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Welcome back to episode 62 of The Department. As we discussed in the last episode, 2022 is feeling a lot like 2002-ish. If that makes you sad because you literally remember 2002…well, now you know what our parents felt like when we were wearing bell bottoms or grunge baby doll dresses (I’m including both because it all depends on how young your parents are). Today we’ll be talking about the return of two iconic aughts aesthetics–ripped straight from hipster culture: indie sleaze and twee.
Let’s travel back in time to something a lot closer than 2002…the series Kim and I did about the 2000s, which is still one of my favorite things we’ve worked on so far. Should we do the same for the 90s? I think we should!
Anyway, one point that we brought up over and over again was how there were two components, archenemies if you will, dominating the culture here in the United States and in other countries in the Global North: the mainstream “raunch culture” of celebutantes, Rock of Love, stripper poles in living rooms, Juicy couture, thongs pulled up REALLY high, Von Dutch, etc. The other culture was the hipsters. And while to the outsider, the hipsters might have seen like a monolith, there were actually subcultures buried within there:
- The DIY maker culture of Queen Bee Creations, Etsy, Stitch N Bitch, and 1 million vintage t-shirts butchered. We have been seeing this repeated across social media as the pandemic has created a resurgence in maker culture, more and more small businesses born since 2020 focused on reusing materials/upcycling, and new appreciation for the craft and artistry of making things yourself. There is a resurgence in this every few decades, and we saw this coming in a big way in the late 90s, just before the two major camps of the hipsters began to develop:
- The party/scene kids of the coasts. Black hair dye, 80s/avant garde silhouettes, so much black clothing, Red Bull with vodka, party pics, electroclash, Yeah Yeah Yeahs
- The cute twee kids who maybe were part of the DIY culture, but also had chunky bangs, peter pan collars, cute glasses, knee socks, saddle shoes, cardigans, vintage suits, and so many adorable bicycle baskets. They listened to Belle + Sebastian, The Decemberists, Camera Obscura, The Magnetic Fields.
It is important to call out that both the party/scene and twee subcultures were inspired heavily by older influencers: the party kids embraced the 80s, while the twee kids were all about the 60s.
Well it seems as if twee and that scene culture are back again, possibly because we’re all still in desperate need of some comforting nostalgia.
Le Moyne College professor and psychologist Krystine Batcho told Insider, “For many people, particularly young adults or those without a financial safety net, poor economic conditions raise fears of being able to meet financial obligations like rent or student-debt payments. Nostalgia is a refuge, as people turn to the feelings of comfort, security, and love they enjoyed in their past."
Why are we so nostalgic right now?
Millennials and Gen Xers are experiencing their second or third economic crisis.
Zoomers are experiencing hard times for the first time as young adults.
The two aesthetics that are returning (twee and indie sleaze) were lived out the first time around by Gen X and the elder millennials (who were just teenagers the first time around). Now everyone who didn’t get to experience the first time to its fullest or at all has a chance to do it now.
But lest you were worried about all of the gross negative undertones of the previous incarnations of these aesthetics, Gen Z is trying to bring them back in better way.
Let’s start with the return of the party scene, or as it’s called now in retrospect: Indie Sleaze. (I don’t remember anyone using that term back then?)
- In case you can’t remember what that aesthetic looks/feels like, British Vogue does a great job describing it: “The look is a messy amalgam of ’90s grunge and ’80s opulence with a slightly erotic undertone, topped off with an almost pretentious take on retro style.”
- Daniel Rodgers wrote a great breakdown of it for Dazed, where he described it as “Grubby, maximalist, and performatively vintage. Its proponents – Mark Hunter (aka The Cobrasnake), Beth Ditto, Jeremy Scott, and Sky Ferreira – championed a hyperactive aesthetic, pulling from the 80s as much as they did 90s grunge, capturing all the hedonism with spontaneous and provocative flash photography. It was a mish-mash buffet of chucking, smearing, and clashing, and its lodestone was American Apparel.”
- Last fall, Mandy Lee, a trend analyst and self-professed “old loser in Brooklyn,” posted a TikTok declaring that indie sleaze was coming back. She cited wired headphones, unedited “of the moment photography” But we are seeing the return of smoking, American Apparel (very coveted on Depop), leggings as a fashion statement, ankle socks, metallic lame…it’s here my friends! Why is it back (in her opinion)? “We’ve been in lockdown for essentially two years and people are really craving community and creativity. I feel like with the indie sleaze subculture, 15 years ago, community, art, and music were so powerful – that’s what brought people together. I think that specific elements, more so than the fashion, will become prevalent, as well as the style of photography, of course.”
- We’re talking bad, high contrast, unfiltered photos like the Cobrasnake. And to be fair, using Facetune or any other apps like that is EMBARRASSING a this point. We see (thank jesus) influencers being called out for the photoshopping and “fake” perfect lives.
- Geraldine Wharry, founder of the Trend Atelier, told Dazed, “People want a more nonchalant mash-up of things that feels right in the moment, more playful and genuine. Indie sleaze was ultimately about seeking pleasure, approaching life as a giant mash-up, making the most out of the moment at a time when life was getting darker, but still wasn’t quite as bad as today.” And it’s true that the next phase after indie sleaze (as we lived it) was staging every element of one’s life for Instagram, from perfect breakfast bowls, to hyper filtered (remember Hipstamatic) shots to later “smoothed” with “natural light” glossy, healthy selfies. The perfect light. The perfect home. The perfect skin. The perfect life. Indie sleaze reveled in the lack of perfection, the pureness of the moment. The past 10 years or so of Instagram have never felt genuine, despite a few years of #liveauthentic. Everyone was playing a character, whether it was bargain fashionista, van dweller, outdoorsy guy, or earthy boho beauty.
