The Rise, and Demise, of 'Basic Bitch' Fashion - Fashionista
The contempt surrounding the "pumpkin spice" aesthetic is coming to an end, and that's a good thing.

This winter, I lived in my Ugg boots — at least, when I wasn't wearing my Ugg slippers. This time, trudging through slush in the same footwear my friends and I wore over 10 years ago, I paired them with 2010-appropriate skinny jeans, a branded Gap hoodie and an oversized jacket, reveling in the magic of being absolutely "basic." Whatever that word means now, anyway.

The thing is, "Basic Bitch™" fashion isn't what it used to be — specifically in that it no longer truly exists. Trends rooted in mass consumption have evolved from serving as aesthetic stigmas to being testaments to the ways in which our approach to personal style has grown. In the last few seasons, an emphasis on individuality (and even mall-centric snobbery) has finally surrendered to the simple celebration of self. After all, none of us consists only of one trait, so that means we shouldn't be expected to dress in only one style of clothing, either. 

As a result, we've begun wearing what we like: pieces that fit us well or make us happy or, rather, work for us in a specific moment. Clothes have now become less about social suggestions or indicators of one's trend allegiances. Finally, they're more about the messiness of authenticity. Some days we're vintage; other days we're mall brands. To be "basic" now is to be whatever you want.

As it stands in 2018, "basic" is still a loaded term that suggests the wearer isn't interesting enough, per se, to cultivate their own sense of style, and clinging to brands or trends that are inexplicably buzzy or celebrity-sanctioned as a result. (Consider the rise of my beloved Uggs in the early aughts, popularized by the well-documented street style of Mischa Barton or via the cast of "The Hills.") But then, it gets complicated. After first being dismissed by outlier style-makers, the trends in question go on to be embraced by that very sect that wears them ironically until the trends return to the mainstream. This, in turn, sentences those pieces to death again — until they're resurrected once more, years later.

The likes of "normcore" and, subsequently, "gorpcore" are excellent examples. The former, a portmanteau of the words "normal" and "hardcore," first shot into the industry lexicon in early 2014. An explosive The New York Times article detailed the trend as being representative of those who passionately don't care about fashion, outfitting themselves in head-to-toe comfort and avid blandness — or, per New York, "the kind of dad-brand non-style you might have once associated with Jerry Seinfeld, but transposed on a Cooper Union student with William Gibson glasses." Certain elements of the "normcore" uniform — Stan Smith sneakers, for one — caught on, and to the extent that they became "basic" in their own right. "Gorpcore," posited as the "new normcore" last spring with camping-chic garb like North Face fleeces and camouflage prints, followed several years after. 

"I think people have really leaned into their relationship with 'basic bitch' fashion — it's all about owning your 'basic bitch,'" explains Elle.com Fashion Features Director Nikki Ogunnaike. That's made easier when putting style in perspective with everything else that's going on in the world. As Ogunnaike reminds us: "We've got bigger things to deal with." When the style pendulum swings back and returns with a few trends of yore, it's easier to go with it.

"You've seen it with rosé and pumpkin spice," says Ogunnaike. "Any smart brand would lean into it, though, and embrace it, and not alienate their loyal clientele."

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An understandably heightened sense of urgency within our cultural and political landscapes has ushered in a shift in priorities and, in turn, emphasized solidarity over less pressing affairs, like brand hierarchy. In fashion, this is particularly evident with the rise of mall retailers (like, say, Hot Topic) and once-mainstay, now-retro activewear brands (like Champion, Fila, Reebok and Puma), all of which have become unironically on-trend while remaining shockingly affordable.

On top of this, collections that boast a wider range in sizing, and brands that have come to value inclusion over exclusion, are being celebrated and embraced, from the meteoric rise of curvy supermodel Ashley Graham to the small, yet significant boost in runway size diversity. (Even though, for the record, there's still a long way to go.) With all of ways in which clothing is (very, very, very gradually) becoming more representative of a broader majority of consumers, nothing looks worse than using someone's taste as an extension of a bigger conception of "us" versus "them." 

