The Gremlincore Aesthetic Might be the Climate Solution We Need
Rooted in folklore and a deep appreciation of nature, the gremlincore aesthetic gives old stories and old items new life. Gremlins are creatures in folklore with a penchant for mischief, known to treasure items and ecosystems often disregarded by dominant society. Following in the path of its namesake, gremlincore embraces imperfection and adventure, collects weathered and forgotten things, and finds kinship with ecosystems and living beings that are typically under-appreciated. Aesthetic niches are not often seen as climate solutions, but there are some gems (“shinies”) tucked away in gremlincore’s pockets.
Amidst the rise of fast fashion trends on social media, the past two decades have also seen an uptick in niche Internet aesthetics. Aesthetic niches (or, “-core”s) such as cottagecore, dark academia, and softie refer to offbeat fashion styles, many of which are associated with specific types of activities, interests, and values. While these aesthetics are inspired by the media, ecosystems, or art, the looks and practices that belong to an aesthetic are typically co-created by everyday people gathering online, rather than by brands or celebrities.
Gremlincore first arose as “goblincore” on Tumblr in the early 2010s. Since then, it has greatly expanded its Internet reach over the last few years. Stylistically, gremlincore is characterized by earth tones in darker shades and somewhat worn-looking or second-hand clothing. It can be likened to aesthetics driven by nature and fantasy such as cottagecore or fairycore. Gremlincore, however, is distinctly marked by its fondness for objects, critters, or ecosystems that are generally considered undesirable.
In the world of sustainability, fashion trends are often considered passing fads riding the waves of consumer-capitalism. But gremlincore is one avenue for making fashion more climate-friendly. It does so not only by repurposing old clothes, but also by repurposing old stories. Gremlin lore embraces the activity of collecting and inspires care for inanimate objects that exists along with with an appreciation of and care for nature, especially its lesser-loved creatures. Gremlincore suggests an environmental ethic that doesn’t ask us to punish ourselves in order to solve the climate crisis or uphold ideas of environmental purity. Rather, it invites us to fundamentally shift how we relate to nature so that we can both be climate conscious and live in abundance, a kind of abundance separate from capitalism.
From Goblin to Gremlin: The Lore
To understand the folklore that inspires gremlincore, we first need to understand the lore behind its precursor, goblincore. Goblin is the English umbrella term for a type of supernatural creature—like “demon.” There are many specific types, belonging to cultures throughout the world such as nuno sa punso in the Philippines, brownies in England and Scotland, and kappa in Japan. In the lore, gremlins are essentially a type of goblin attracted to machinery, whose presence arose in the twentieth century along with increased mechanization. Today, “gremlin” has become a looser term in the aesthetic.
Goblins are typically regarded as tricksters known for thieving, greed, and mischief. Sometimes they demonstrate a desire for commonly sought-after things: jewels, juicy fruit, tasty fried food. However, they are also known to help people. Some clean your home at night; some lead lost humans out of the woods. Additionally, goblins, duendes/dwendes and various yokai often demonstrate an appreciation for—or communion with—both living and nonliving things that are considered ugly or worthless. This theme of loving the unloved and appreciating nature sits at the heart of gremlincore. In many ways, goblins themselves are lesser-loved creatures of lore.
As early as the fourteenth century, Western European folklore often depicted Jews as goblins—an antisemitic motif that has persisted in literature and media today. On Internet discourse, while many have expressed that goblincore involves a reclaiming or appreciation of the figure rather than further demonization, the question of who gets to “reclaim” such a figure arises (hint: it’s not non-Jewish people). The fact remains that the figure of the goblin bears the weight of antisemitism.
As countless folklorists have expressed, folklore evolves over time, and it certainly has done so with this aesthetic. Folklore can give us poignant guidance for decolonial struggles or for climate change adaptation. At the same time, although folklore has subversive power, it can also be manipulated or used toward oppressive ends.