- In fact, Mark Hunter (the cobrasnake!) told Harper’s Bazaar, “It was an organic, free-spirited time of not caring, which I think people crave. When you look at my photos, people look like they’re having the best time of their life. They’re not focused on the phone in their hand or posing for the camera. They’re living, basically.”
- Remember: your phone was not a camera for most of that era.
- It’s important not to romanticize the aughts and the original incarnation of Indie Sleaze (and it’s sleazy behaviors) like Terry Richardson, Dov Charney, and the abuse/objectification of women. It wasn’t all great and easy.
- But one thing about the original Indie Sleaze that feels more relevant than ever is the mixed up, low price, secondhand mish mash of fashion of that era. It was all about building your own look with very little, and most of it would be thrifted or vintage. It feels good to have that approach back, after more than a decade of fast fashion, quasi boho bullshit, and influencer marketing.
- As Isabel Slone wrote for Harper's Bazaar, "Indie sleaze serves as a somewhat painful reminder of the last gasp in time when it was possible to envision a future unscathed by the ravages of late capitalism."
- From an aesthetic standpoint, we’re talking intentionally (or not) dirty/disheveled hair, distressed clothing with moth holes and rips, cardigans, shredded/faded denim, t-shirts, darkly opulent details and fabrics like worn velvet (maybe even a vintage burnout), ballet flats or loafers, maybe the LITA?!, black leggings WORN AS PANTS, scarves, black suits and blazers. As GQ said, “A key component of Indie Sleaze style is leaning into looking like a bit of a mess.”
- Want to get in the mood? Go check out @indiesleaze on IG.
- I’ve been saying for a while that I’m ready for a Girl Talk comeback!
One thing I’ve been hearing a lot lately–and I would definitely love to dig into this more from a historical perspective in a future episode–is that trend cycles have indicated that when a recession hits, hipsters unite and grow, ultimately shifting in tastemakers for the mainstream arts, culture, and fashion.
I’m so excited to say that the indie twee aesthetic of the aughts is back, baby! As a lifetime Belle + Sebastian die hard fan, I’m pretty excited. And I’m wondering if I’m too old for bangs? Somewhere Zooey Deschanel is getting VERY excited! In fact, she posted a TikTok thanking it for teaching her the meaning of twee. P.S. To be clear, I do not think Zooey invented twee. If anything, she was late to the game and her stylist/Hollywood turned her into a mainstream version of twee.
Okay, but why is it back? It does seem as if maybe (just maybe) cottagecore was sort of a repackaging of twee? And now it’s turning back into twee?
Some trend experts say it’s because of the rise of K-pop and the growth of Japanese kawaii culture and aesthetic in western countries. Others say, “hey, it’s the nostalgia, dummies.” There is nothing cozier and more nostalgic than twee! Regardless, TikTok is filling with videos of iconic twee looks set to (of course) a soundtrack of She & Him (Zooey Deschanel)
But this version feels a little less hyper feminine and more gender inclusive:
- Harry Styles’ love of fuzzy sweaters has spawned an entire generation of men getting into knitting.
- Justin Bieber and Pete Davidson are wearing pearl necklaces.
- This version of twee is not just for femmes.
As I mentioned earlier, twee has 60s mod fashion at its heart:
- Peter pan collars or the updated version, maximalist collars
- Colored tights OR tube socks
- Cardigans (can we just say that cardigans are finally having a time again? After being ruined by Anthropologie)
- Mod prints like daisies and checkerboard
- Block heeled, mary jane-esque shoes (our friend Ty has some great ones right now)
- Ballet flats (PAGING TY! Make me some cool ballet flats)
- Loafers–probably better for your feet?
- Color, color, and more color
- Pearl necklaces, colored brooches, neck scarves
- Cute little novel handbags
Interestingly, Twee began as an embarrassing adjective…first a baby talk version of the word “sweet.” Later it was often used to describe out of touch, uncool, Margaret Thatcher fans. Then it turned into a way of describing too much earnestness, like Belle + Sebastian.
It was also adopted by queer culture, with bands like Team Dresch adopting that aesthetic. Or the phenomenal Natash Lyonne film But I’m a Cheerleader.
Somewhere along the way, it was commercialized into the “New Girl” version of twee of the aughts, making Modcloth gazilions of dollars, and motivating tons of dumb dudes to look for their own manic pixie dream girl. It became a way of life for a certain type of white, middle/upper middle class educated person. It was classist, for sure. Was it racist? Probably, because we know the hipsters had a lot of racist, misogynist tendencies.
But twee also lived on Tumblr in a major way, and while Tumblr was great in terms of allowing individuals to share creative work and ideas, it also promoted a lot of bad stuff, like eating disorders via “thinspiration,” and a parade of incredibly thin bodies. And twee and toxic Tumblr content were practically synonyms for a while.
Like indie sleaze, no one wants a full rerun of the original aughts twee. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a lot more inclusive and diverse in this incarnation. And another thing everyone wants to leave behind is that persistent drive for maximum thinness/waifishness that the original version required. Boobs were stigmatized. The “ideal” twee women was average height, very thin, not curvy, wasn’t overtly sexy, and had thick dark hair…which meant lots of women were left out of the first incarnation, or at least, constantly “striving” to be more “ideal.” Virginal innocence was emphasized, which is so gross and out of touch. There was this idea that the ideal twee woman should be cooking, crafting, and basically stepping into a 1950s housewife role. It was romanticized! You know that phrase “vintage style, not vintage values?” It seemed like twee was embracing both.
Booooooo. Here’s hoping that Gen Z can do a better job this time around.