I’ve always been mildly insecure about my big ears—but now, I’m feeling persuaded to make them a little bit bigger. I’m not talking about plastic surgery here. No, I mean plastic elf ears. No longer just a staple at Renaissance faires, the unconventional accessory can now be spotted in the TikToks and selfies of some of today’s coolest teens and twentysomethings. Welcome to the weird, wonderful world of “elfcore” (and its cousins “fairycore” and “goblincore”) whose adherents draw upon our collective imagination of “the fantastic” to create outfits that look like they were ripped from storybooks.
People being interested in elves is nothing new. “Elfcore” is distinctly a product of the 2020s. Of course the allure of folklore and fable has captivated whimsical souls for centuries, but it’s become even stronger in recent times, when daily life often seems anything but “magical.”
How does a mere mortal become swept up in the elfin ways? Turns out it’s not as difficult as you think. When I chatted with various #elfcore adherents, I learned that one can arrive in the mystical realm of the elves via a myriad of paths, none of them less rosy than the others.
There are certainly plenty of elf-ear wearers who developed an interest in fantasy from a young age. Friskie (@xfriskiex on Instagram), a 24-year-old from Hungary who got into the elfin style via cosplay, told me that he’s had a penchant for elves, mermaids, and dragons since he was young. Trinity (@trinitybounds), a twenty-year-old from Hattiesburg, Mississippi whose #elfgirl looks often incorporate ornate corsets and black horns in addition to the traditional ears, is a similar case. In high school, she expressed her love for all things fantastical via “outgoing makeup looks”; her costumes were the next step in her aesthetic evolution.
Other elf ear enthusiasts took longer to come around. Ro (@the.ro.experience), a 25-year-old from North Carolina whose elf ears complement their green mohawk, was originally more interested in “sci-fi,” “superpowers,” and “supernatural-type things” than fairy tales. Growing up, they had an extensive collection of “dragon figurines and plushes” and plenty of “fantasy nerd friends,” but they didn’t start experimenting with the look themself until they got into the world of Dungeons and Dragons.
Milly (@milly_dixon), a sixteen-year-old from Orkney, Scotland, often pairs her elf ears with gorgeous pixie wings for Instagram posts. Growing up in a small town with “not much variety in style,” she tried to distinguish herself from the masses by participating in all sorts of trends. She got purple streaks, went through a self-described “goth phase,” and at one point, even cut all her hair off and wore clothing emblazoned with anime characters. Her interests in art and the Victorian era eventually led her to the accounts @darciadele and @sereinsilvers, both of which proudly adhere to “fairycore”—the aesthetic that seems like the best fit to her at the moment.
The fact that Milly found her style through social media is crucial. The elf ears movement is part of a broader wave of aesthetic-based subcultures that have originated online, largely due to communities on Instagram, Tumblr, and TikTok. Many of these subcultures end in the suffix “-core”; as New York Times reporter Isabel Slone explains in an article about the phenomenon, it was originally “derived from 1980s hard-core punk music” and “is now used to delineate a type of genre or category.”
Trinity, Milly, Ro, and Friskie might sport pointed pinnae online—but if you caught them on the street, their ears would probably be normal-sized. All four of them stated that the accessory is first and foremost for online fun.
“I don’t wear them out in public,” Trinity said.
“So far [the elf ears have] only been for home use, though I’m completely open to wearing them to a convention/faire/other appropriate event (once it’s safe of course),” Ro shared. “I probably wouldn’t wear them just around the town.”
Subcultures have long had a special relationship with place. Since the ’70s, “baby bat” goths afraid to rock their darkest attire in the streets have found a haven in clubs where Bauhaus blasts and the lights are low. Throughout the ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s, teenage emos and pop punkers felt most free to embrace dark eyeliner, studded belts, and Tripp pants at the Vans Warped Tour. What’s new about today’s “-cores” is that the space they “call home” is not a physical location, but the Internet—which has made them the perfect fad for the current moment.
It would be pointless to talk about the fantasy “-cores”—and Internet aesthetics in general—without mentioning the pandemic. What we’re calling the “new normal” has become for many creative young people an opportunity to embrace a “new abnormal”—to experiment in ways they never thought they might before life as we knew it was flipped upside down. New patterns have given way to new pastimes and passions.
One of the most obvious changes brought about by the pandemic: everyone is spending more time on the World Wide Web. Internet usage was especially high in early 2020, when many governments issued lockdowns. Barred from going to parties, malls, bars, clubs, and even school, young people had to revise their schedules—and for many of them, that meant more hanging out online, where they could be exposed to a variety of exciting underground trends.
