‘A vibe shift is coming’, announced the headline of a piece in the Cut in late February, citing a trend forecaster who predicted, in no particular order: a resurgence of the ‘indie sleaze’ aesthetic of the early noughties; ‘American Apparel, flash photography at parties, and messy hair and messy makeup’; the death of wellness, the rise of decadence, a new embrace of ‘old opulence’. Around the same time, TikTokers were drawing attention to a new aesthetic known as ‘night luxe’—which, by some accounts, had begun appearing on pinterest, Instagram and Tiktok pages in early 2021.
Now, in early 2022, a slew of articles on the internet’s most recent ‘vibe shift’ contend that it signals the demise of wellness culture and the death of ‘that girl‘. Gone are the days of five am alarms: the internet’s new main character wakes up as the sun goes down, their nights passing in a crystalline whirlwind of fast cars, espresso martinis, chandeliers, city skylines, hotel lobbies, Prada gift bags of which the contents are never revealed.
Analyses of the rise of night luxe largely follow the same argument. Following critiques of the wellness industry as setting up unachievable expectations of being one’s ‘best self’, night luxe aesthetic represents a rejection of self-optimisation and a healthy return to hedonism. Night Luxe is modern, but it has a vintage feel—its supposedly the twenty-first century’s answer to the post-war vitality of the ‘roaring twenties’.
Sean Monahan, the trend forecaster cited in The Cut, argues that ‘the interest in opulence and the interest in transgression are in some ways just pent-up frustrations from the pandemic where people are like, I want to have fun’, while author Allison Davis speculates that it might have something to do with ‘the death drive’ (‘our heels get higher the closer we inch to death’). A piece in i-D connects the roaring twenties spirit to an ‘anti-work feminist politics’—a bit of a stretch, given that night luxe is possibly the most inaccessible trend yet, featuring a $1,625 pair of shoes and a $3,430 bag among its recurrent objects.
Night luxe isn’t the only challenge to the ‘that girl’ of the pandemic and pre-pandemic era: ‘goblin mode’, for example, deliberately challenges the idea of exhibiting one’s best self. It’s not really a fair comparison, however, as you’re unlikely to catch the same influencers previously advertising their perfect diurnal lifestyles suddenly posting unhinged, late-night rants, showing off food stains and pimpled skin.
Unlike goblin mode, then, the night luxe aesthetic isn’t the opposite of ‘that girl’, but rather her nocturnal iteration: she may be sleeping through the day, but she’s just as rich and beautiful. The nocturnal influencer hasn’t so much deposed the diurnal wellness guru as she has been added to a palette of identities one can choose from. Some videos feature night luxe along with several other trending looks, inviting viewers to ask their friends to tell them which vibe they give off.
The rise of a certain look, trend or vibe online is often positioned as being an organic response to something seething in the cultural subconscious. Ludwig Yeetgenstein, writing for Real Life, defines the vibe as ‘a loose collection of ideas, concepts, things that can be identified by intuition rather than by a prescribed logic’. Writing when the idea of a vibe started taking hold, they argue that the emergence of this catch-all term discouraged the more ‘difficult work of interpretation’, offering a way of receiving phenomena or recognising patterns that didn’t rely on seeking causal explanations.
While this is still to some extent true, vibes are increasingly becoming an element in the way the internet self-narrativises. What is new about night luxe (as with goblin mode and other recent vibe descriptors) is not so much the vibe itself so much as the fact that now, when a vibe goes viral, it goes viral alongside a particular narrative of its function. A search for #nightluxe on Tiktok brings up influencer videos, montages of those videos by ‘regular’ users describing the aesthetic, and videos that give commentary on what that aesthetic is doing culturally. As the comparisons being drawn between night luxe and the Roaring Twenties suggest, there is a desire to feel that the trends of the internet are not merely the result of random algorithmic processes, but rather important cultural shifts akin to the artistic and cultural movements of the early twentieth century.
Historically, in art and literature, night has been a space of transgression and freedom—a realm of masks, disguises, alter-egos and anonymity (see Elisabeth Bronfen on this). This set of associations has always been bound up with the night’s unrecordability: cameras don’t work as well, memories are hazier, time is more fluid. Now, night’s records are getting clearer: drunk texts carry midnight desires forward into the day, and smartphones increasingly advertise HD night vision modes as a selling point. The night may not offer the same actual refuge from visibility that it once did, yet symbolically it still represents the freedom that comes with a space-time considered largely separate from the expectations of the day.
The creation of images that allude to the nocturnal and to its web of associations (anonymity, freedom, transgression, desire, nihilism and fantasy) isn’t so much a subconscious reaction to a post-pandemic zeitgeist as a deliberate effort to build a particular symbolic world and a particular narrativisation of the present. We want to believe that we are entering a new era of carefree hedonism, even if it is underpinned by nihilism. People want this decade to be the next Roaring Twenties. They want our cultural artefacts to be taken seriously, and for the suffering of the pandemic to have meant something, at least culturally. Perhaps above all, people want a guaranteed future from which others will be able to look back at 2022 and point at photos of night luxe and say: look! Here is the post-pandemic era. At least for now, people are having fun.
In the final scene of Sunset Boulevard (1950), Norma Desmond—the ageing star of the silent films of a bygone era—slowly descends the staircase of her mansion, bedecked in jewels and crystals as the cameras roll. She believes that she’s starring in Salomé: in reality, the cameras belong to the press, and it is her recent crime—the murder of her lover, a young writer—that will propel her again into the public eye. Norma Desmond has only ever known how to be famous: unable to accept her growing irrelevance, she hides away in an artificial night within her mansion, the curtains drawn.
