“The TikTok girlies are saying 2008-2010 twee aesthetic is coming back and I’m fuming!” tweeted Camilla Blackett, a former writer on the hit American sitcom, New Girl. “We cannot go back to ballet flats and white tights!”
But for many avid fans of the show – and its star, the ultimate manic pixie dream girl queen, Zooey Deschanel – the return of twee could not be more welcome. Out from the darkness and in our very moment of need, the twee aesthetic has danced back into our lives with its delightful garishness, childlike sense of wonder and universal sense of fun.
Following the recent resurgence of the 2010s indie sleaze aesthetic, it was inevitable that its kitsch and upbeat counterpart would also be revived. For Tumblr users in the late 2000s and early 2010s, the twee aesthetic was our lifeblood – easily spotted by countless images of Alexa Chung, Peter Pan collars, pleated miniskirts, florals, pearls, ballet flats, knitwear, shearling, tights, ukeleles, bikes (with wicker baskets, of course), and an inexplicable obsession with moustache-themed jewellery.
Trend expert Eyenie Schultz suggests the recent twee revival is in direct correlation with the rise of K-pop and Japanese kawaii fashion that has brought the cutesy look back. “The trend makes sense with the 20-year fashion cycle,” she says.
And while heavily associated with sugar, spice, and all things feminine, twee’s 2022 comeback is for everyone. Harry Styles and Tom Daley’s unashamed love of knitwear has started a trend of men taking up knitting and donning playful jumpers. And with the likes of Justin Bieber, Pete Davidson, and Tyler the Creator all sporting pearl necklaces – pieces from Eliou being the most coveted – it seems a playful splash of twee is not just for femmes.
Tweeness has always been about more than just fashion, it is a sensibility: one of unfettered joy, quirkiness, and sheer delight – and you can find traces of it across film, music and television. New Girl might have ended in 2018, but its protagonist Jess Day (played by the aforementioned Deschanel) remains the undisputed matriarch of twee, with her impromptu musical performances and vintage-inspired ensembles. Other icons include Moonrise Kingdom’s Suzie Bishop (it doesn’t get much more twee than Wes Anderson), the titular Amelie, and Chuck from the American comedy-drama Pushing Daisies.
Let’s not forget another Deschanel character, Summer Finn from 500 Days of Summer. After the now-infamous reference to Scottish band Belle and Sebastian in the film, their lyric “Colour my life with the chaos of trouble” (from the 1998 song “The Boy With The Arab Strap”) could be found scrawled into the notebooks of any aspiring young hipster. In his 2005 essay for Pitchfork, “Twee as Fuck”, Nitsuh Abebe refers to the band as a staple of twee indie, alongside the likes of Talulah Gosh, Heavenly and Camera Obscura.
One of the many creatives engaged in the new twee revival is Mina Le, who makes videos on fashion history, costume design, and culture for a huge audience of subscribers on YouTube and TikTok. “I usually don’t gravitate too far away from my core style – which admittedly has elements of twee because of my love for 60s mod – since I try to shop for longevity,” Mina tells VICE. Some of her favourite staple pieces include Peter Pan collars, colourful tights, Mary Janes, and pinafores, and she leans towards the 60s influences of twee, including style icons like Anna Karina and Jean Seberg. “The ‘problematic’ aspects of twee are really just problems of the fashion industry as a whole, in that it prioritises the skinny, white figure,” Mina admits. “But that’s not to say that no one else can rock the twee look.”
Twee, by its very nature, was never intended to be cool. It began as an aesthetic rebellion, and its origins – at least in the UK – can be traced back to a very feminist, very socialist, and very anti-Thatcher DIY music scene, which called out sexism in the music and apolitical record labels. In the early 90s, Sarah Records founder Matt Hayes told Bliss Aquamarine zine that the whole record industry was so “relentlessly male” that twee bands like Talulah Gosh were "were loathed to an absurd, hysterical extent” by those who “couldn't handle the idea of women being in a band and yet not conforming to stereotypical 'rock-chick' roles or simpering at the mic-stand in various states of undress.” Bands signed to Sarah Records – like The Field Mice, The Orchids, St. Christopher, Another Sunny Day, and Heavenly – were considered some of the first pure twee acts.
Once used as an insult to artists embracing all things kitsch and cutesy, twee was reclaimed as an aesthetic and genre all of its own. “People who use 'cute' and 'twee' as insults because they're uncomfortable with us being un-rock'n'roll and non-macho say more about their own insecurities and traditional reactionary attitudes than they do about us,” Hayes wrote.
Ian Wang, a writer and twee devotee, says, “There was absolutely a radical strand in twee from the beginning.” He explains: “[Twee] wasn't just softness and frilliness for the sake of it – it was about embracing a collective joy in the face of political despair, and creating an inclusive space outside of the masculine aggression dominant in a lot of rock music at the time.”
Wang points out the very clear links between twee and queer culture, as many 90s twee bands “played alongside queercore bands like Team Dresch. And bands like Go Sailor and Dressy Bessy contributed to soundtracks for films like But I'm a Cheerleader.” The film was released in 1999 to a lukewarm critical reception, but has since become a cult classic thanks to its exploration of sexuality and a performance by indie darling Natasha Lyonne, who sports a wonderfully quirky wardrobe throughout.
But as twee exploded in popularity alongside indie music in the 2000s it became far removed from its more radical and intersectional origins and, as Abebe writes, transformed into “the fashionable music-of-choice for a certain sort of mostly-white, mostly-educated, mostly-middle-class young people”.
This new twee revival is far more intriguing. Modern twee, as Wang suggests, is rejecting its synonymy with commercialism and “Buzzfeed Zooey Deschanel-core” and, instead, focusing on an aesthetic and genre of music intended for all. Mina agrees: “We’re definitely moving towards more body positivity as a culture – definitely more than what we had in the late 2000s. So I imagine this go-around will have people of all races, genders, and sizes embracing the aesthetic.”
Now that we’ve reached 2022, twee is camp, unapologetically queer, and after a turbulent and gloomy few years, ready to be revived for a whole new generation.