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  • Writer's pictureOlivia Linnea Rogers


Is it art? Is it marketing? Is it simply the feminine instinct to gather?


The Bling Ring (2013)

A townhouse. A bowl of cherries. An autumn forest. A lace bralette. An open book. A mid-century lamp. A green drink. Retro sunglasses. Silver jewellery. A cobblestoned street. A classic film still. Ralph Lauren Fall 1996. Desaturated. Sparkling. Pink or brown-hued.

Sometimes I think about how there used to be no images. Or not no images, but very few images. Images were rare. A painting in your home. A tintype photograph of your parents. A single weatherworn postcard. You couldn’t take an image from the internet and place it in your real life. We don’t even really do this now. The images we harbour online still exist in our phones, first and foremost. Even when we lay claim to it – by saving, or screenshotting, or pinning, or re-sharing – the image is never held in real life. It's intangible. We could print them out, but who needs to print something out when it's already in the palm of your hand – forever?


It’s not at all a new phenomenon, but in the last few years, there has been a proliferation of online content that essentially boils down to mood-boarding, i.e. gathering these digital images into collages and compositions. The earliest use of the phrase ‘mood board’ is dated to the 1980s by the Oxford Dictionary, but the concept of gathering several images into one is eternal. In “From Ancient to Digital Mood Boards and AI,” Guy Adam Ailion argues that “mood boarding” has been practised since Ancient Egypt.

Sandy Liang SS24 Mood Board

Traditionally mood boards are physical boards, constructed to be hung on a wall, usually with images and words cut out from magazines. A mood board is often used to convey an idea, feeling, or aspiration about a theme or subject: shabby chic weddings, a television show character, “career goals”, a fashion brand ethos, or your dream house on the Oregon coast. As Ailion writes, “...mood boards might be defined as a generalised visual representation or evocation of a thing,” but crucially are not that thing itself. Mood boards can represent “tangible things like a physical product” (a S/S collection, a perfume, a music video), but they can also represent “something more ephemeral, for the purpose of evoking a mood.” Any niche trend you can think of has been distilled into a digital mood board, from mainstream to esoteric to bizarre.

The mood boards we see online today are often intangible in theme, or have no decided theme. Increasingly we seem to be mood boarding life itself – but never our own lives; the Tiktok video portraying life in the American West – dusty mornings, jean shorts and vintage cars – set to a Lana Del Rey song; the Instagram feeds of Kate Moss, Basquiat paintings, artfully arranged seafood and niche perfumes; the four-photo tweet with a selfie of Hailey Bieber, workout gear, a bathroom sink and a shopping cart of green and pink pickings. These compositions are devoid of any logic but still contain an interior architecture of desire and idealisation.

Pinterest is the mother of online mood boarding. It is an application fully dedicated to the saving and sharing of images that one did not create oneself. It is an arena of identity construction through images completely unrelated to one’s life.


Why the hell do we do it? And why do we spend so much time and effort on this activity? Is it simply an extension of the feminine instinct to gather? The creation act involved in mood boarding is not a matter of skill, but taste. It is editorial. It is refining one’s personal taste, in a shareable manner. In a world that is constantly insisting we consume more, more, more, couldn't mood boarding be considered a form of sustainable consumerism? It is normal, and good, to feel an affinity with certain images, it is how we interact with art, but I wonder if the collective aspect of mood boarding devalues our relationship to individual images.


I think of a comment I saw on a Tiktok post compiling clips of ‘Washington summer’; “Sometimes I forget this isn’t Pinterest and they continued their conversations after recording this, that jump into the lake was one of many and we only see these few seconds.” Is mood boarding actually then a form of escapism that disillusions us from real life? – even the reality of the lives being idealised, as pointed out about Western America by Rose McMackin and Los Angeles by Paula Luengo.


In her 2014 essay ‘Tweens: Youth, Culture and Media,” scholar Renata Tomaz argues that Modernity allowed the individual to “...try new ways of being in the world.” Because there was no longer a set identity, borne of family or place or purpose, the individual was cursed with the freedom of self. Tomaz writes that “[t]he question then is not about who one is, but who one can become and how to become someone.” There is no place for self-actualisation like the Internet. To put on and take off identities, personalities, interests, and styles with no cost at all and by simply lifting a pointer finger. This has generally been considered an advantage of the Internet. I’d argue it is not. It feeds an instinct that has been trained in us from marketing executives. You can create a “self” and a “space” for that self, with none of it being real at all. One can suddenly identify with items, places, and people that do not extend past images. It is an identity that does not exist. You do not own these things, or often even the images that represent them.


Tomaz writes that in the 1980s — the same time in which the phrase “mood board” came about — “the mass media began offering symbolic material for identity construction.” This came with discovering the success of selling a product by way of lifestyle, ahead of the qualities or uses of a product. Fragrance is the perfect example of this. Perfume ads are famously abstract and cinematic, featuring Hot People, with little actual focus on the product. Tomaz says that with the advancement of Modernity and media culture, “Everyone can take ownership of images, attitudes and appearances readily available.” Exactly what a lot of digital moodboarding does is construct an idea of a lifestyle out of products — an Erewhon smoothie, a Diptyque perfume, a soft rock album.

One of the writer's own mood boards.

In this way, mood boarding can act as a way for the masses to play pretend with mascots of wealth and their belongings. So-called it-girls are commonly featured in digital moodboards: Bella Hadid, Kate Moss, Sharon Tate, Naomi Campbell, Audrey Hepburn, Carrie Bradshaw, Gisele Bundchen, Adriana Lima, or Hailey Bieber. Tomaz writes that “Without traditional references, individuals invest heavily in projects of the inner self. Absent from experiences, they rely on the experts offered by increasingly specialised systems. Thus, experts teach how to live and choose in a world where freedom and autonomy go from privilege to responsibility.” These it-girls become our experts and the projects of the inner self play out through online image coalescence. The area of expertise is not necessarily hair, fashion, beauty, or home anymore, but life itself.

Mood boarding is perhaps a sustainable form of consumption, but this consumption is still a temporary pleasure. It fails to bring real meaning to our lives. There is also a gendered aspect to mood boarding. They are most often made by and for women and seek to illustrate an unattainable ideal of person and life — down to the minutiae of how one holds a coffee cup or what toothpaste one uses. Only women are expected, and taught, to pay this much attention to their image in the world. (But that will have to be elaborated on in its own essay!)

There is definitely a skill displayed and practised through mood boarding, but it should not be mistaken for creation or real identity building. I’m not saying we need to abandon our Pinterest boards or bookmarked tweets. Mood boards can be instrumental as a starting point for a creative process, and they can work as motivation for building the lives we desire. And, if one is to consider it an art form, it is a very democratic one in that it can be performed by anyone. In the worlds of fashion, art, and architecture mood boards are bread and butter. But the proliferation of digital mood boarding is still symptomatic of our times. The increasing popularity of the practice is not coincidental. It can disillusion us with the reality of others and life itself. Remember there’s always less to the mood board than meets the eye. 🌀


Olivia Linnea Rogers is a Norwegian-British writer, fringe enthusiast, film watcher, and poet, if you're lucky. Based in London. She can obviously be found online on Instagram (@olivialinnearogers) and Twitter (@olivialinrogers).


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