Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
If you’ve been hanging around a certain cool part of the internet, you’ll have noticed hints of it: a shirt with the phrase "catching feelings," a punny tote bag that reads "emotional baggage," a hat that proudly declares "being sad is ok." Despite their dark subject matter, you likely also noticed that they’re almost always accompanied by cutesy design — a pastel pink cursive font or smiling rainbow.
And as of late, the rest of the fashion world has been playing catch-up. It-indie brand Reformation has a sweatshirt that says "Emotional Tendencies" (and another that says nothing but the word "Feelings"). Cult high-fashion brand Vetements has a T-shirt that says, "Insecurity," which can be yours for the price of $330. Giant fast-fashion chains are copying the style too, of course, while also removing some of the original bite (as behemoths are apt to do). Zara’s teen collection’s take on the style is denim replete with patches that say vague, strictly positive exclamations like "Super!" or "Approved," while Forever 21 has a crop halter top with a cutesy logo that says "Maybe Never."
The style — the fashion of ~feelings~, the "sad girl" aesthetic, angsty Tumblr Lolita, whatever you want to call it — isn’t exactly new, but despite its murky origins, it’s everywhere. Behind it are a wave of independent, internetty women artists, designers, and entrepreneurs who, in the words of Mean Girls’ most criminally underused character, "just have a lot of feelings."
Photo: Lazy Oaf/Facebook
For Tuesday Bassen, an LA-based illustrator, it's not really about feeling sad. Even though her web shop, which she first opened in 2011, includes items like the "Mixed Emotions" bomber jacket and a sweatshirt that says "General Malaise," Bassen says that to assume her work is about negativity is to miss the mark. "My aesthetic comes from a place of emotional and physical power, favoring themes of empowerment and anger," she says. "There's nothing wrong with emotions, but I'd rather take action than wallow."
Yet emotion inspired the "Ugly Girl Gang," a phrase that now graces her patches and tank tops, and names her zine. It refers directly to the frustration she felt at an unnamed poolside design conference where attendees seemed to care far more about how everyone would look in swimsuits than the subject of the actual meeting. "Ugly Girl Gang is for women who get shit done and don't give a fuck how they look while they're doing it," she says, and the response she's received from customers reflects that. "I often hear that wearing the clothes I design makes them feel like their best, most fearless self."
Meanwhile, some designers take a more lighthearted approach to their brand’s intrinsic sadness. Consider the Montreal-based Stay At Home Club, which begins its "About" section begins thusly: "Stay Home Club is a lifestyle brand for people who have no life." Since 2012, shoppers have been able to buy a shirt that deems one "The Worst" or simply "Awful," an enamel pin of the phrase "Happy Alone," and an iron-on patch of a piece of notebook paper with the words "I’ll see you when we’re both not so emotional." Then there’s Penelope Gazin, who sells a box in which to store one’s weed that reads "Wet for You," where the "wetness" being referred to is teardrops. Or Sara M. Lyons, with an iron-on patch of a ghost that wails "Cry Now, Cry Later."
One of the more well-known of these feelings-y brands may be Me & You, run by Parsons grads (and friends of Tavi Gevinson and artist Petra Collins) Julia Baylis and Mayan Toledano. In 2014, the pair began selling items that reflected their nostalgia-twinged ethos of "friendship, feminism, messy bedrooms, temporary tattoos, Nancy Sinatra, name necklaces, and kisses," — think enamel pins that say "crying in bed" and a sweatshirt that sighs, "hate it here." All of these items involve at least some element of cutesy font, tulle, or the color pink.
Over the past few years, the explosion has had a ripple effect, proliferating to bigger and wider audiences. Lazy Oaf, Doll’s Kill, and even male-focused labels like the streetwear brands Catching Feelings and Anti Social Social Club, with its popular "Sensitive Thug" T-shirt, each have their own unique takes on what is, underneath it all, just a way to express one’s complicated feelings through their clothes.
Steph Krasnoff, the co-owner of what is unofficially New York City's coolest boutique, American Two Shot, echoes Bassen's opinion that the style isn't really about negative emotions at all. "I have to say I really trip over the phrase 'sad girl aesthetic,'" she says, "But I guess there's something cool about understanding yourself and your feelings, and literally wearing them on your sleeve. It may not be 'cool' to be sad, but it's cool to be yourself."
Plus, she says, reactions from customers are generally purely positive. "What people respond to feels less so about being sad, per se, but something thats more nostalgic, like the ache of crushing on someone in high school. It's not as blue as sadness — it's a little sweeter, more playful."
One of the earliest major indie brands to embrace the aesthetic, LA-based Unif, had a relatively succinct way of putting it. In a 2014 interview with Racked LA, co-founder Eric Espinoza described their cheeky, sarcastic T-shirts as "pretty and soft on one hand, and dark and grimy on the other."
It’s this inherent contradiction that may be the real draw for the wearer. Sarah Owen of the trend forecasting agency WGSN says she started following the aesthetic about a year and a half ago. "We were starting to talk about how because of the online identities emerging, we were noticing that physical subcultures [i.e. emos in the mid-aughts] started to disappear," she tells Racked. "And we started to think about where these cultures were going, and they’re gaining traction online. That’s when I saw the ‘sad girl’ aesthetic start to emerge."
