By Kaycia Ainsworth
One of the most formative aesthetics of the early 2010’s is about to make a huge resurgence into the popular domain. At its conception, it was just seen as “Twee,” a quaint and delicate feminine aesthetic with light reference to retro ideals of womanhood. Upon reflection of its impact in the UK, “Twee indie” seems the best way to describe the style. There are whispers and flutters of it on Twitter and TikTok, but one thing we know for sure is, this is a polarising trend. Whilst some people dread its comeback, others are excited for its return, attempting to spark the discourse into actually jumpstarting a cultural revoke to 2014. At the time of writing this article, only one publication has announced twee’s return. I feel that the negative feeling towards the trend is based in a confusion where people are commenting on two different subcultures that exist within one aesthetic: One which people (rightfully) hate, and one which people (rightfully) love.
I'm here to not only explain the cultural nuances between those two subcultures, but I'm also going to name them, analyse them and explain the reasons for their existence and confusion. Namely because, this trend admittedly shaped a lot of my late teen years. And if I'm completely honest, I fell into it head first and became completely immersed in it. With the level at which I allowed this twee to encompass me as a young adult, it only feels right that I announce its triumphant return. Trust me, I earned it. I wore boat necked striped tops, skater skirts and ballet pumps exclusively for years. I even dyed my hair brown to look more like Zooey Deschanel, for fucks sake. Warning: desperate dye job pictured below.
After living in this trend for too long, seeing people misconstrue what the style is and what it's about is personally painful. My main issue with its criticism is that people are confusing the ‘New Americana’ subculture of ‘Twee’ aesthetic (awful) with the edgier UK grunge based ‘Indie twee' (groundbreaking). Both of these aesthetics are influenced by the same culture, music and time period, yet look drastically different. They have also taken turns in influencing each other at different points during its initial peak in popularity, but the two are never to be confused with one another. To understand the culture behind the movement, we must first look at how it influenced the original trend.
Imagine it’s 2014: Tumblr is the most popular social media site and is dominating youth culture at this point. Young people spend their days endlessly scrolling through images of indie artworks, vintage style inspiration and motivational quotes stolen from WeHeartIt. They are listening to indie music that is soft and melodic, its lyrical themes are aspirational and quaint, they value art and healthy relationships, yet they have a distinct edginess that so far has only been presented in rock music. The last few years were spent edging out of the second Nu-Wave era that had most people using hairspray and bobby pins to “train” their hair to swoop from the back of their head into a side fringe , covering the side of their whole face. They’re currently weaning off of stealing neon bead necklaces and coloured tights from Claire’s Accessories, when the current pop culture, and the fashion that goes with it, nosedives into the black abyss. The shift is humongous. From neon, bright and tacky, to muted, dull, and beige. This era, between nu-rave and indie twee, is one of the most depressing era’s for fashion within our lifetime. We emphasise going back to basics. White t-shirt, blue jeans, pearl earrings. If anyone can see your lips, your social life is obliterated - foundation concealed lips reign supreme. People are trying to get their natural hair colour back, fast. It's not about having a style or fitting in, it's about being as muted and plain as possible. What we see today as ‘basic’ would have been seen as too much in this era.
Culturally, we had completely died. We had burned out from nu-rave being seen as the coolest trend that no one could achieve. From trying so hard to be so eclectic and it never being (quite) right, to stripping everything back to absolute base. Turns out, young people don't really live like that for long without trying to make their reality less depressing. “Twerk'' and “Selfie” were added into the dictionary in 2013, signalling young people's love of social media as self expression and escapism. When 2014 hit, we looked for new trends where we spent most of our time, on the internet. Tumblr, of course, played a huge part in the trend as it acted as a catalyst to our need for anything exciting. We were bombarded with stimulus that would now be defined by the Consumer Aesthetic Research Institute as the “Hipness Purgatory” aesthetic. Think Vinaigrette filter, on everything. Hand-made feel, indie film stills, a “twee retro” atmosphere and a loosely ironic tone. We began to value relatability and ‘rough-edged’ artistic flare; a shaky hand filmed movie would do better than a professionally produced one, because it felt like an intentional ironic stab from the underdog at Hollywood. The media stopped being a glamorous showpony and began to feel like we could have a hand in it. Instead of the aggressively exclusive ‘top-down’ model we were used to, it was from us, the creator, to you, everyone else.
