Circle ‘round, girlies, and let me tell you a tale of the aughts in New York City. The year: we’ll say 2007(ish). The neighborhood: the East Village (but anywhere beneath 14th street worked in a pinch). The cocktails: whatever a drink ticket could get you. The style: messed-up, mod-inspired bourgeois dressing that was androgynous to the hilt, rebellious to its core, and unapologetic in its execution. What would later become a subculture known as “indie sleaze” — a youthful movement centered around underground musicians and an artfully undone, I’m-with-the-band wardrobe — could otherwise be known as my entire personality for the better part of my twenties. And it still is: just peep my Spotify Wrapped for proof. Now a fashion journalist with almost 20 years of experience, older and ostensibly wiser, I couldn’t be more thrilled to welcome the return of interest around the era — and, naturally, the outfits that go along with it.
In today’s interpretations, designers are reimagining key elements of the OG trend for an audience that wishes to be, perhaps, a little more pulled together. For example: Celine’s Fall 2023 collection, one that assisted in the announcement of the indie sleaze comeback, introduced knee-length, negligée dresses worn under oversized blazers between leopard-print micro sets and Jim Morrison-worthy leather pants (and its recent offerings for men’s Spring 2024 were a continuation on the theme). Meanwhile, the Gucci Spring/Summer 2024 selection made a case for A-line mini dresses as well as relaxed jeans-and-sweatshirt combos. Many of the era’s It items are also making a return. Case in point: The Proenza Schouler PS1, a beloved bag touted by inaugural sleazettes Mary-Kate Olsen and Kirstin Dunst, reappeared on the label’s Fall 2023 runway. This time, though, it paired with elevated separates like supple leather pencil skirts and sensible camel overcoats. It would appear, inevitably, that indie sleaze has grown up... just like the rest of us.
But this means nothing if you’re unfamiliar with the trend’s origin story. For the unanointed, indie sleaze arrived in the early aughts, having percolated under the radar for several years with bands like The Strokes and The White Stripes that offered a rebuttal to the high-gloss, hip-hop-adjacent boy band aesthetic and the manufactured bubblegum sheen of one Ms. Britney Spears and her fellow pop princesses. While Brit was onstage slithering with a snake around her neck, Alexa Chung was unveiling her best Francoise Hardy and Patti Boyd renditions, donning bateau shirts, mini A-line dresses, and shrunken motorcycle jackets. Xtina might have crooned about getting “Dirrty,” but Yeah Yeah Yeahs front woman Karen O was writhing on the floor of Brooklyn’s grimiest music venues in American Apparel metallic bandeau tops and electric-colored tights, shredded from the evening’s antics. And while Paris Hilton might have talked the iconic baby voice that we know and love, Zooey Deschanel showed up to red carpets in full-blown twee looks that messaged innocence with a side of early ‘60s nostalgia.
Style makers like Agyness Deyn, Leigh Lezark, Alison Mosshart, Beth Ditto, and Santogold among countless other bright young things catapulted this vibe onto the pages of beloved magazines and party photographer websites, like The Cobrasnake. Fashion designers, naturally, took note, often rubbing elbows with this new generation at parties and clubs across the globe. Champions of the look ranged from Hedi Slimane (for Saint Laurent at the time, although as mentioned above, he’s now bringing the vibe to Celine), Marc Jacobs, Henry Holland, and Alexander McQueen. Emerging indie brands like Search and Destroy, The Cast, and Pamela Love were sported by celebrities and lowly editorial assistants (cough) alike. It was less about who you wore, but how — and why — you wore it.
The uniting factor of all of these looks, though, was a focus on reinterpreting disparate music and art references to create something new — no matter if you were an indie darling or a downtown kid, such as myself. The result: skinny jeans shared among couples of all stripes. Francophile classics roughed up with NYC grit, and smudged makeup that you didn’t worry about (the messier, the better). Beatles bobs offset clashing elements like shrunken boyhood blazers and flimsy miniskirts. Alternatively, stovepipe pants were worn with shredded, barely-there tanks donned by anyone daring enough. One night you might go full mod, wearing a vintage babydoll frock paired with red tights and scuffed loafers (sound familiar?), the following you could pour yourself into an American Apparel tube dress, throw on a coat you found on your apartment floor, and march to The Annex in scuffed Converse.
But the movement wasn’t without its issues. In its original form, indie sleaze almost exclusively focused on breathtakingly thin, young and white beauty ideals. These standards were reinforced in everything from magazine editorials, runway model castings, commercials, you name it. The male photographers responsible for some of the era’s most iconic images were later “discovered” to have used their position of power to exploit the young people in front of their camera (feigns shock). Fortunately, many of them have been sued, cancelled, or otherwise excommunicated after a bevy of allegations, lawsuits, and general outcry shook the fashion industry out of its ignorance and willingness to look the other way.
Much has happened since indie sleaze first debuted. #MeToo empowered women and other marginalized folks to speak out against the sexual discrimination and harassment they endured while working or attending industry events. Similarly, the staggering levels of racism seen across the industry, from runway castings to the continuous promotion of cis while male talent, has finally been called to attention and in many cases, addressed. Size inclusivity, a thorn in the side of the fashion industry, has at long last joined the chat. Organizations like Model Alliance now serve as a watchdog for how underage talent is treated.
