Alternative fashion is any fashion that falls outside the trends of mainstream commercial fashion. There are dozens of subcultures of alternative fashion around the world, from American hipster to Chinese Hanfu, and these subcultures are constantly changing, evolving, and influencing the mainstream. Here are just 20 ideas for street-ready alternative outfits!
*NOTE: A number of the styles and subcultures we’re going to be talking about belong to specific communities of shared experience. Please be mindful of the difference between appreciation and appropriation and remember: someone else’s culture is not your aesthetic!
Grunge was first born in the mid-’80s in Seattle as a nonconformist, melancholic return to the emotional roots of goth/metal/punk subcultures, which had become mainstream by then. Ironically, this nonconformist style went mainstream in the early nineties, and re-emerged in the 2010s as the most popular form of alternative fashion.
Grunge is characterized by dark colors, plaids, denims, and baggy silhouettes. Grunge pieces are durable and timeless, often thrifted or scavenged from older relatives’ closets. The most recent wave of grunge has high-waisted pants, jean shorts, or skirts, worn over black or fishnet tights and boots.
*This narrative of subculture-gets-co-opted-by-the-mainstream is, as you’ll see, a common one. By the time you see the items you’re looking for in major retail stores, you’re already behind the curve. This has driven a perpetual machine of fast fashion, although recent fashion subcultures (driven by a younger, more eco-conscious generation) have constructed themselves around upcycling old clothes instead of buying new ones.
2. Soft Grunge
If you like the baggy, booted look of grunge, but all-black melancholy isn’t your thing, you’ll be happy to know that soft grunge is now a thing. Soft grunge infuses gentleness into traditional grunge’s edginess, pairing staples like tights, boots, and oversized shirts and jackets with colors (often pastel) and florals. A classic look of soft grunge is a close-fitting mid-length jumper dress over a white or black shirt, tights, and boots.
Soft grunge, grunge, punk, goth, and emo are all similar alternative styles that broadly overlap, but they do have their differences and the distinction matters to some people.
2010-2014 saw the Icarus-like rise and fall of the beanie-wearing, craft-beer-drinking, vinyl-record-playing, handlebar-mustache-twirling hipster. If you liked the style then, but don’t want to look like a 2012-knockoff, you’re in luck! It’s been long enough since the hipster era that as long as you don’t wear any fake “nerd” glasses, people will probably not even make the connection.
The hipster look is characterized by skinny jeans, flannels, scarves, brown leather shoes or black sneakers, and hats. Whether it’s a beanie, a straw fedora, a beret, or a broad-brimmed felt, the hat is an essential part of hipster fashion.
4. Asian-Influenced Fashion
As you may have seen in the recent inundation of tiktoks about Chinese street fashion, alternative fashion in Asia right now is next level. From Hong Kong to Singapore, fashion designers are leading the fashion industry into the 21st century, doing things with clothing that New York and Paris only wish they could. Many Asian-Americans, and non-Asian admirers of Asian culture in the USA, have long been following and emulating styles popular in Korea, Japan, China, and Southeast Asian countries.
Asian-Americans from Vera Wang to Prabal Gurung are many of the most prominent and important designers in U.S. fashion, as well. These creatives use their designs both to push the mainstream fashion needle, and to resist the assimilationist pressures laid on Asian-American communities. (The New York Times.)
There’s an ongoing debate about whether or not punk is dead. It kind of is…if we’re talking about mainstream white, straight people using punk culture on a large scale to express their defiance against the system. But in some queer and Black communities, punk is very much alive and thriving.
Black people have always been a part of punk, connecting emotionally with a genre of music and style that was all about feeling alienated from mainstream society, rooted in working class anger and disillusionment. In fact, early hip hop artists, rejected by disco clubs, performed in punk bars. But racism, especially from white-supremacist skinheads, pushed Black punks to form their own subculture, Afropunk.
Afropunk combines Black cultural pride with the bold otherness of punk. If your very existence in this country is othered, why not own that otherness and wear it like a crown? With that attitude, Afropunk is probably the coolest fashion subculture in America today. This is a really exciting time for Afropunk, too, with the growing scope and importance of Brooklyn’s annual multi-genre AFROPUNK festival.
It’s impossible to say “afropunk looks like x, y, and z” because part of what makes Afropunk so great is its variety, versatility, and uniqueness of personal expression. Each and every Afropunk look is totally different, because each person wearing it has a different story to tell. Broadly speaking, Afropunk fashion is the vibrant intermarriage of traditional African and African-diaspora styles with punk and other modes of alternative fashion.
“Afrofuturism is a cultural aesthetic, philosophy of science, and philosophy of history that explores the developing intersection of African diaspora culture with technology.” Afrofuturism is all about exploring what a technologically and socially advanced future born out of African diaspora culture looks like. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, think of the movie Black Panther.
Afrofuturism is especially relevant in the 21st century, as we rush toward an unknown future at a terrifying rate, and most of the people imagining that future imagine it–whether consciously or unconsciously–though a colonized lens of Western, European/American culture. Afrofuturistic fashion, with its marriage of futuristic designs and traditional African diaspora hair, clothing, and makeup styles, gives us an alternate imagination for a future worth building toward.
The 2020 iteration of emo is the egirl/eboy. This subculture of alternative fashion was born on tiktok, hence the “e,” as the idea is that they’re online all the time. Egirls wear dark clothes, stripes, chains, lots, of makeup, and often dye their hair bright colors and put black heart-shaped stickers under their eyes.