Sidney Morgan-Petro, retail editor for WGSN, believes this momentum rests heavily on the language we've started to use. "Lately the focus has been more on the evolution of the phrase ['basic'] itself, rather than the fashion," she says. "Like most viral trends and language, the term has ridden the wave of mass acceptance and then backlash, currently confronted for its negative and non-inclusive brand of judgement."

It's something we've seen quite heavily with mall brands, especially as retail itself is at a crossroads. Teen stalwart Abercrombie & Fitch has spent the last five-plus years aggressively rebranding, incorporating extended sizing and more inclusive casting in order to rectify its decades of harmful, exclusionary performance. While A&F's efforts are finally catching on with customers, a string of other mall brands — including Wet Seal, Payless and The Limited — felt the sting of bankruptcy in 2017, no matter how nostalgic they may have made us. The only way to avoid it? Get with the times.

"Anything affiliated with splashy logos and an exclusionary attitude has had to readjust, across both their product and their marketing," explains Morgan-Petro. "Consumers are putting less emphasis on brands and more on classic items. So, being 'basic' in this context is really not so bad at all."

That explains the resurrection of those brands that, at one point, suffered from a fall in sales after alienating their existing customer base: brands like Gap and Club Monaco, which have recently launched sold-out capsule collections; or J.Crew, whose reissued archive pieces are surely rooted in our zest for nostalgia; or even Kappa, Adidas and Steve Madden, all of which are courting millennial- and Generation Z-aged shoppers with re-issues of pieces we wore as kids. The bottom line, though, is that all of the above are playing into our penchant for nostalgia, while also making these new (old) pieces seem like a novelty. I may have hated Kappa in 1999 — it will always remind me of a guy I don't like — but now I'm seriously considering their flip-flops because they remind me of how easy life was when my biggest issue was disliking some dude named Adam.

"Brands shot themselves in the foot for one of two reasons: either exhibiting that exclusionary, elitist attitude in the early 2000s when that was the 'cool' thing to do, or by over-exposure," adds Morgan-Petro. To combat it, she recommends that the aforementioned "basic" mall brands embrace this "infatuation with 'newstalgia.'"

"A true grassroots rebrand could save some of these 'basic' brands," she adds. "They'll have to overhaul product lines with a more classic approach or align with the right collaborator for a capsule collection. Certainly an immersive branded pop-up experience with Instagrammable photo-ops doesn't hurt your emotional ROI, either, and add to that an inclusive or caused-based campaign."

Morgan-Petro also suggests something much simpler (and cost-effective): Styling pieces differently can make an enormous impact. Lest we forget that in 2003, Paris Hilton began wearing North Face jackets alongside Juicy Couture tracksuits and casualwear. Today, however, we're seeing Juicy paired with more "sophisticated" or formal pieces, especially after the brand collaborated with Vetements, hired cool-girl Hollywood stylist Jamie Mizrahi and held its first-ever NYFW show — aiming to make it even more relevant than it was back in 2003. (Speaking of reinvention: Cutting-edge Parisian label Y/Project debuted thigh-high Uggs on the runway just this past January. Make of that what you will.)

Has there been a pushback on our part against brands that have positioned themselves as reflections of particular (read: "better") lifestyles? Now, it's up to brands to fit into our lives, not up to us to morph into the ideal customer; now, we're more inclined to laugh with, and not laugh at, the way we do with rosé in the summertime; now, we're wearing what we want and what we feel good in, rather than what we're being told to. That's what fashion is supposed to be about: self-acceptance, identity and expression. Clothing has never been the enemy. The attitudes associated with clothing has.

Whether we're talking about specific brands or clothing styles, neither should be used as a means of judgement or as a way of dividing wearers into tiers. Ultimately, it's us who decide who trends are for: for us or not for us. And to choose (or not choose) something doesn't reflect on who we are among a group. It reflects our own individuality.

In fact, the "basic bitch" never existed. She was a myth dreamed up by us to explain our resentment for and animosity toward mass popularity. She was our insecurities, drummed up into a physical form we used to crucify certain trends we didn't like. But now, we know she was never real. Which is why I don't feel bad wearing her Ugg boots. 

Homepage photo: Christian Vierig/Getty Images

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