This is the point at which the culture shifted, with the same stimuli and cultural references, into two subcultures that are now lumped together under the umbrella of “Twee.” Whilst “Hipness Purgatory” was the common cultural influence, it was classically American. When America began to develop into ‘New Americana’ Twee, we deviated. Where twee Americans were listening to bands like She & Him, Darwin Deez and Camera Obscura, across the pond we were opting for more indie, less twee bands like Vampire Weekend, Two Door Cinema Club and The XX. This deviation set the precedent for the difference in the two cultures which ultimately created two similar, but completely different sub cultures that we have since struggled to separate.
New Americana Twee is all about lightness, tweeness, sweetness and American retro. Hoop skirts, full fringes (or ‘bangs’ in American), polka dots, the movie 500 Days of Summer, skater skirts, American Apparel, coloured tights, thick glasses even if you have no prescription, coloured blazers, new wave feminism, art film, moustache themed accessories and ironically, British bowler hats. New Americana twee is twee in its purest form. It's about portraying a pure retro innocence and an air of naïvete. Retro nauticalism became a big feature in a lot of clothing and a revision back to natural materials was paramount. The concept of having sixties style furniture in your home was the twee dream, in part because the trend had developed around mid century modern architecture and interior design making a resurgence on social media. We began listening to records instead of using digital form. The ache to turn digital acoustic to be able to enjoy the thrill of modern life with a vintage aesthetic birthed a lot of wooden phone cases, ear plugs and even bow ties. It was classically American in that it was extremely obvious. Where the British value sarcasm, obscurity and wit, a level of thinking to earn the core of the joke, our American counterpart values the slapstick, the self explanatory and the obvious. Twee was no different. It produced a temporary boom in popularity for graphics of the US flag, acid washed denim and Vans. This was, in part, influenced by viral tumblr images of skateboarders on Venice Beach. This, alongside the song “New Americana'' by Halsey, is the prime reason I wanted to coin this subculture as ‘New Americana twee.’ It was American retro in the American present day, popularised by American designers with micro-trends influenced by images of America. The culture was meta and cannibalistic in that it was influenced only by itself, producing the purest form of the trend that could possibly exist. Upon reflection, many people now describe their own New Americana twee outfits as, “looking like I was going to work at a corporate office at 14 years old.” The outfits were indeed very corporate, yet also extremely cutesy and so sweet that they were almost sickly. I can fully understand why, when looking at this form of the twee trend, people would resent its reappearance. The British development of New Americana twee, however, is another genre of twee entirely.
Never being one to copy America directly without a distinct edge (don't fact check that), Britain’s variation of the twee trend was, in my opinion, truly groundbreaking for fashion. We managed to take the best bits of American twee and merge it with our already hugely influential indie culture. Where they focussed on twee temptress Zooey Deschanel, we had indie icon Alexa Chung. Whilst we did adopt some of New Americana twee’s styling aspects, such as nautical themes, dark natural hair colours and peter pan collars, almost every aspect of our twee trend was tweaked for the British palette. Where ‘Hipness Purgatory’ was the main cultural influence of New Americana Twee, we were also influenced by a simultaneous alternative aesthetic called ‘Indie Sleaze.’ We were still wearing skater skirts and ballet flats, but there was a distinct emphasis on specific accessories and iconography that would change the nuance of your outfit entirely. Berets were an accessory that represented the core of the culture entirely. Worn relentlessly with any outfit, they were seen as a daring choice, especially in small rural English towns, where you would be mocked for wearing something seen as eclectic and European. They were twee but they weren’t lame, they exuded nonchalant cool and gave the implication of being cultured and artistic. We watched our American counterparts ‘thrift’ their clothing. We had high street charity shops. Our charity shop finds were drastically different than their thrift store hauls - where they would get pieces from the 50-80’s for a few dollars, we would be paying £20 for an old Karen Millen dress. Due to the high demand for the British version of a thrifting experience, plenty of businesses opened up shop as makeshift vintage stores. These vintage stores would charge upwards of £40 for ‘reworked’ mens Ralph Lauren polo shirts with elastic in the middle, sold as womens dresses, meaning that the experience was drastically less accessible for us, thus promoting the development of our own iteration of the trend that wouldn't rely on american ideals.
