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Tumblr Fashion Explained: How the Online Girl’s Uniform Came to Be

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Tumblr Fashion Explained: How the Online Girl’s Uniform Came to Be
Fashion

The modern-day discussions about the Tumblr Girl focus heavily on her Tumblr outfits and her Tumblr aesthetic. Fashion magazines have been running headlines since 2022, promising the return of “Indie Sleaze” or the return of “Tumblr Fashion” or the return of soft grunge. You think about the pastel hair, the fishnet tights, the oversized band T-shirts, the complete redefining of the word “aesthetic.” You know what it looks like, you’ve seen a thousand pictures from that era, you’ve probably read an essay or two attempting to explain the visual language.

The truth is you can’t talk about what it looked like without talking about what it felt like. Before the Internet became a stage, for a brief blip in time in the early 2010s, it used to be a place where young people could realize and express their private selves after long days of performing public selves at school, at work, with their families. They were introduced to radical politics and queerness and subculture. On Tumblr, people were sneaking away from their hometowns to immerse themselves in faraway places like New York City or London. Tumblr girls, as we now know them, weren’t dressing to impress people at school anymore; we were dressing to impress a scene, only that scene was online. The escapism came first, the clothes came second.  

People guarded the existence of their blogs from anyone who knew them IRL, an acronym that once used to feel like code, never meant to be as ubiquitous as it is now. Following and follower counts weren’t displayed on your profile, no status printed next to your name. That plus the anonymity meant that the experiment could continue, that the strange, angsty, semi-erotic, teenaged engine of self-discovery could keep running. And that was sacred to people. You didn’t want to be found.

But at the same time, you so did. The clothes were quiet references to the culture online, signaling to others who you were. You identified as hipster or indie, though you had the self-respect to never actually call yourself that. You were dressing like the guys in The 1975 and Arctic Monkeys and One Direction as much as you were dressing like the girlfriends. You were writing Lana Del Rey lyrics on the rubber of your sneakers almost hoping someone might know what they were, hoping they might read your code and understand you to be the same kind of weird as them. The fashion, as vast and diverse as it was, almost became a uniform.

That’s why it’s hard to truly encapsulate what Tumblr fashion means to people who just narrowly missed the phenomenon. The fashion was the byproduct of a rumble beneath our feet that only a pair of Dr. Martens could absorb. I often joke that Tumblr was our generation’s Woodstock, but I’m actually dead serious. It was a once-in-a-millennium moment in time where people stumbled into an online Wonderland, eager to reinvent social conventions in real time. Today’s most mainstream pop music, nightlife culture, photography, and television are wholly shaped by those kids online, so of course the fashion was good. Euphoria would never have happened without Petra Collins, a former Tumblr girl and probably the most ripped off visual artist of our time. Before Halsey was Halsey, she was a girl named Ashley from New Jersey who ran a One Direction blog, where she went viral for a jealousy-fueled cover of “I Knew You Were Trouble,” directed toward Harry Styles’ then-girlfriend, Taylor Swift. She’d later start posting short poems that would go on to be lyrics to her songs. Frank Ocean came out in a post he wrote about falling in love with a boy at 19, a letter so vivid, I felt like the love was mine. And most of this is just oral history shared amongst the people who witnessed it because social media was still too frivolous for tabloids to pay attention to. “You had to be there” doesn’t even cover it.

I think that’s the crux of why people have such a romantic idea of Tumblr, and their best idea is to distill it into the fashion. And I completely get it. A decade later, the Internet we live on is a completely different one—we don’t have a place online where we aren’t performing our asses off. The online world used to be the club, and now it’s a highway with a constant stream of billboards on either side. Today’s online-informed style would not be dissimilar from the one you’d get shopping at the mall in a bygone era. I don’t blame young people for searching for a different version of it, whether it’s the one they’re nostalgic for or one they never got to experience firsthand. There is such a dirty glamour to that time, and the fashion is the most accessible artifact. But the artifact needs the rest of it to make sense. “Tumblr fashion” was created and worn by people carpooling across state lines to go to concerts with people from the Internet with whom they shared their first brushes of vulnerability. The clothes have such a strong emotional trigger because of the backdrop around them, because of the music playing on the aux.  


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