In mid-2021, a TikTok landed on my for-you-page that sent shivers cascading down my spine. A popular trend forecaster I’d been following for some time, Mandy Lee, announced there was an “obscene amount of evidence that the indie sleaze/Tumblr aesthetic” was coming back.
Indie sleaze, she explained, was the style from the mid 2000s to very early 2010s, a period spanning about 2006-2012, defined by “provocative advertisements”, “amateur-style flash photography”, “opulent displays of clubbing” and “a rise in outdated technology”.
Polaroids of smudged eyeliner, bright red lipstick and endless nights up late on Tumblr flashed before my eyes. Studded leather, Jeffrey Campbell Litas, American Apparel a-line skirts. The fits that haunt me.
Uggs? Don’t mind if I do. Leggings? Sure. Flash photography? Love it.
But was an all-out “indie sleaze” renaissance actually taking place? It was an interesting idea, especially as this “era” never wholly existed. At least not in the way it's purported to be returning.
Dubbed in retrospect - barely a decade after the era’s demise - indie sleaze is an umbrella aesthetic. It encompasses sub-categories of trends, including “twee”, “scene”, “electro-pop” and “hipster”, and several entire genres of music, according to NME.
It is so recently coined that there hasn’t even been a name given to the period that followed. What will we call 2013–2019? Pre-Pandemic Chic? The Trump Years?
When I think of “indie”, I think of the grating transition into adulthood, with heroin-chic style idols like Effie Stonem, Kate Moss and Alexa Chung, who were so glamorous, pale and waif-like in ways I knew I could never be. I think of the “soft grunge” of Tumblr, that glamorised eating disorders, self-harm and sad girls. I think of the emphasis on binge drinking, partying, and recreational drug use.
Meanwhile, older millennials were having the time of their 20-something lives: NYC basement parties, cheap gigs, Pabst Blue Ribbon. Partying seemed like the coolest thing you could do. Party girls were the coolest people on the internet.
Supposedly, the late 2000s and mid 2010s was a time of unbridled hedonism. It was all flash photography, live music and a “love for outdated technology”.
And now it was all making a comeback.
If you take the magazine-turned-blog media scene’s word for it, that is.
There has been an inundation of articles embracing the trend’s return: Dazed Digital poses, “WTF is Indie Sleaze and is it actually making a comeback?”; Marie Claire describes, “How The Indie Sleaze Aesthetic Made Its Triumphant Return”; GQ says, “Here's what the rise of ‘Indie Sleaze’ means for your wardrobe”; Vogue asks, “Are You Ready For The Return Of Indie Sleaze?”; and yes, VICE divulges: “Here’s What Indie Sleaze Was Really Like At The Time”.
Where did all of this come from?
Every last article cites Mandy Lee’s TikTok video. And not much else.
Does the media drive culture, or merely leech off of it? It’s a chicken-or-egg quandary, but the magazine media were once the definitive tastemakers. In a time not too long ago, fashion, music, lifestyle and culture outlets played a huge part in creating stars and propelling trends, icons and brands to the forefront.
That was then. Now, there is TikTok.
Creators’ audiences on social apps often outnumber those of legacy media establishments. Artists no longer need to wait to “get noticed” – they only have to cultivate their own following. And so the creator economy is in full swing and the tastemaker media is left looking to the internet for inspiration. Again.
Numerous outlets claim the revival of indie sleaze without pointing to any real evidence or discourse other than “this TikTokker says so”. There’s great interest in defining “what indie sleaze is” and a huge draw in the nostalgia supplied by these images of a barely-forgotten time.
It’s a symptom of media in the 2020s. An idea has the propensity to go viral without having any basis in reality. As they say, “If people are talking about it, it’s worth writing about”.
Digital media today is run mostly by millennials, and it's this confluence of virality and nostalgia that has effectively magicked the “indie sleaze revival” into existence.
I really appreciate Mandy Lee’s work. I am, by all accounts, a fan. But as someone who “lived through [indie sleaze] the first time around”, Lee’s excitement to have the aesthetics return (and to share her own sepia-tinted pictures) reminded me that this period of time is still hailed by millennials as the “golden era”. It was a simpler time, when entire lives weren’t predicated on how you looked online. The social internet was in its infancy and people were living the best formative years of their lives.
Of course millennials working in digital media would be thrilled for their 2012 aesthetics to be in trend once again.
But people still dress like it’s 2012. They always have. Many people haven’t even evolved past that era, still clinging to skinny jeans and slouchy beanies, reminiscing on “good old days”. Most millennials were young adults then, experiencing the high peaks of their 20s, and now, looking back, pushing 30, times probably seem great in that sepia-tinted hindsight.
But this echo chamber leaves barely any room for nuanced discussions about what’s really happening. It’s easier to say “indie twee” is having a revival because Pete Davidson was spotted donning a pearl necklace than it is to explore why straight men are getting into traditionally feminine jewellery.
In the same vein, it’s easier to jump on the indie sleaze bandwagon than question why we’re revisiting eras from less than a decade ago. Could it be that we turn to nostalgia in times of duress? Could the hedonistic tendencies of 2008-2012 have been borne as an entire generation of young adults came of age during a global financial crisis? And could we be returning to the same hedonistic party culture now, as yet another generation of adults comes of age during a once in a century pandemic?
The title “indie sleaze” was coined by the eponymous Instagram account, whose earliest post dates to January 31, 2021. The page is dedicated to sharing the images which littered my Tumblr feed back in the day – Sasha Grey for American Apparel, Katy Perry looking “swaggy”, chaotic Cobra Snake photography with captions like “Dream Team Devon Aoki, Cory Kennedy, and Jeremy Scott”.
It’s a fantastic nostalgia trip, and a trashy, fabulously absurd catalogue of how the rich and famous partied.
But the fashion displayed is a far cry from the “trucker caps and low rise jeans” discussed in The Face, which is then a distant cry from the creepers, cross necklaces and leggings I remember wearing.
Discussing indie sleaze as a monolith is easy, but it’s lazy.
Indie sleaze isn’t “making a comeback”.
It’s become little more than a caricature of an era, created by a bunch of overworked millennials trawling Instagram, TikTok, and Google, in a bid to provide the winning take on something that isn’t really happening.
Read more from VICE Australia.