You’ve just uploaded a selfie to Instagram with VSCO’s T12 filter slapped over it. Your Collection 2000 liquid eyeliner extends all the way to your eyebrows. You’re wearing black knee-high socks, a crucifix necklace and some fake creepers from New Look. Every morning you listen to Ultraviolence out of your iPhone 6 speaker and stare at the ceiling, pretending you’re in an indie film. It’s clearly 2014.
Or is it 2021? Because there are signs all over the internet that 2014 is back. The hashtag #2014aesthetic has over 1.5 million views on TikTok: Users are posting POV videos of themselves in matte lipstick with an Arctic Monkeys soundtrack, 20-somethings are revisiting old Tumblr content (heavy on the ripped tights and finger tatts) and teenagers are imagining what it might have been like back then. Over on Depop, you’d be hard pushed to find a genuine American Apparel tennis skirt – the crowning jewel of 2014 culture, apparently – for under £20.
Simone, who’s made her own 2014 throwback video featuring monochrome Tumblr-style photos and a Broken Dreams Club hoodie, was 20 back then. Now 27, she describes the 2014 aesthetic as “a mish-mash of 50s teddy boy style and 90s grunge: fitted leather jackets, fishnet tights and Dr Martens paired perfectly with a beautifully sad facial expression.”
Gosia, 23, cites “cigarettes, polaroid cameras, and iPhones” as hallmarks of 2014. She recalls spending the year flitting in and out of American Apparel stores. “American Apparel itself was a motive,” she recalls. “My friends and I would literally go take pictures in the iconic, well-lit, grid pattern fitting rooms but almost never buy anything because it was so expensive.” Gosia also remembers piercing her own nose (“wouldn't really recommend doing that”) and living in Nike Air Force 1s and oversized sweatshirts.
Unlike zillenials Simone and Gosia, Libby was just 11 in 2014. While Simone and Gosia look back fondly at their lived experiences, Libby just wishes she could have been a teenager at the time. In one of her TikTok videos, she imagines what life might have been like if she had been older, attending 5SOS gigs in distressed, high-waisted Levi shorts. She was inspired to make the video after 5SOS released a new album last year, prompting her to look back on the band’s mid-2010s heyday. “It was an extraordinary time for music and pop culture,” she says. “I wish I had been old enough to experience it all.”
The thing is, a lot of the aspects of teen culture cited in these 2014 videos aren’t necessarily exclusive to that year. Nose piercings have been around since the rise of the punk scene in the 70s and 80s onwards, as have Doc Martens. Fishnets have been cool for literally a hundred years. Some of the other markers, like American Apparel or liquid eyeliner, were trends that arguably peaked a decade prior, in the mid to late 2000s. Even Tumblr had passed its “golden era” by 2014 – a year after the platform was sold to Yahoo! Inc for $1.1 billion.
Olivia Yallop, trend forecaster, pop culture commentator and creative director at The Digital Fairy, agrees that the #2014aesthetic hashtag actually encompasses cultural aspects from multiple years, affirming Simone’s view of 2014 as a “mish-mash” of styles. “Many of the references cited in the TikToks aren’t even from the early 2010s – galaxy leggings began before 2010, as did mustache tattoos,” Yallop says.
Still, Yallop thinks it doesn’t really matter. “Gen Z don’t care,” she says. “The internet lets you collapse contexts, remix eras as you choose, divest from the original source material and play fast and loose with attribution and authorship.”
Libby agrees that the 2014 trend is more about Gen Z’s interpretation of the era, rather than an accurate representation of what things were really like. “Even though we can do our best to recreate the style and trends of the time, no one will ever be able to truly relive the early 2010s,” she says. “2014 is in the past and will stay in the past.”
But why is this trend having a moment now? After all, 2014 is hardly “retro”. Gosia thinks lockdown is making us prone to nostalgic feelings, even those from just seven years ago. “Many of us are finding our old clothes in our wardrobes or looking at old posts out of boredom and reminiscing about the good times,” she says. “The nostalgia is real.”
Libby explains that younger Gen Z have been feeding off this wistfulness: “The rise in 2014 nostalgia has made some younger people feel like they missed out.”
Yallop agrees that our current reality is making us yearn for an idealised version of the relatively near past. “Unable to imagine a coherent future, we revert to a nostalgic mode of utopian longing,” she explains. Simone says a similar thing: “It’s easier to see the past through rose-tinted glasses than deal with the dystopian world we seem to be living in right now.”
Simone is right to acknowledge that we’re looking at the early 2010s through rose-tinted specs. Things weren’t all that great back then, especially for teenagers and young people. Tuition fees had risen to nearly three times the amount they were before, sparking widespread student protests. Spending on children’s mental health services fell by nearly £50 million. The child poverty rate rose from 27 percent in 2010/11 to 30 percent in 2015/16. If we weren’t living through a literal pandemic right now, the early 2010s might even be viewed as a particularly cursed era.
But, maybe, as the famous Gen Z adage goes: it’s not that deep. Gen Z are yearning for baby pink Instax mini cameras, not David Cameron and George Osbourne. Nor are they unaware of the Tory party’s disdain for their generation: 77 percent of Gen Z voters plumped for progressive parties in the 2019 general election. It’s clear that their love of the early 2010s extends only to a vague version of the period’s pop culture and not its political climate.