It’s 2014. Frappuccino jokes are the height of comedy. You feel a pang of self-loathing every time you stare down at your rose gold iPhone 6S. Your chevron-printed Urban Outfitters phone case is mocked almost as much as the camel-colored UGG boots you’ve banished to your closet, slouching in the shadow of your black North Face windbreaker. The monster under your bed has crawled into plain sight: you’re basic, and everyone knows it.
Though “basic” in the pejorative sense has been in use since the 1970s, its unofficial coinage and subsequent increase in popularity came on the brink of the 2010s. Since then, the parameters of what qualifies as basic have evolved over time, though certain touchstones remain intact. Low-top converse, high-top UGGs, mid-rise jeans. Tote bags, infinity scarves, yoga pants. PSLs, barrel curls, fedoras. Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, The Chainsmokers, Friends. Starbucks, Lululemon, Instagram, Coachella. Virtually unavoidable and loosely defined, being perceived as basic was, for a period, an actual source of anxiety. The black leggings in your bureau were the skeletons in your closet; if your music taste flirted with the Top 40, you kept your Spotify close to your Anthropologie-clad chest. A label foisted upon those tragically moored in the mainstream of culture, there naturally are corresponding criteria of basicness for men—the Marvel movie industrial complex, basketball shorts, anything with a color best described as salmon. But in its popular usage, basic almost always refers to a woman, usually a white woman, and usually a white woman of an economic status middle class or higher.
“A Basic Bitch,” according to a 2014 Time article, “is a conventional girl who conforms to what all the other girls are doing but doesn’t know she’s doing it. To be called ‘Basic’ implies that you have made a gross miscalculation of your own specialness [and] your boringness is obvious to everyone.” In the 2010s, so-called “Basic Bitches” were the foot soldiers of the monoculture, with clothing and interests that fell safely within the bounds of mainstream regard to the point of “boringness” for those who sought distance from such conformity. Yet being basic does also require a certain self-awareness—less a “miscalculation” and more a conscious repackaging of perceived relatability.
But is relatability becoming démodé? Trends closing the last decade seem to suggest as much—it seems that a retreat from basicness ensued not long ago. A 2017 post from fashion blog Camille Styles encouraged readers to “un-basic your wardrobe” by shopping “Etsy, your local vintage store, or even Goodwill.” The message was a popular one. Just four years later, a culture of secondhand reselling and co-opted thrift aesthetics in mid-price brands and retailers (Urban Outfitters, UNIF) permeates. Platforms like Depop are catalogs of increasingly inflated prices on increasingly degraded wares, where adolescent sellers can earn an extra buck on a stained baby tee by tagging it “Y2K.” Vintage shops, thrift stores—“even Goodwill”—are picked over at best and soullessly gentrified at worst, at least in the coastal United States. (I, for one, blame iGirl—if you know you know.)
Yet just as Basic Bitches fled in droves from their basicness, the fashion world embraced a distorted version of it. It’s hard to tell if this move was an ironic smirk to those who “knew better” or a genuine pandering to those who did not, but the effect was the same. Parisian label Y/Project was not the first to elevate—or parody—the basic style, but it was the most memorable. Their fungal-looking UGG boots, ruched and folded to look as if they were swallowing the wearer whole, seemed part runway gimmick and part genius when debuted for Fall 2018. New York indie label Eckhaus Latta followed suit with their own UGG-partnered collection for Fall 2019, adding a highlighter-toned colorway. A year later, Y/Project went back to basic again, hawking tumorous Canada Goose collaboration parkas that bulged like au courant Michelin men. For Fall 2017, Giambattista Valli trotted out models in Rodarte-level Romantic blouses paired incongruently with black Nike leggings. Even now, Dior Men’s Kim Jones is partnering with Converse to release his rubber-and-canvas take on the Chuck 70 sneaker. UGGs, puffer jackets, high tops, black leggings—is the Basic Bitch, once reviled for these same fashion faux pas, now a couture inspiration?
Somewhere along the line, culture took a turn—the ugliness of a homogenized world began to seem comforting in retrospect. There could be some grand explanation for all of this; Trump was made POTUS in 2016, and mass individuation of politics, social mores, and cultural references followed. Fringe political groups like QAnon and hyper-specialized internet communities started to form, fragment, recoup. Confirmation bias and conspiracy became the de facto realities of a digitized world, and anything that slipped through the cracks of your curated feed was the doing of a Russian bot, or the CIA, or both. In an era of increasingly isolated interests, of indiscernible micro-niche subcultures, maybe the fashion world’s embrace of a bygone basicness was ahead of the trend. We missed the simplicity of the dynamic between a recognizable mainstream and recognizable subcultures, and so we began a return to it. Maybe, we thought, the most comfortable, the safest, the unique thing to be is just like everyone else.
Social media facilitated this cultural shift with an effect that cannot be underestimated. In 2018, Instagram, once considered the Basic Bitch platform of choice, changed its algorithm—now, instead of having photos on your Feed and Explore Page sorted by popularity and chronology, images are organized based on your predicted interest level. Somewhere in cyberspace, the sinister hands of the algorithm are sorting through a cache of your previously liked posts, the accounts you follow, the hashtags you’ve used, and calculating what you might most like to see next.
TikTok, which was made popular with American users sometime between 2018 and 2019, is an accelerated outgrowth of this same concept. Users often facetiously comment that they feel “called out” by the content that appears on their For You Pages, given its almost prescient knack for knowing exactly who you are, where you live, what music you like, your sexuality, your gender, your race, who you like and who you want to see viciously mocked. TikTok has also given rise to new fashion subcultures. “Alt” kids often crowd my FYP, dressed in some watered-down mashup of punk, emo, academic, and ’70s vintage, while other users see what was last year dubbed the “VSCO girl” style (think old school Basic Bitch, but environmentally conscious). E-girls and -boys, donned in copious chains, blushy makeup, drop earrings, and (poorly) home-dyed hair float in and out of algorithmic popularity but have recently become an influential fashion reference. Because we are all only seeing exactly what is selected for us, virality no longer refers to universality, as in the era of “Charlie Bit My Finger” or “Leave Britney Alone.” Now, “going viral” means creating content that resonates with a certain sect of people, content that may get thousands of views from one internet community while remaining entirely undiscovered by and entirely incomprehensible to another.
Individuality being the reigning sensibility of our new decade, a reactionary basicness has been born from the ashes. Former Basic Bitches went from wanting something everyone had to wanting something no one else did, and the old pursuit of conformity has germinated a novel pathology based on personal distinction. No one and everyone is “basic,” because a well-defined monoculture can’t be established when our news, entertainment, and media consumption is curated to our preconceived tastes. As fashion and entertainment continue to look backward, caricaturing an attempted resurrection of old models of mainstream versus alternative counter-culture, the complexity of our real situation becomes more apparent. Uniformity has all but been replaced by wide variety, which becomes its own kind of homogeneity; nobody wants to be basic, so everyone is.