This is all to say that, the world of indie sleaze yesteryear, the trend that rode on the coattails of nineties heroin chic and waif worthy, is no longer. And that’s for the better. It also poses the question of how women want to dress — and if styling themselves in looks that lauded the commodification of female bodies and more generally (even if, on occasion, ironically), encouraged women to prance, pluck, and present themselves for the male gaze, is still, well, relevant.
Today’s iteration, understandably, stands to be a little more self-aware. Aren’t we all? Social media has made us acutely conscious of dupes and the real thing. Of filtered faces and homogenized, digitized beauty standards. As we’ve reached peak saturation of all things filtered and edited, it seems inevitable, then, to return to a trend that chafes with conformity. This is what gets me excited. Now, nu-indie sleaze stands to be our villain era wardrobe. One that emphasizes pleasure and healthy boundaries and, when necessary, eff-you rebellion.
With so much to consider, it’s easy for a misstep to happen. And, while I encourage you to make mistakes — sometimes the best things come of them — there are some surefire pieces I’ll be adding to my collection to further channel the good ol’ days, while sticking to an earlier bedtime. Below, a beginner’s guide to key pieces of the look and how to wear them right now.
A-Line Dresses and Skirts
How We Wore It Then: In the naughties, flimsy A-line sheaths were junked up with messy hair, leaking eyeliner, and booties or a flat that contradicted the dress. Skirts in the silhouette were often paired with raggedy band tees and questionable Victorian-esque booties.
How to Wear It Now: First, think about what sort of textures, materials, and treatments as item has — these elements are what will modernize the look. As demonstrated in the Prada Spring 2024 collection, appliqués like grommets toughen rich knit smocks that unfurl into tresses, which echo our formerly stringy hair. Your ballet flats will look fab here — give them the moment they deserve!
For more traditional A-line dresses, consider pulling on opaque tights in bold red to help showcase metallic Mary Jane flats. Alternatively, bum-grazing dresses can double as oversize shirts that look especially chic worn with menswear-inspired trousers. Layer a turtleneck or classic oxford under the frock to channel that nerd chic look of yore. For A-line skirts, blend in some good ol’ fashioned Beatlemania: Tuck in a crisp white button-down, scrunch up some tube socks and kick on your favorite chunky brogues or loafers.
How We Wore It Then: If you can imagine it, they were often worn with ditsy skirts and boxer shorts... and with bootcut denim and American Apparel lamé leggings. Sigh. In their more successful versions, though, they were donned with playfully academic dresses or lingerie-inspired slips to tone down the all-at-once sex appeal.
How To Wear It Now: Honestly, pretty much the same! Only this time, ballet flats advance a look when worn with socks to achieve that indie sleaze staple: juxtaposition.
How We Wore It Then: At the time, leopard fur coats were a pièce de résistances of the time. Popped over nightgowns and booties or ripped jeans and band tees, the style was in high circulation — and a Kate Moss favorite (the ultimate in endorsements).
How To Wear It Now: Be it on a matching set or faux fur outerwear, the fierce print instills a rebellious edge to any look. However, its most successful when making an appearance in unexpected details and garments, like Bermuda shorts or shrunken hobo bags.
How We Wore It Then: Mostly, shredded. Worn under distressed jean shorts with studded combat boots, hosiery helped to achieve the punk undertones in our outfits. On the other end of the style spectrum, bold-toned tights, red especially, pushed looks into the snobbish academia direction, as championed by Blair Waldorf herself.
How To Wear It Now: From bold red tights that can channel mod chic vibes to polka dots, tights are an affordable way to take your look the extra mile. Wear these under your best matching skirt-and-jacket set or menswear-inspired overcoat and slingback kitten heels for full impact.
How We Wore It Then: Namely, with anything with punk tones or sexy vibes we needed to counter. Think skinny jean and moto jacket combinations — or alternatively flirty dresses matched with, once again, shredded tights.
How To Wear It Now: Undoubtedly one of this season’s It shoes, loafers worn with a grungy T-shirt and battered faux leather jacket can be the low-key comfy answer for any what-to-wear woes. They still work with ripped or distressed denim, but this time update the pant silhouette to be more relaxed.
How We Wore It Then: This was a constant in a good sleazette’s wardrobe. From popped over a girly twee dress to full-out rebel yell style, completing an outfit with a vintage band tee and distressed denim of some sort, motorcycle jackets infused the messy edge we all swooned over.
How To Wear It Now: Update the classic motorcycle jacket by reimagining it in new silhouettes. These look fresh when matched with slouchy denim, those loafers we just discussed, and a minimal sweater or top. Keep your beauty understated and your attitude at full volume for a nod to your indie sleaze ancestors.
How We Wore It Then: The more low-key, the better. Bags were almost an anti-fashion statement, the rise of canvas totes becoming increasingly popular, much to the delight of cash-strapped fashion girls. For designer options, Balenciaga bags were worn with just about everything, as were Chanel 2.55 purses.
How To Wear It Now: Leave the logos at home to perfect your indie sleaze look. Instead, reach for a high-quality tote that can carry everything from an extra pair of shoes and makeup bag to a laptop.