Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.
Fashion trends were supposed to be over, a casualty of the pandemic that no one would mourn. When Isabel Slone wrote in The New York Times, in 2021, about their demise, it added up. What did the early 2020s look like, anyway? It seemed consumers really had opted in favour of sustainability – or just the ease of not dressing up – and that the thing where 1964 looked like 1964, 1985 like 1985, etc., was behind us.
But it hit me recently, when on a streetcar with a group of similarly self-presenting individuals, that the early 2020s absolutely does have a signature look, albeit not one adopted by all.
The look is instantly recognizable: neon or faded-neon bleached hair and a DIY-looking haircut; an N95 mask worn even outside; and no-fuss, somewhat baggy vintage clothes. Androgyny is definitely a part of it, but the same could be said of how us less of-the-moment sorts have dressed for the past decade or so, with our jeans and sweatshirts and white sneakers.
New-thing participants are generally white, and seemingly in a highly educated social class. The look skews young, but includes some who are (I say this with no judgment) well into middle age. There won’t necessarily be any overt political signifiers, but if there are any, they will be of the left: a keffiyeh, a pronoun pin, a tote bag from a left-wing independent bookstore.
I would say that no one’s talking about this, but it would be more accurate to say that it’s not getting a whole lot of neutral, isn’t-this-interesting-type discussion. Some right-wingers are furious with the purple-haired set, or, even if not riled up, recognize bright hair colours as signifying enemy politics. There hasn’t been quite so much (or: any?) coverage that’s more about, here’s a new thing. Which is weird, because it’s new! By definition, it does not predate the pandemic.
The new thing is politically coded, but is also the only distinctive aesthetic thing going on. Everyone else – the vast sea of people whose views on decolonization or microaggression cannot be even guessed at from their style – is a blur of athleisure or their prepandemic office clothes. Apart from the bright-of-hair and consistent-of-mask, everyone else walking around looks like they could be doing so in 2015 or earlier.
Is the new thing evidence of superficial politics, a sign that the views of (some) activists today are rooted in trendiness rather than a deep understanding of the issues? Or – to chicken-or-egg the question – does the look follow the politics, and is it just that people with similar viewpoints who’ve found one another start to self-present along similar lines?
Whatever it is, it’s the product of aesthetic and political realignments. It emerged from pandemic-era culture war divides over masking, but extends into other realms. The hair colours, piercings, and nail polish choices (no understated pastels) of the new thing evoke punk or goth, but the COVID-cautiousness suggests something other than a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. But the new thing isn’t a music-led subculture. (A concert is, after all, a potential superspreader event.)
The closest equivalent in recent memory would be the hipster of the early 2000s. But hipsters had no politics. Hipsters weren’t the ones earnestly calling out problematicness in 2008-era blog comments. The hipster did everything ironically, from his trucker-hatted head to his dorkily narrow-cut jeans. (Women could be hipsters, too, but the men’s wear was more visually distinctive.) Thus the phenomenon of “hipster racism,” a stand that’s ostensibly satirizing racism – anti-racism, in other words – but can cross the line and become indistinguishable from the real thing.
Mostly, hipsters were into being cool. They liked the band before you’d heard of it. Hipsters didn’t like being called hipsters. They’re now so definitively middle-aged that they have been revived, as something called the “indie sleaze” aesthetic.
The new thing has some aesthetic overlap with hipsterism, and I suppose falls under some enormous emo or indie or alternative umbrella. Hipsters and new-thing adherents take coffee seriously; the less corporate the coffee shop, the more likely you would have been to encounter a hipster barista in 2005, and a new-thing adherent in 2023. But hipsters they are not.
No, the closest correspondence would require going back further: it’s like hippies. Hippies, now they had politics. Unlike hipsters, who were either envied (the rich parents!) or viewed as faintly ridiculous, hippies suggested a threat to stability, and men in crewcuts demanded they get off their lawns.
My hunch is that in 2030, the normies will be getting their no-longer-new-thing look at the mall, which frankly you already can, as the chain pharmacies stock both Manic Panic hair dye and COVID masks. But by then it will have lost whatever political edge it once had.