To her, the 'sad girl' is straddles the line between girly and grungy, with added inspiration from Japanese kawaii culture. "A lot of kids growing up on the internet are torn between personalities," she says. "They are interested in pretty pastels that they want to deck out their hair or clothing, but there’s a darkness that comes through in the things that they’re talking about, like heartache or depression."
It’s an aesthetic that directly reflects the attitude of a large portion of Twitter and Tumblr who use the platforms as a way to express and discuss dark feelings in a lighthearted way. Along with an entire website devoted to helping others live the "Sad Girl" lifestyle, a 2014 essay on The Toast (RIP) entitled "The Rise of the Sad Girl" acts as a rallying call for the kind of sensitive, sarcastic internet lady who chooses to "spend her alone time watching French films from the ‘60s or angsty TV shows from the ‘90s," who likes pizza but "requires a range of snacks," and who "has a killer sense of style, but deep down, she’s most comfortable in her sweatpants, hair tie, chillin’ with no make-up on. (She really likes Drake, especially Baby Drake.)." The essay ends with the proclamation that above all else, the sad girl "truly, deeply cares; usually a little too much, but it’s whatever."
That tacked-on "it’s whatever" calls to mind the popular Twitter account @SoSadToday, which was eventually revealed to be the brainchild of poet Melissa Broder. In a profile this spring, the New Yorker describes her particular voice as a "veneer of lolzy insincerity," writing, "It captures how so many of us communicate on social media, crafting a careful persona that hides and reveals. Slang as membership; diction, design, and disaffection as a kind of community." Though Broder declined to be interviewed for this piece, she discussed her "funny mask" with the magazine, saying "If I’m going to alienate you, I want to curate that alienation. I want to craft the persona that turns you off. I don’t want the real me, my vulnerabilities and humanity, to leak out and make you run. I don’t want to have needs ... So I deflect my vulnerability into humor or ‘wise platitudes.’"
The easiest way to craft a "funny mask" of one’s own when you're not on the internet? Pair those dark, raw feelings with bubbly pastels and marijuana motifs and plaster them all over your body.
I mean, it makes sense, at least according to feminist media scholar Laura Portwood-Stacer. (Disclaimer: I was a student in her "Fashion & Power" class at NYU, and yes, it was as incredible as it sounds.) "For one thing, it can feel risky for women to express sincere negative emotions," she tells Racked. "Sadness can make others uncomfortable, and women get the message that they should always make others comfortable, even at the expense of their own comfort."
And there is another, less-discussed aspect of the internet-cool sad girl, which is that it becomes somewhat of a paradox when performative sadness is a trait that also signifies coolness. In other words, it takes confidence to wear a T-shirt implying one is ugly, or never leaves the house, or has a terrible personality — a confidence that's in direct conflict with its contents. I ask Portwood-Stacer whether she thinks this relates to privilege, the same way the "normcore" look only registers as such if you're rich, cool, and skinny enough to pull off tacky, unflattering clothes without people taking them at face value.
"I agree with you that it works best if you have the confidence and social standing to not have the slogan entirely define you," she says. "What I mean is that, if people know you are a popular, likable person, expressing an unpopular or risky sentiment on your shirt is not going to ruin you socially. The slogans' meanings — like any fashion item — will always be semiotically influenced by their context, which includes the body and personality and social relationships of the wearer."
To be sure, not every person who adopts the aesthetic elements of the "sad girl" is, to use an internet term, here for the sadness. "Honestly, the [cute factor] might actually be the appeal for a lot of the people who wear these things," adds Portwood-Stacer. "They might not actually identify with the sentiments expressed, which is okay, too. In our postmodern culture, you're not expected to take yourself or the ideas you associate with too seriously, anyway."
A page from WGSN's presentation on the spring 2016 junior's trend "Soft Pop." Photo: WGSN
This distance between self and self-expression explains why bigger brands can embrace the design elements of the "sad girl" aesthetic and at the same time tend to employ a watered-down, more palatable version of sadness. Zara currently sells a wide variety of patch-embellished blouses, coats, and denim, but instead of darkly funny phrases, they feature vanilla, tried-and-true motifs like a pair of sunglasses or a banana. (It also has started selling a bomber jacket that's startlingly similar to Tuesday Bassen's "Mixed Emotions," which replaces her phrase with "Maybe Later.") Whereas in indie brand-created designs, these motifs would normally have been offset by a dark joke, when they're hanging on the racks at Zara, they're stripped of meaning. The end result? An otherwise average pair of denim shorts with a cute patch of a cartoon banana.
It's an aesthetic that Sarah and her team anticipated years ago, dubbing it "Soft Pop." Forecasted to play out during spring 2016 season (which is most certainly has), "Soft Pop" incorporates much of the same stylistic elements of the "sad girl" but with only hints at the actual sadness — nostalgic and playful items like scrunchies, sticker books, glitter, and socks with sandals abound. And what are chokers but winky throwbacks to an era known for its general attitude of "whatever"?
Because the design-specific elements of the aesthetic have now reached fast-fashion levels of ubiquitousness, the moment's already dying (see: chokers). Thus, the story ends the same way most stories about fashion trends end. Big-name brands hop on the trend, effectively eliminating its raison d'être.
But even though there are now zillions of Forever 21-branded sad girl T-shirts and phrases like "Insecurity" walk down universally-watched runways, there’s hope for IRL sad girls, according to Owen. "I don’t think the mentality among that identity will, though," she says, "because people will always relate to those mindsets." Same, tbh.