February 14th, 2024

The irresistible force of cuteness in contemporary culture.

To support the ‘Too Cute’ trend highlighted in our upcoming insight report, ‘Subvert/Conform’, we attended Somerset House’s most recent exhibition, which explores how cuteness has gained immense traction since its birth. The very aptly named exhibition, ‘CUTE’, brings together contemporary artwork, cultural phenomena and juxtaposing design, unravelling its history and how ‘cutism’ has been influential in shaping art and design today.

[Image Credit: Somerset House]

The cult of cuteness

The transformative social and industrial changes of the 19th century put cuteness on a pedestal. Lower child mortality and a decrease in birth rates meant that childhood came to be seen as a cherished moment in life rather than something to be grown out of. Advances in technology and mass-production techniques allowed toys, books, and illustrations to be made easily and cheaply, which meant that cuteness had the ability to be exploited to its full potential. “Cute’s role as an avatar of commercial desire was thus cemented, and its unmissable power affirmed.” (Somerset House)

The exhibition features a series of Shojo Manga artwork, a genre of magazines originating in Japan that targets girls and women. The style usually incorporates cartoon characters with exaggerated ‘cute’ features and has been popular since 1900s. This, as well as the Japanese style ‘Kawaii’ has been influential in cute’s rise to fame and its success in westernised art and culture.

Felt cute, might delete later.

More recently, with the help of technological advances, cutism has excelled in the digital sphere, with the aesthetic influencing a number of industries in the digital form. Hannah Diamond’s immersive experience within the exhibition explores maximal girlishness through a sleepover set-up saturated with layers of ultra-cute femininity. A key feature within the sleepover, like all, is the soundtrack. Nostalgic TVs accompanied the plush bean bags and mood lighting, which showcased Diamond’s ultimate video playlist. The visual soundtrack demonstrated how custom had influenced music, both visually and audibly.

The world of gaming was once dominated by competitive, action-focused play, which has been challenged by an alternative strand of cute gaming – a competitive genre within the industry. The games arcade in the exhibition takes visitors on a journey through time to show how the alternative strand of gaming has developed into the contemporary but cutesy games we know today – think Animal Crossing and Moshi Monsters.

We can’t speak on the topic of girlhood and pink globalisation without mentioning Barbie. The immense success of last year’s award-winning Barbie movie, directed by Greta Gerwig, has propelling custism even further, reinforcing the impact of the aesthetic. On the face of it, it might not seem as if cutism has directly influenced films and toys such as barbie but the ultra-feminine and cartoon style of cutism certainly has.

Hello Kitty

Hello Kitty has been an ambassador of cuteness since 1974 and to celebrate 50 years of the little girl with whiskers and a red bow, the exhibition dedicated an entire section to the history and success of the icon. She was born following the first oil crisis in the 70’s when Japan had to combat shrinking exports by designing a character for their new products and since then, hello kitty has become a global phenomenon. Hello Kitty is the epitome of cuteness, featured on a plethora of children’s clothing, gaming, furniture and more! The exhibition also features a Hello-Kitty themed café for the cute superfans, transforming and elevating the mundane by cuteness.

The dark side to cute

Cuteness has taken on a darker, more subversive tone since its conception as it came to be used as an expression of identity and resistance against accepted norms. Some consumers have rebelled against the sickly-sweet aesthetic and have developed their own style of gothic cute. A trend that still references dolls and girly doe-eyed characters but in a more sombre tone, where themes of death and decay are explored.

Create your own cute

Cute has its own powerful affective charge. More than simply a commodity aesthetic, cuteness has the power to inspire intense feelings of softness and kindness, to make us feel positively towards it, and to encourage affirmative and empathetic behaviours. Cuteness enables us to enjoy a certain fantasy of ourselves, it can be anything and everything we want it to be.

Let’s talk. 

Every trend has an opposite, a counterpart that is its antithesis, and these ‘design dualities’ is precisely what our latest insight report explores. Delving into these dualities is not merely about style; it’s decoding the unspoken conversation of fractured communities, seeking pathways for bridge building through forms that reflect our division. Request the report!