With that, many goblincore devotees found it apt to change the name to “gremlincore” in acknowledgement of this history of antisemitic renderings of goblins. Although still under the class of “goblins,” gremlin lore does not come with the antisemitic history attached to more general renderings of goblins, or that of specific goblin types that were created to depict Jewish people.
In an interview, Isais Hernandez, environmental justice educator and content creator behind Queer Brown Vegan, reflected on the language change: “I think for me, it wasn’t so much like ‘what is the right term to use?’ More like, I’m non-Jewish and as someone that wants to practice intersectionality and deconstructing harmful narratives, you know, the Jewish community on tumblr that was talking about goblincore just said not to use it, and you can use gremlincore. And, I thought that was a very reasonable social justice request— to ensure that we don’t reinforce any harmful tropes and that we can practice this idea of imagination and, you know, the odd things that we love in life, without hurting any group that’s out there.”
Fashion and Folklore: Gremlincore’s Social Impact
This shift in language from goblincore to gremlincore itself demonstrates that the aesthetic is not just a style of dress or passing trend, but a set of practices steeped in cultural meaning and material implications. The change is also reflective of some of the ethos behind this aesthetic. Gremlincore’s love of unloved things expands beyond a love of worn-out clothes, mud, and mushrooms. Mariel, the fashion content creator behind Dress Relief on YouTube, has remarked on the “strong sense of inclusivity and acceptance” that stems from this.
Especially popular among LGBTQ+ community members—particularly TGNC folks, gremlincore is considered to have a more androgynous style than some of the other Internet aesthetics, though it can also include more “femme” or “masculine” presenting looks. Along with the LGBTQ+ community, online articles, posts, and threads suggest that gremlincore resonates with many neurodiverse and disabled folks as well.
Mariel and Maude Lavender, fashion content creator @themothfaerie on Instagram, both note that the online community around gremlincore tends to be more inclusive, which tracks with its embrace of the strange, undesirable cryptid that is gremlins. While there are countless reasons why dressing unconventionally may not feel comfortable, safe, or desirable for individuals from any range of marginalized backgrounds, there is also a long history of minoritarian folks dressing outside of the norm and developing unique fashion trends. Having a community of folks doing so might also feel exciting—it is an opportunity to get weird despite that society tends to call for assimilation.
Lavender says that where fatphobia and racism plague many other internet aesthetics, those issues are less dominant in gremlincore: “It definitely feels like a safer space to me. Those who identify with the aesthetic are not a monolith, but the community trends toward celebrating individuals being their authentic selves; practicing social justice through critical engagements with fashion, the environment, and society; delighting in weirdness and adventure.”
Of course, loving the unloved is a valuable lesson when applied to so many things. So, what might gremlincore offer for climate justice?
Climate Lessons in Gremlincore
For one, gremlincore is an avenue for sustainable fashion and decor. While there is always a danger with aesthetics becoming unsustainable fast fashion, gremlincore tends to promote thrifting and reuse. With upcycling and thrifting so central to this aesthetic, gremlincore truly embraces the lore wherein another person’s trash is a gremlin’s treasure.
More than that, gremlincore not only repurposes old items, it repurposes old stories. Many folks in the gremlincore niche are learning, practicing, and teaching how to question, reframe, and resituate lore so that it might offer better, more resonant guidance for present circumstances. That means viewing gremlins not simply as greedy tricksters, but as misunderstood allies of the world’s unloved, stewards of the misfits, scavengers who can treasure junk and jewels alike. As scholars and writer-activists such as adrienne maree brown, Charlie Jane Anders, and Solimar Otero have argued, such a storytelling skill is crucial for adapting in apocalyptic times.
Gremlincore embraces weirdness, fantasy, and chaos, and maybe we need a little bit of that as a balm for the burnout and hypervigilance that is so easy to come by. Maybe dealing with climate change is more fun when done with the mischief of a gremlin toying with machines, or of a goblin fox playing tricks on neighbors. Having fun outside, helping or messing with others, and ogling strange plants are canon goblincore activities. They can help people get to know their ecosystem and community. Mariel explained in a written interview: “I’ve found that other nature-focused aesthetics typically favor conventionally ‘beautiful’ things like fairies, flowers, and fruit while gremlincore focuses on things that are NOT typically thought of as conventionally beautiful like frogs, moss, mud, and fungi.” Those who adopt the aesthetic do so as an ode to the lesser-loved things in nature, and to these creatures of lore who appreciate all those unloved things.
