suffuses across the cultural landscape, it will eventually touch the world of design as well. The rise of “girlhood” aesthetics potentially signals a new chapter in the use of femininity in design, one that’s distinct from both the understated femininity of the 2010s and the extravagant maximalism of barbiecore.

But in a world of girl math and girl dinner, what might girl design look like? In the realm of typography, this new approach to girliness seems likely to take shape in the resurgence of styles that were once considered too lavish or traditional for contemporary usage. Blanding and legibility be damned, typeset scripts are indeed making a comeback, embraced by fashion brands first (as ever) like Miu Miu, Bode, Brooks Brothers, W and Comme Si. These fonts resonate with the coquette aesthetic’s emphasis on refined yet unapologetically feminine designs; just as coquettism sits neatly between sober minimalism and full-on gaudy, these digitally native typefaces are simultaneously fancy – containing swashes and delicate details – and restrained due to the qualities of their digital file format, which is by nature a limited, predictable set. I suspect we’re also on the cusp of a revival of classical typefaces inspired by Roman Capitals, like Trajan and Optima. Besides being one of the only type styles left that we haven’t quite looped back around to in the 21st Century yet, they also symbolise a return to a form of femininity that is both elegant and assertive. These fonts, steeped in historical and classical design, bring warmth and delicacy without compromising on mathematical precision.

The coquette trend is perhaps particularly primed to influence illustration as well, where the spectre of AI art – and all the bleak commercial implications and uncanny valley visual qualities it comes with – is posing an existential question to artists about the role and value of human creativity in the digital age. Coquette styles, on the other hand, hark back to the classic, storybook charm of books like Eloise and Madeline, and the earnestness of human mark-making; expect loose, scribbly lines that seem to dance across the page like delicate lace. Coquette illustration is proudly informal; it’s art-making for art-making’s sake, made for a private audience, as in a sketchbook, rather than for mass-consumption. It’s a visual language that speaks to the soul – favouring expression over precision and emotion over exactness and the empty realism of the algorithmic.

At the risk of putting gender equality as a footnote, I can’t help but wonder (as a certain girlypop icon would say) about one last question: How do we square the increase of the coquette in visual culture with the persistent gender gap in the creative industry? The growing traction of ‘girl design’ may bolster the immense creative and consumer influence of young women – a demographic that has long shaped culture yet remains woefully under-recognised – but it also comes at a time when women and other minority genders remain underrepresented in many areas of the creative industry, leadership roles in particular. I’m curious if the sexism that has pigeonholed many women into traditionally feminine aesthetics and sub-industries might now be paradoxically beneficial for them instead; after years of sexism confining them to softer visual styles, female designers might now witness a surge in demand thanks to the newfound commercial success of such styles. But if I’m being optimistic, I hope the rise of ‘girl design’ will actually herald a broader, more impactful shift in how we perceive aesthetics and gender altogether; a world where all creatives, regardless of their gender, can explore and express through a diverse range of styles without the confines of traditional gender expectations. Coquette for all; all for coquette.

Elizabeth writes a regular column for It’s Nice That from her base on the East Coast of the US. Check back in in 2024 to read her latest thoughts on design trends and hot topics from the creative world.

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About the Author

Elizabeth Goodspeed

Elizabeth Goodspeed is It’s Nice That’s US editor-at-large, as well as an independent designer, art director, educator and writer. Working between New York and Providence, she's a devoted generalist, but specialises in idea-driven and historically inspired projects. She’s passionate about lesser-known design history, and regularly researches and writes about various archive and trend-oriented topics. She also publishes Casual Archivist, a design history focused newsletter.

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