In some ways, Norma Desmond is the archetypal night luxe influencer, albeit more interesting. Shrouded in shadows, surrounded by mirrors, chandeliers and sparkling jewellery, she drinks champagne out of crystal glasses, she plays her own films repeatedly, and commissions extravagant treatments as she prepares herself for the stardom that she believes will come for her once more. For Norma, glamour and opulence enable a fantasy of belonging that soothes her otherwise profound sense of alienation. There is a lethargy to her glamour, but also an intense neuroticism—the world she has built around her is a closed system which supports the fantasy that enables her to go on living (her butler writes her fake fan mail from admirers who have long since forgotten her). Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether the cameras belong to a doting Hollywood or to a press hungry for blood, as long as she gets to perform.
The visual trickery and confusion of film noir—which is tied up with its world of moral dubiousness—appeals to contemporary disillusionments around the presentation of the self, and taps into an atmosphere of vague longing, nostalgia, and alienation. The rise of night luxe is part of a wider cultural resurgence of the look and feel of the noir and neo-noir cinema of the 1940s. There’s Julia Fox, the archetypal nocturnal it-girl, who wears her signature smokey eye like a mask. Zoe Kravitz, who carries the night luxe look into a perfume ad for Yves Saint-Laurent; and the new Batman, who skulks around Gotham city murmuring something about being a ‘nocturnal animal’. Like Sunset Boulevard, The Batman is a story about someone who is addicted to their own fiction. Towards the end of the film, Catwoman floats the idea of she and Batman getting away together, then abandons the proposition almost immediately: who am I kidding, you’re taken, she reminds herself, gesturing at the city. It’s not Gotham that Batman is married to, of course. It’s his own performance as its nocturnal hero. Like Norma Desmond, the reality and image he’s built for himself is a gilded cage.
That of the deluded, egomaniacal protagonist isn’t the only nor even the primary story of film noir, but it is one particular shade of the nocturnal that seems to be resonating today.
The nocturnal has always been kind to fantasy, to delusion, to extravagant performances of the self. At its core is a simultaneous enthusiasm for—and profound distrust of—the image. As Bronfen writes, the moral confusion of film noir is tied to a visual confusion: the heroes can never be permitted to ‘see clearly’. The day-for-night technique employed in early Hollywood films—in which a scene would be shot by day and then corrected to make it appear as night-time—gradually gave way to day-for-night shooting, which yielded more unpredictable results and a new fascination with the unclear image. Later, neon lighting and other examples of the electrical urban began to be incorporated into the genre along with mirrors, chandeliers, faceted glass tableware and sparkling jewellery—objects that not only gestured towards illicit wealth, but were also used to refract light, distort, enhance and scramble the image, suggesting a more dreamlike state of existence and a more subjective reality.
The images that characterise night luxe are edited to generate confusion: windows distort views of the skyline. Images are superimposed on other images. Mirrors and the sleek, reflective surfaces of cars create doppelgangers out of the main character. The result is an atmosphere of wealth and drunkenness—some of the night luxe photos circulating in pinterest are intentionally blurred by other users, as though taken haphazardly. Like the nights of film noir before it, night luxe images are not the spontaneous result of hedonism, but meticulously constructed in order to reproduce the experience of night-time, and to bring out certain qualities about the nocturnal. Tiktok videos on how to achieve the night luxe look go viral along with the look itself (these include reducing exposure and shooting 4K at 50 frames per second, guidelines for editing photos on adobe lightroom, and even how best to optimize make-up for flash photography). Unlike with ‘that girl’, there doesn’t seem to be much pretence that this representation is true to life: it is meant to go viral as an aesthetic rather than a lifestyle—or as the latter only in so far as the two are understood to be interchangeable.
Night luxe itself on its own isn’t all that interesting a phenomenon. Visually, it quickly gets tiring. Many of its most popular videos are largely interchangeable—remixes of the same shots, the same objects. In many ways, night luxe is just a new way for influencers to exhibit their wealth: there’s no real message to it beyond the shameless indulgence in luxury following the trials of the pandemic. In reproducing some of the visual conventions of the noir genre, however, night luxe connects itself to a history of image-making that is enthusiastic about the way images can be manipulated, and about the way night-time resists visual clarity. Night luxe signals a shift not so much in ‘vibes’ but in the fact that the internet is now reflecting on its own practices of image-making and trying to think up narratives for them in real time.
Chaotic Nightclub Photos recently appeared on Twitter, gaining a million followers in under a month. It posts high-definition, flash-photography images from darkened clubs: smeared make-up, mid-air vomit, a tooth suspended as it falls to the floor, beer falling out of bottles and caught on-camera right at the moment the liquid stream lands on somebody else’s face. The account is the exact opposite of night luxe: genuine nocturnal hedonism subjected to a random clarity, rather than meticulously planned photos made to look artificially loose, free and accidental. Of the two, it is night luxe that has more in common with the ‘nocturnal’ as it appears in art and literature—a carefully vague fantasy that preserves an understanding of the night as a realm of sanctuary and escapism.
Image: Zoe Kravitz in the Yves Saint Laurent Black Opium campaign
Overland’s Friday Features project is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.