Twee is more than just an aesthetic. It’s a lifestyle
Think the twee trend is all about Zooey Deschanel and Peter Pan collars? Think again. From trainspotting to Ted Lasso, tweeness has seeped into every aspect of our lives. Born twee, live twee, die twee.
Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. Get your copy here.
Welcome to Tweenty-Tweenty-Two, the year in which the millennium’s most affecting – or should that be affected? – trend is roaring (simpering?) back to life. Yes, already.
You can deduce pretty much everything you need to know about twee’s last “moment” – ie the late-2000s to early-2010s – from a two-minute clip that Zooey Deschanel posted to HelloGiggles’ YouTube channel on 28th December 2011. Having co-founded the startup media platform earlier that year (before later selling it to Time Inc. in 2015 for megabucks), the Tumblr-anointed Queen of Twee teamed up with Joseph Gordon-Levitt for a cover of American Songbook standard What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?. The latter was on the acoustic guitar and Deschanel was on the ukulele, naturally.
A great number of twee tick boxes are checked off in this clip. These include but are not limited to: the mere presence of Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt, who, as the stars of the movement’s magnum opus, Manic Pixie Dream Girl romcom 500 Days of Summer (2009), had begun to epitomise it in many ways: the fact that Deschanel, all doe-eyed and rosy-cheeked, is unironically playing the aforementioned ukulele; the tiara that’s perched atop her signature blunt fringe, matching a jacquard party dress that at least looks vintage; the standup piano lurking in the background; even the name of the YouTube channel it was posted on, HelloGiggles, a combination of words that’s essentially “live, laugh, love” for kooky, quirky girls who cosplay as Margot Tenenbaum on Halloween.
But those are all superficial signifiers of the movement. What really makes Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt’s seasonal ditty tooth-achingly twee is the unflinching sincerity of it all. It’s the way they gaze at each other while harmonising their smoky vocals, but also the way in which Deschanel calls her duet partner “simply the best” and describes, in the description box, how the pair “bonded over a mutual appreciation for Harry Nilsson and Nina Simone”.
It’s a special brand of affected earnestness that’s endearing to some and suspicious to others – content that will make self-professed “bad bitches” throw up in their mouths, while inspiring primitive softbois to say: “One day I will find a girl and sing a song like this with her” (that’s a real comment underneath the video). It’s cute or cringe, depending on how often you listened to Kate Nash’s Foundations in 2007.
Now, just over a decade after that video was uploaded, twee is the latest nostalgia fashion trend to be resurrected before its original wearers have had a chance to quell their sartorial regret (see The Revival Spiral, as we’re calling it). Head over to TikTok and you’ll find videos breaking down key elements of the aesthetic, from ballet flats paired with coloured tights to thrifted, Peter Pan-collared shift dresses. Visit Vogue’s website and you’ll find a handy guide called Unpacking the Twee Fashion Craze Taking Over TikTok, which updates the trend for 2022.
According to Carla Buzasi, CEO of trend forecasters WGSN, the resurgent uptake in twee fashion is “a natural extension of the retro revival we saw during the height of the pandemic, when consumers of all ages looked to the past to provide reassurance during a turbulent present. Vinyl sales went up. Old computer games and consoles came back into fashion. We even rekindled our love affair with Bird’s Eye Custard Powder. That we’re now seeing this manifested in what we’re wearing and how we accessorise our homes isn’t a surprise.”
Yet twee is a sensibility, not just a style. As the late Spin journalist Marc Spitz explained in his 2014 book Twee: The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Fashion, Television, and Film, the essential hallmarks of the movement are not limited to fashion cues. They also include the mentality and ethos that most likely prompt people to buy into a more quaint aesthetic to start with. According to the author, core values of twee-nies are “a steadfast focus on our essential goodness” and “the utter dispensing with of ‘cool’ as it’s conventionally known, often in favour of a kind of fetishisation of the nerd, the geek, the dork, the virgin”. These qualities, he suggests, could be “possibly helping the world become a kinder, closer and cooler place”.
See, even cultural criticism can be twee.