Trinity counts herself among this crowd. “Being in quarantine had me online a lot,” she said. She eventually stumbled upon videos of other fantasy lovers playing around with cosplay, and her interest was piqued. Soon, she was joining in.
Milly agrees, adding that spending time online allowed her to pinpoint specific “aesthetic goals,” or looks she aspires to emulate. “The amount I used social media went up and that helped me find what I wanted to dress like/be influenced by.”
Quarantine didn’t just give young people more idle hours to spend on apps. Separated from the outside world and its demands, they’ve had more time and space to reflect—not only on aesthetics, but on how ready they are to eschew social norms.
Isolation was a powerful factor in motivating Trinity to step outside her comfort zone and try out new looks. “Being in quarantine kept me away from most of my peers, and I didn’t feel the pressure of trying to ‘fit in,”’ she said. “I’m from Mississippi, so people tend to judge.”
Milly feels similarly. “During the pandemic, I started expressing myself more. Dressing up as different characters, doing different makeup looks, buying new clothes,” she said. “I really just gained the confidence I never had before it.” Her willingness to try out bolder styles at home and online has translated to the “irl” world as well: “Now I can wear whatever I want out in public without feeling embarrassed or ashamed.”
There’s another major reason that fantasy aesthetics have caught on recently. They are, quite literally, a fantasy—a vision of a world that does not exist. Although all of the “-cores” fit this definition in some sense, it is especially true of elfcore, fairycore, and goblincore because the world they present is not limited by the constraints of reality. And who wouldn’t want to defy reality right now, when it so often seems ruled by disease and death?
“Fantasy is the ultimate escapism,” Ro expressed. They noted that the experience of inhabiting a different character (as fantasy fans often do at Renaissance festivals, cosplay conventions, and even when playing tabletop games like DnD) can be distinctly freeing: “Role-playing especially can give someone that temporary detachment from our current reality.”
Milly elaborated on this notion, emphasizing that fairycore in particular has an inherently comforting quality. “The aesthetic itself calms me and makes me feel at peace with my current self and excited for the future,” she stated.
Scrolling through @darciadele and @sereinsilvers’ profiles, it’s easy to see how followers might find them soothing. The accounts are like curated gallery spaces, rich in hues of green, yellow, and orange. Selfies awash in sunbeams appear next to photos of grassy landscapes and pastoral paintings from days of yore. Captions mention Greek nymphs, Pre-Raphaelite artists, and the desire to drop out of the ordinary world and grow strawberries. Beauty, serenity, and communion with nature are the values that prevail in this domain; the fact that it exists entirely online means that these values are never imposed upon by real-world threats. The seasons of change cannot cause the garden to wither; the flowers bloom eternally.
For some LGBTQ+ folks like Ro, who identifies as “nb/bi/ace,” fantasy aesthetics carry even more meaning—they can be an expression of queerness, an exciting way to subvert expectations and reclaim the label of “outsider.” “I think fantasy aesthetic[s] and queerness go hand in hand very easily and often,” they wrote. “Being queer often makes you feel ‘othered’ but at the same time, when you feel free to express yourself, you can find others of ‘your kind’ and can find a community just like you.”
This joy of self-liberation is a key part of both the goblincore/fairycore movement and the queer experience. “It feels like a type of magic to finally know that your identity is not anything that’s “wrong” with you or that you’re alone in your feelings.”
If there’s one thing that became clear through my conversations with members of the fantasy community, it’s that they’re an open-armed bunch. Looking at the meticulously composed portraits posted by popular accounts, it might seem that one needs to put in extensive time, money, and effort to be part of the club—but everyone I spoke to emphasized that the aesthetic should be accessible to everyone drawn to it. You can put aside your fears of being dubbed a fake fairy or poser goblin.
“I think elf ears enhance anyone’s look,” Ro said.
Milly sang a similar tune, offering advice for those who are on the fence about adopting the elfin style. Even if you encounter detractors, she noted, “there will always be people who are inspired by you and wish to be like you!” Her encouragement extends to those who are curious about adopting other aesthetics, as well. “If you want to dress like you are going to a Victorian ball every day, go for it! Or a Steampunk pirate […] In the end everyone is different and no matter what you look like there will be people who judge. So wear whatever you want,” she said. “Your opinion is the only one that matters!”
That was enough reassurance for me. My elf ears are currently in the mail—and I’m positive that they’ll look extraordinary.