The Art Of Being Basic: How ‘Alternative’ Became Mainstream

It's OK to be basic and here's why you shouldn't care, writes Aoife Codykane.

 

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When you picture someone ‘alternative’, where does your mind go? Is it a 00’s style emo with a mohawk and lace up converse? Some grungy guy you went to school with that had long hair and a vintage denim jacket that swallowed him up? Or is it a girl you saw last week on Instagram with platform doc martens and a gorgeous funky wardrobe? Hmm.

Something strange has occurred in the last few years, and out of what seems like nowhere, being ‘alternative’ has become, well, pretty mainstream. It’s suddenly not that cool to listen to pop music or wear clothes that just anyone can buy. If you watch shows like The Office, get your balayage topped up every few months, and or to Taylor Swift on repeat – you’re probably considered ‘basic’.

Wait, what?!

 

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Well, it appears that the Regina George of our youth – the ‘perfect’ girl with straight blonde hair, skinny jeans and an overpriced Michael Kors bag – has been replaced by a new model.

The muse of the 2020s is a woman who doesn’t ‘conform to traditional beauty standards’, which of course isn’t true at all – but the media would have you believing so. She’s a woman who is effortlessly crafted with vintage clothes, ripped tights and a collection of chunky rings. She listens to niche music and enjoys obscure movies, and she doesn’t care about trends – even though she is one.

This new alternative idol feels reminiscent of the edgy Tumblr girl of the late 2000s. But there’s a difference. The vintage, alternative girl has been around forever, and this isn’t much of a homage to her when it’s still paired with unrealistic beauty standards. This newer, shinier version of the alternative girl is polished and primed to perfection – less ‘kooky’ and offbeat; more popular, sexy, high fashion. When you picture a cool alternative girl, your image is probably still of a thin, conventionally attractive female – she’s just got a different set of clothes on.

And that’s because she’s not ‘alternative’ at all. She’s just the new version of the unattainable woman, and she won’t last forever. Let’s look a little more at how being alternative became mainstream, why everyone thinks you’re basic – and why you shouldn’t care.

 

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So where did ‘alternative’ style come from? The concept of alternative as a subculture emerged in the sixties and seventies, though it really became established in pop culture in the nineties, thanks to designers like Vivienne Westwood. People who considered themselves to be rebels, anarchists, or outsiders developed a style to set themselves apart from mainstream society.

Fabrics, items of clothing and universal symbols became associated with the subculture, like facial piercings, colourful hair and tartan or leather. We have the nineties to thank for introducing Doc Martens as a style staple!

Although the style has stayed prominent, up until recently it was still considered to be distinctively different, never really featuring in mainstream magazines or media as being the popular thing to do. Gradually though, over the last few years, the term ‘alternative’ began to change.

 

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Instead of meaning exclusively gothic or grungy, ‘alternative’ morphed into an umbrella term for any style that was different from the mainstream, including styles inspired by various eras of fashion, or combinations of different subcultures. Alternative could mean a hippy skirt and cowboy boots or a pleated tennis skirt with chains. This concept began dripping into the high fashion arena, and Prada solidified the shift through the last decade in their Spring/Summer 2022 range at Milan Fashion week in 2021, where models walked in various cuts of dyed leather paired with grandad knits and retro skirts. And so, ‘alternative’ became the new mainstream.

But what about the notion of being ‘basic’? Alternative fashion entering the popular sphere was a good thing, broadening the notions of mainstream clothing and spicing up more traditional ways of dressing. But with the good comes the bad, and around 2014 is when the term ‘basic’ sprang into recognition. Rihanna used the term to say ‘no basics allowed’ on one of her music videos, and Vice wrote an article calling the Coachella lineup ‘basic’.

The word quickly became synonymous with people who have a very mainstream style and interest in music, suggesting that those who fall into the basic category don’t have their own opinions or are lacking in culture and taste. While it started as more of a general term, basic quickly became associated with women in particular, referring mostly to women who like pop music, follow more conventional trends of clothes and accessories, and engage in ‘obvious’ or cliché behaviours like posting Boomerangs on Instagram or making a duck face in a selfie. Feels a little sexist, right? Right. The concept has somehow evaded men almost entirely, and become a way to barb at women who just want to have fun or fit in.

 

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So how can you avoid being called basic? The thing is, the ‘alternative’ model we’re all so desperate to emulate – she’s just the muse of another fleeting fashion trend. Every decade or so, we’re presented with a new concept of the perfect woman, and we rush to fit that mould, for fear of being cast aside as boring or unattractive. Concepts like being basic are just another way for companies to profit off you by making you feel like you aren’t good enough – and the opposite is true!

The hottest thing you can be? It’s yourself. (How basic is that!) It really is true when they say that being yourself never goes out of style, and while it’s always fun to take inspiration from fashion trends and experiment with your music and clothes, don’t let it make you feel like you have to transform your identity to be seen as trendy. Embrace your chart music, your well worn uggs and your pumpkin spice latté. You do you boo!

Words by Aoife Codykane
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