Essentially “the adjective form of Wes Anderson” (as put by The Daily Beast’s Scott Porch in an interview with Spitz himself), the often saccharine nature of tweeness makes it an easy target for derision. Defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “artificially attractive or too perfect”, the word “twee” has traditionally been a term of disapproval, after all. But look around and you’ll notice that we’ve been slowly wrapping ourselves in a blanket of it over the past couple of years. Take Apple TV+’s fish-out-of-water comedy Ted Lasso, for instance, a show about an American sports coach who moves to the UK to run a football team, despite initially knowing nothing about the game he calls “soccer”. The Guardian deemed it “grindingly unfunny” when it first aired in 2020 but, seven Emmy wins later, conceded that it “is a nice show about a nice man being nice”.
That’s right. A programme about the Ned Flanders of football swept last year’s Emmy Awards. In fact, it came close to beating the record number of Emmys won by a comedy in one night, which had been established the previous year by the equally heartwarming Schitt’s Creek’s nine wins. Ted Lasso is praised for being “breezy and fun and full of heart” (The Atlantic) and embracing “optimism without feeling false” (Vulture). As Thrillist wrote: “If you’re looking for something genuinely sweet to watch while anticipating the shitshow the world will be this week, you would be hard pressed to find a better selection than Ted Lasso.”
Consider the fact that the last comedy to break records at the Emmys was the scathing political satire Veep and it becomes clear that our appetites for content are changing – even among critics. Salty insults hurled by despicable characters are off the menu (Succession might be an exception); sweet, optimistic messaging about kindness is today’s special. Some of the most beloved comedy programmes of recent years have all dished it out: Sex Education, The Good Place, BBC’s Ghosts. Then there’s the old shows we turned to for comfort during seemingly endless lockdowns: Parks and Recreation, The West Wing, The Office (US) and the Zooey Deschanel-fronted New Girl. During times of hardship, no one wants to watch a big fat meanie.
The tide is turning online, too, exemplified by the internet’s new king, TikTok trainspotter Francis Bourgeois. With more than two million followers on the platform, the 21-year-old found fame last year through simply sharing his beloved hobby with the world, strapping a GoPro to his head to film his giddy laughter and waiting for passing trains to give him a honk. He wears vintage driver uniforms and carries a satchel made from the itchy fabric that upholsters seats on the tube. He sits in fields all day to catch glimpses of his favourites and even wrote a rap in honour of one train’s last day of service. “You are my safe place”, “protect this man, he is our last source of genuine happiness” and “Francis makes me think that maybe humans are worth saving” are typical of the comments you’ll find beneath Bourgeois’ videos.
Where once influencers were envied for their perceived perfection – juicy juvederm lips and clothing hauls worth more than the average yearly salary – Bourgeois is envied for his esoteric passion, his apparent disregard for what others think and, most importantly, his possession of the modern world’s rarest commodity: unrelenting joy.
Bourgeois also epitomises Spitz’s summation of twee values as “the utter dispensing with of ‘cool’ as it’s conventionally known”, not because being a trainspotter is necessarily a nerdy hobby, but because he quite literally transformed himself from another “cool” identity to embrace his passion. Responding to speculation that Bourgeois is a fake character, after internet sleuths discovered his real name is Luke Nicolson and found old pictures of him wearing Prada beanies and Burberry shirts (twee inspires endearment or suspicion, remember?), the nation’s favourite trainspotter made a social media star rite-of-passage: a setting-the-record-straight video.
In it, Bourgeois explains how he always loved trains, but in order to fit in at a new school, he sold his train set to fund a gym membership, started “gelling his hair up” and wore “roadman clothes”. Then “lockdown happened, my hair grew out and I reclaimed my love for trains through my videos”. New twee pipeline just dropped: nerd to cool kid to cool nerd.
It’s a particular brand of geek chic that fashion insiders are falling for, too. Bourgeois made his modelling debut in January, starring in the latest The North Face x Gucci campaign. In a short film, he steps into the shoes of a train conductor, welcomes collection-clad passengers on board and blows his whistle, looking like an idealised character ripped from Wes Anderson’s ever-feverish imagination.
“Francis Bourgeois embodies a feeling of eccentric exploration and he has a really natural sense of humour and style that helped inform the whole aesthetic of the film,” says Tom Dream, who directed the campaign and chose to shoot on 16mm film to emulate French New Wave cinema from the ’60s and ’70s. “I think he’s captured the hearts of the nation because he is doing what he loves, and his joy and love of trains is infectious.”
