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Indie Sleaze Versus That Girl: An Aesthetics Showdown

March 15, 2022
March 15, 2022
Jessie Clark + Ale Romo Photography via Unsplash

Spate recently proclaimed a rivalry between “indie sleaze'' and the “that girl” aesthetic for the spot of “beauty zeitgeist moment of the 21st century.” One is an ode back to the early 2000s era of excess and underground, pre-smartphone cameras; the latter is a self-improvement–focused, impeccably groomed, social media-driven ideal. While an indie sleazer is stumbling out of an illegal rave at 4am with smudged eyeliner and bed hair, that girl is getting up at 6am to journal and practice yoga.

According to US Google Search data provided by Spate, the biggest search terms associated with indie sleaze are: wolf cut haircut (+1,486.1% YoY growth), mullet shag (+65.2%), red lipstick (+33.2%), and smudged eyeliner (+38.1%). For that girl, it’s gua sha oil (+238.3%), lip plumping gloss (+138.8%), french tip nails (+99.7%), and brow lamination (+40.1%).

#thatgirl has already acquired over 1.4 billion views on Instagram. The hashtag encompasses green smoothies, meditation moments, self-help books, and a flawlessly executed exterior that aims to look effortlessly undone while including face mask and regular manicure appointment upkeep. “On the surface, she's an untouchable female power force that attacks her day with vigour and confidence, powered by flipclock alarms and a skincare fridge. But, underneath it all, could the lifestyle of aesthetic be stifled by rigidity? Is chasing the 'that girl' life encouraging an overbearing dependence on structure, convention, and expectation?” asks writer Maya Sargent in a Cosmopolitan article. From its focus on personal development to presenting a perfectly balanced exterior, that girl is unarguably a product of our times. Perhaps it is no coincidence that we are seeing an aesthetic which rejects perfection opposite it.

In a recent article for Harper’s Bazaar, Isabel Slone describes the movement as an antidote to the impending solely tech-driven communication through the metaverse. “Indie sleaze says, ‘Fuck that,’ and leaves the house without a cellphone to see a DIY noise show in somebody’s basement. It encourages disciples to experience the world as it was before things became completely untenable, before exhaustion and hopelessness became a rote part of the human condition,” she writes.

“What people are starting to conflate is aesthetics and time periods, which are two different things, and subcultures which is an entirely different thing."
By Sean Monahan, Co-Founder, K-Hole

“It's hard to pinpoint ‘indie sleaze’—the account spans fashion styles and locations—but if we had a dart, it might land somewhere between Brooklyn and Shoreditch in their heydays, towards the end of electroclash and the beginning of Tumblr. Think: the color of the ’80s with a sprinkle of grunge from the ’90s, It Girls like Cory Kennedy and Alice Dellal. American Apparel. VICE's Dos and Don'ts. Side fringes and bowl cuts and tights under denim shorts. House of Holland slogan tees and Uffie's ‘Pop the Glock.’ Essentially: ‘hipster’, back when the word had a definition,” writes Daisy Jones for Vice.

“The hipster era was the first fully digital subculture. This was the era of media piracy. The internet used to be an avant-garde subcultural space that contributed to this freewheeling dynamic,” comments Sean Monahan, co-founder of trend forecasting agency K-Hole (known for coining the term normcore) and writer behind tech/culture/trends newsletter 8Ball. He recently sat down with writer and artist Soph Vanderbilt to discuss indie sleaze on a recent podcast episode for Monahan’s Substack. “Hipster was the first subculture where the Internet was part of the influence. It was a hybrid [of real life and digital],” Vanderbilt notes, warning that “there is so much disconnect from reality where people are talking about these eras 10 years later than they actually happened and dating them completely wrong.”

Misinformation or false interpretation are clearly a consequence of a “post now, think later” mindset, but perhaps no resurgence can come without reinterpretation. Or might indie sleaze be an opportunity to set the record straight? “What people are starting to conflate is aesthetics and time periods, which are two different things, and subcultures which is an entirely different thing,” Monahan argues. “With some of the recent trends like Goblincore and Dark Academia, I don’t know if it’s so much aesthetics as a content prerogative.” He points out that the traditional nostalgia cycle resurfaces every 20 years and is a by-product of mass media, which requires users to have access to said media of the past (like through archive images on Instagram, as evidenced on @indiesleaze, which currently has 34.5K followers), and enough content to enable purchasing more of it.

Academic Dylan Clark argues that punk was the last true subculture, and with it died the classic subculture as we know it, made extinct by commodification via social inspection and nostalgia. Digital media clearly turbocharges these mechanisms, so it’s safe to say that subcultures such as those which existed in pre-internet decades will never be able to exist in an identical way. However, does that mean every subculture is simply destined to become a hashtag or visual trend before being replaced by the new shiny thing? It would be far too cynical of human culture to do so, for although we are visual creatures, we crave substance as well. Whether indie sleaze or that girl will bring that substance is debatable—it’s our political, social, and philanthropic engagement that is the real barometer—but in the meantime, a majority of the mainstream will find themselves setting up camp on either side.

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