There was a microtrend for inverted cross symbols that seemed to emerge as a direct juxtaposition to the saccharine nature of New Americana twee. We adapted the coloured tights trend for a love of tights that would give your outfit an “alternative” feel. This includes tights featuring the inverted cross symbol as a graphic, black lace tights and fishnets. No alternative tights, however, could compare to the indie staple of black tights in 10-15 denier. At this period, you wouldn't be seen dead in a 30 denier tight, no matter how cold it was in England. The whole function of these tights were to replicate the grunge images flooding UK tumblr of a black tight that was transparent enough to see your flesh through, shoved into a pair of Doc Martens. Peter Pan collars and denim collars became so popular layered underneath a (culturally appropriative) Aztec print jumper that they began selling the collars without anything attached to make achieving the style even easier. This was one of the first time collars were seen to be sold separately from a garment since the popularity of detachable collars in the 1800’s. Indie films such as Submarine by Richard Ayoade accurately encapsulated the ideals of the era in music, culture and aesthetic. During this era, I was wearing winged eyeliner literally every single day to the point I would bet my life savings that I could do perfect winged eyeliner on a rollercoaster going backwards, a useless party trick that's completely redundant in today's culture, but back then, I felt like the king of the castle for being able to draw it on in under 30 seconds. A combination of either winged eyeliner or smudged kohl infiltrated the beauty scene for years, and never truly left us.
Both menswear and womenswear became heavily nautical themed with a subtle military twist. Tumblr had sexualised collarbones, so of course the market was inundated with boat neck tops in a nautical stripe, with gold buttoned epaulettes, almost always featuring an anchor.
The anchor symbol was such a driving force behind the overall Indie Twee trend in Britain that people began to get tattoos of them. Showing that the postmodern irony from Hipness Purgatory was still alive and well, it became a microtrend to tattoo a W next to the anchor so that it would read ‘Wanchor.’ Intellectual genius, I know. Culturally, memes were being taken more and more seriously by younger generations which, much to the dismay of baby boomers, only encouraged them further. Men began embracing old style tattoos at the same time as the popularity of a meme of saying that a “sloth was your spirit animal” resulting in lots of old style tattoos of a sloth, saying “Live slow, die whenever.” Some of the more cringey among us opted for a tattoo of a moustache on the inner finger, so that you could hold it up to your top lip and say, “I moustache you a question.” The startling truth is that it's so cringey it doesn't sound like it could be real, but I promise it was. “I moustache you a question” was an insanely popular meme at the time, which only further cemented the twee moustache as an actual trend. Even now, if you scan a charity shop, you occasionally see a bit of moustache themed memorabilia from this time period. We not only thought it was hilarious, we thought literally every single thing we would ever see in our day to day should be in reference to it. Wine glass, party favour, bed sheets: an abominable combination of the trend developed as we started to see, and actually wear, thick fifties style glasses, with no prescription, that had a tiny metal moustache dangling off of it, above your top lip. Seriously. When we weren’t titting around with this shite, it was more graphics and old style tattoos featuring swallow birds in a sailor style, just in case we werent being clear enough that we were totally retro but totally hardcore and nothing like those lame-twee Americans.
Menswear in this era was quite glorious. Men began embracing a bit of femininity at the same time as attempting to look like a grungey off-duty sailor. T-shirt and jeans cuffs were rolled up with a pack of cigarettes tucked inside the roll, if you were old enough. Black skinny jeans were such a top toot at this time that men would regularly complain that the skinniest jeans available to them were not skinny enough, and that they were having to buy womens jeans, turn them inside out, and resew the seams to be even tighter. Where menswear in New Americana twee was based off of a Joseph Gordon-Levitt style, the trend in Britain was focussed more around celebrities like Jarvis Cocker and Pete Dogherty.
The nautical with a military twist aesthetic within Indie twee Britain never really hit menswear the same way it did with womenswear but was still evident in microtrends like black pea coats, chelsea boots and grey t-shirts with the slogan “ARMY.” Thick rimmed glasses, of course, but paired with feathered trilby hats, mod-ish shag haircuts, white or denim shirts with elbow patches, with the skinniest tie you can possibly find and black brogues, preferably Dr Martens.
By 2015, twee had already started to die out as we moved into what is now seen as “BBL fashion.” We developed from wearing quaint feminine outfits into things that were more functional and comfortable yet read as sexy instead of cute or impish. Stylish clothes for busy women became the forefront of modern fashion moving forward as athleisure and trainers were incredibly successful following the twee trend as well as bodycon dresses that were comfortable and breezy, but still incredibly sexy. As the needs of the modern woman change, so do the trends marketed to them. We now see aspects of twee coming back in collections for 2022. Most likely because this trend never truly left. Gen-Z have made fun of millennials online for persevering in almost exclusively wearing this trend even when it was seen as dated. As we come out of a global lockdown and come back to regular life, people are prepared to play with style again. In an era where we are living through a pandemic, many are working from home and we can be put into another lockdown at a moment's notice. The focus of our style no longer revolves around modern functionality, but in frivolity and fun. Ballet pumps, tights, high waisted tennis skirts and flouncy collars have been spotted at Miu Miu, Prada and Gucci for the Spring/Summer 2022. Lets just hope we can approach twee with a refined eye this time around.