Is Bleak the New Look for a TikTok Childhood?

Velcome to Werner Herzog’s new line of children’s clothing: Sad Beige Clothes for Sad Beige Children.” A new generation of moms are embracing a trend of eschewing the bright colors usually associated with childhood and opting for neutral tones that all blend splendidly in an Instagram feed. Some even call themselves #AestheticMoms. To varying degrees, they carefully curate their children’s wardrobes, toys, and nursery decor to project an aura of health and wellness. But do the kids like it? It’s hard to say when the baby models in most of the advertisements are photographed looking sad, dejected, or even mid-tantrum.

Enter “Sad Beige Werner Herzog,” a TikTok persona comically drawing on the bleakness of the well-known German filmmaker. The videos present a seemingly endless array of sniffling tots stuffed into gray, brown, and tan knits, while dolefully listing “product names” like “the sadness bucket hat of depression,” in color schemes ranging from “White woman’s Instagram” to “dissociation.” I sat down with Herzog — or rather, Hayley DeRoche, the “librarian, mother by way of birth and foster care, and the author” behind the account, to talk about her inspirations and musings on the phenomenon.

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DeRoche’s goal is not to critique parents themselves. “I’m much more interested in the way we market this stuff, and how class aesthetics are so much a part of the marketing. I’m not trying to critique individuals — I’m trying to critique the system.” She finds images of pouting babies in drab clothing on Etsy and Instagram — sometimes noting that these children have not consented to have their most vulnerable moments posted for the public. 

But why all this melancholy? Isn’t childhood meant to be a happy time? The look may not aspire to malaise itself, but rather its association with couture fashion and upper-class style standards. DeRoche weaves sharp critique into her satire, droned in the signature Herzog voice. “This one I call ‘the tragedy of wealth and plenty.’ This is a commentary on the sadness of privilege und the ennui of having everything and yet … nothing inside.” DeRoche noted that this look is also associated with European products — yet another signifier of class and, as I’ve noted in my own videos on pale aesthetics, whiteness. 

Neutral, earthy tones often have eco-conscious associations as well. As anyone who has attempted to make earth-friendly shopping choices knows, “sustainability” is intertwined with class as “greener” products tend to be pricier than the alternative. But, as DeRoche notes, just because something looks eco-friendly, that doesn’t mean it actually is. “What I find fascinating is that a lot of these brands are not actually ethically made or sustainable.” Sad Beige Werner Herzog was introduced to our For You pages by poking fun at the somber tones of stacking cups from designer brand Mushie. “The stacking cups kind of launched all of this. I double checked, triple checked, and they are not recycled plastic. They just give the appearance of it.” 

Which brings us to the core of #AestheticMoms trends: It’s not so much about the thing itself as it is about that thing’s appearance. We talked about what it means to have parenthood become something that some choose to have surveilled by countless people online. DeRoche has long been fascinated with the rise of “mommy bloggers,” and has authored a novel revolving around one such blogger, called Hello Lovelies. She said, “I think it turns parenthood into a consumable, in a way that I don’t find scary, but I find sad.” 

The chronically online among us know that it’s easy for even the most relaxed influencers to be pressured into performing for others rather than living for themselves. “I think when you turn your parenthood into a consumable product … you’re giving something away that you can’t take back.” 

Surface-level aesthetics can be read as signs of internal motivations: Many have noted that the term “Montessori” — a movement that began around 1900, with Maria Montessori’s learning techniques to serve underprivileged children — has morphed into a highly stylized ideal used to market pricey toys. “Living our lives on Instagram means you have to cultivate your personal brand,” DeRoche stated. For example, “if you want to be a ‘crunchy mom’ … you have to look the part.” 

Some beige adherents and marketers even go so far as to claim that the neutral tones are more than just an aesthetic, that the colors themselves will “stimulate a child’s imagination” and “allow them to think freely.” The problem is not just that it’s difficult to find evidence to support this hypothesis; as Deroche has said, upholding a refined aesthetic to be inherently “better” is wading into some pretty dangerous, even racist territory. Experts reacting to the onslaught of beige have not come to a conclusion regarding how the colors of children’s environments affect their development, if at all. 

But trends come as quickly as they go. DeRoche is noticing the faded colors are already fading away into something a little more vibrant. But in the meantime, Sad Beige Werner Herzog is here to bring us a lively giggle.  


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