He’s also inspiring his audience to turn to more traditional pleasures. “He reminds us of our own simple interests, and that there’s wonder and beauty in the mundane,” continues Dream. “My good friend was very depressed in lockdown and found a lot of solace in Francis’ TikTok videos. Another close friend of mine has started bird-watching again.”
Reasons for twee’s broader cultural revival are both blindingly obvious and more complex than you might think. Let’s start with the former: people are just fed up with depressing shit, be it a disillusioning news cycle or an eight-part Netflix documentary about serial killers. With social media algorithms promoting toxic content to get rage clicks, is it any wonder that users are suddenly enamoured with an unproblematic guy who just likes to wave at trains?
“Pure” and “innocent” content – as Bourgeois, Ted Lasso and Schitt’s Creek are often described – is perhaps increasingly popular simply because it offers an alternative to not only a barrage of bad news, but also attempts to make sense of and satirise it. “This is fine” memes about the world burning around us and The Thick Of It/Veep creator Armando Iannucci’s political takedowns now hit too close to home to make us laugh. As Dream puts it in relation to Bourgeois: “There’s so much misery and cynicism in mainstream news at the moment. Francis’s brilliant laugh cuts right through all that.”
But our surging appetite for things that soothe and smooth the brain isn’t simply a symptom of the Covid years. As Vox explained, the rise of cotton wool content correlates with “the story of the rejection of evangelical purity culture and the left’s embrace of sincerity in the face of the rise of the alt-right”.
Buzzfeed introduced an entire category dedicated to listicles that promise to “restore your faith in humanity” in 2014, for example. This was around the same time that the snark and ironic meme culture of alt-right petri dishes 4chan and certain subreddits became ubiquitous online. Also around then, Google searches for alt-right- associated terms “red pill” and “cuck” began to increase rapidly.
Then, not long after Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the balance began to correct itself. Searches for those toxic terms fell and another word began to rise: “wholesome”. Dictionary definition: “good for you and likely to improve your life either physically, morally, or emotionally”.
To be clear, everything wholesome is not twee, just as everything twee is not wholesome. Babies are wholesome, but their pudgy hands are too small to even hold, let alone play, the ukulele (shame, because that TikTok would go viral). A cardigan-clad man at an artisanal farmers’ market looks twee to the naked eye, but root through his DMs and you may find that he’s not at all wholesome. And yet the two concepts also appear to be inextricably linked – according to Spitz’s hypothesis, at least.
When you frame both wholesomeness and tweeness as reactions to socio-political climates, it checks out. Tumblr twee – think: thick-framed glasses, vintage A‑line skirts and sepia-tinted photos of typewriters – came into its stride during Barack Obama’s two-term presidency (2009 – 17). This followed George W Bush’s occupancy of the White House, a period which had seen the beginning and bulk of the Iraq War, as well as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Now, here we are in 2022, with him out of the White House and what at least appears to be the worst of the pandemic behind us (at the time of writing anyway). Meanwhile, people are beginning to drop the anxious perfection of peak influencer culture in favour of quaint hobbies and vintage finds.
Coincidence? Potentially. But tweeness does offer an appealing antidote to the turmoil and tragedy of the past few years – not to mention a refuge from the mind-boggling acceptance of a present ruled by tech oligarchs.
“It represents a hailing back to simpler times,” says Carla Buzasi. “We live in an uncertain and complex world. We’re bombarded with headlines about the metaverse and driverless cars – a futuristic future – but also worry about picking up a potentially lethal virus on a trip to the shops. It’s almost inevitable that, in the midst of all this, the comfort of the familiar holds power.”
Twee is nostalgic, for sure. But it’s also hopeful. It’s the cultural and aesthetic manifestation of a yearning to feel good again, whether you believe the answer lies in artisanal groceries, binge-watching a warm, fuzzy show, swapping Adidas Gazelles for loafers, or ditching doom-scrolling for bird-watching, trainspotting… Or even just watching famous trainspotters.
Whether those things will make you content for an extended period of time is beside the point. In that moment, when the sourdough crust crackles, when the Peter Pan collar is ironed crisp, when the train whizzes by so fast the wind knocks you out of your camping chair, things do actually feel good. And right now, that’s enough.