Additionally, both Mariel and Hernandez find that gremlincore promotes a unique sense of adventure and curiosity. This move to embrace a little bit of fantasy, adventure, curiosity, and care for the nonhuman world amidst an apocalyptic dumpsterfire is a lesson in climate optimism.
This aesthetic can also serve as a reminder that fashion trends and climate solutions alike often arise out of smaller, minoritarian communities developing their own styles or solutions with the resources they have at hand. “I’m grateful to this aesthetic, for it has brought me such wonderful friends,” says Lavender. “It has helped me to give a name to my trinket collecting and it has helped me to see my everyday life as more magical.”
What if we treated the climate crisis with a sense of curiosity and approached the often daunting project of community building with a sense of adventure? Even if not everyone who subscribes to goblincore is deeply involved in large-scale climate change adaptation or climate justice activism, that’s okay. Most of us aren’t involved in such. But we all will need to adapt and be creative amidst the climate crisis, and gremlincore offers some prompts for living in our more-than-human world respectfully and joyfully.
While the aesthetic’s more general appreciation for under-appreciated creatures and parts of nature may not mean a direct link to climate activism or community efforts, they do at least offer a foundation from which an ethic and practice of care can grow.
Caring for nature looks different in different contexts. Gremlincore is unique in that it embraces maximalism at the same time that it celebrates nurturing healthy ecosystems and relationships with the more-than-human world. It embraces a notion of abundance rather than scarcity. Such a notion is a refreshing one, amidst mainstream environmentalism’s doom-and-gloom rhetoric and its calls toward a perfectionistic minimalism. Gremlincore is both dark earth tones and shiny things—a humble abode and a treasure trove.
“I think that the lore teaches us of the idea that, you know, having less is more,” says Hernandez. “And not so much the idea of being broke, but actually having what you already value in your ecosystem and nourishing that to ensure that there is a sustainable future. I think for a lot of us, we think, oh we have to have these types of environments or these types of luxuries [in order to practice sustainability] but the truth is we don’t need to have much.” As an aesthetic, gremlincore tells us that we don’t have to be perfect environmentalists—we can both say less is more and delight in abundance.
An Aesthetic and An Ethic
Do you have to subscribe to gremlincore to adopt these themes? Of course not. Champions of the aesthetic agree that gremlincore doesn’t have to look any particular way. Anyone can enjoy it, folks can resonate with the aesthetic in a variety of ways, and it’s most important that one feels comfortable in what they are wearing. In the end, Hernandez says, “I think it’s just about people who love nature and getting out in the dirt and the mud and just making mudpies or whatever they may like.” Gremlincore’s inclusivity rings true in Hernandez’s words, and invites us to get weird, dirty, and excited about our strange world.
Regardless of whether you’re fairycore, normcore, farmcore, the takeaway here is that there are some gems for climate adaptation tucked away in fantastical, fashionable, and everyday pockets. With stories that have been handed down through time and re-situated for the present, folks are already living with a sense of wonder and adventure, a sense of how to live in more climate-friendly ways, and a love of the weird things in our world. Rather than subscribe to the narratives of perfection and urgency that have long characterized climate change discourse, we can look to ourselves and the lore we’re retelling for guidance.
Featured image: A cluster of mushrooms peeking out from the dirt. Photo by Georgios Kaleadis, 2015.
Madi Whaley recently received their MA in Gender & Women’s Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, working at the intersections of contemporary folklore and care ethics from a trans/queer studies, Science and Technology Studies, and ecological lens. They currently work with writing and with plants in Southern Maine, on the land of the Abenaki and the Wabanaki Confederacy. Contact.