8. GHE20 GOTH1K
Launched in 2009 by New York nightclub DJ Venus X, GHE20 GOTH1k is a cultural and fashion subculture intent on smashing the racial boundaries by embracing Black culture and goth culture at the same time. Venus X even launched a shop to sell GHE20 GOTH1K clothes to loyal members of the culture, although the shop had to be shut down when GHE20 GOTH1K went mainstream after Rihanna appropriated it. GHE20 GOTH1K is defined by the gloomy, macabre aesthetic of goth with urban and ethnically diverse styles.
9. Indigenous Fashion
In the words of Karen Kramer, curator of Native American art and culture for the Peabody Essex Museum, “We are in the smack dab in the middle of a Native fashion renaissance” (Racked Magazine). Mainstream fashion and colonial culture has oppressed and appropriated Indigenous art, culture, and fashion for hundreds of years, but now, we’re seeing a new wave of designers reclaiming their fashion heritage and even using fashion as advocacy.
Indigenous fashion isn’t one unified thing; it’s a general term used to refer to individuals and designers from many different Indigenous nations and traditions making and wearing clothing that’s born out of their respective, unique cultures. Indigenous fashion has always been here, and it’s here to stay.
10. Queer Fashion
From Oscar Wilde to Janelle Monáe, it’s a known fact that queer people are some of the best dressed trendsetters in the business. Queer fashion is constantly evolving, and it’s different from culture to culture, with subcultures of its own, like the aforementioned queercore.
There are certain trends, of course, like flannel, cuffed jeans, Doc Martins/Converse/Vans, and eye-catching patterns. But the only true constant and single unifying element of queer fashion is simply wearing exactly what you want, no matter what society might think.
11. Gender Non-Conforming
A subset of queer fashion is gender nonconforming fashion, which is any fashion that defies expected gender norms. Generally, this means female-oriented people who dress masculinely, and male-oriented people who dress femininely, and nonbinary people using gendered clothing to express themselves in whatever way feels true. You don’t have to be queer to enjoy gender non-conforming fashion, though! The point is to wear whatever makes you feel comfortable and look stellar doing it.
Characterized by prints, layered, lightweight fabrics, and flowing silhouetted, boho-chic is a popular alternative style for the laid-back hippie types. Lovers of the boho-chic aesthetic can often be found wearing chunky or beaded jewelry, hats, and sandals or brown leather boots. Other boho-chic staples include embroidery, patchwork, beadwork, and fringe, especially fringed handbags.
As cute as boho-chic style is, this alt-fashion subculture has a real problem with cultural appropriation. Fashion blogger at Style Wise put it best: “the overall aesthetic capitalizes on the trendiness of indigenous and cultural craft traditions without giving the original makers the credit they deserve.” If you like Indigenous or Asian styles, buy them directly from Indigenous and Asian artisans, and do some research so you can appreciate the culture first and know the meaning behind what you’re wearing.
It shouldn’t be surprising that one of the biggest rising fashion subcultures of 2020 is craftcore. After all, we were all stuck in quarantine, and while some of us (me) spent that time binging SNL videos on Youtube, lots of people used that time to pick up old hobbies and develop new ones. Craftcore is the aesthetic of fun, homemade pieces you made yourself. Go ahead and knit, sew, stitch, paint, embroider, and embellish your way to a look that’s as original as you are!
14. Dark Academia
Inspired by movies like Dead Poets’ Society and books like The Secret History, dark academia is all about looking like you went to an Ivy League school sometime between 1930 and 1980. If you’re worried that means dark academia is just for rich white boys, don’t fret. For many of fans of dark academia, much of the appeal comes from the thrill of subverting elitism in academia by making it their own. Intellectualism is a vibe for anybody, regardless of race, class, gender, or body type.
This alternative look generally involves: pleated pants, shorts, or skirts; blazers, button-downs, sweaters, and turtlenecks; brown leather shoes; dark colors, neutrals, and plaids; and a vibe of sophisticated erudition and mystery.
One of the biggest alt-fashion trends of 2020 is cottage core, an aesthetic loosely based on the styles of the late 1800s and an romanticized ideal of rustic farm life. Cottagecore is about finding happiness by embracing an idyllic, quiet life of self-sufficiency, tenderness, and harmony with the environment.
Nostalgia for an imaged “simpler time” is not new in fashion: think of Marie Antoinette’s Hameau de la Reine, the Regency’s classically-inspired Empire silhouette, and the peasant blouse’s popularity with hippies in the 60s and 70s.
For 2020 cottagecore fans, this fantasy of a peaceful life in nature is a response to present-day environmental uncertainty, corporatism, and limited access to greenery in crowded urban spaces. The movement’s focus on tenderness and traditionally-feminine activities like gardening, baking, and sewing makes it particularly popular with young queer women, who feel oversexualized, de-feminized, and unsafe in most spaces.
Cottagecore fashion is modest and simple. Common staples are loose, flowy dresses, vintage items, pastels, ginghams, and florals, lace, peasant blouses, bell sleeves, and sun hats.
16. Retro: ’50s, & ’60s
The biggest alternative fashion subculture out there is the vintage/retro* subculture. Re-creating looks from previous decades has been popular for a long while. With the rise of upcycling, it looks like that popularity is only going to grow. In fact, retro is such a big subculture that it actually has microcultures within that subculture!
The thing about the ’50s and ’60s is that they happened so long ago that to the untrained modern eye, their styles look the same. Skirts below the knee, cigarette pants, bright colors, polka dots, cardigans, blouses, bows, and bright red lipstick make this classic look pop just as much for now as they did when your grandmother wore it.
*Vintage refers to clothes or items made in a previous time period. Retro refers to items made in the style of an older period, whether they’re authentic or replicated.
17. Vintage/Retro: 70’s
The fashion of the 1970s was unlike any decade before or since. The disco era gave us so many iconic looks: bell-bottoms, peasant blouses, midi-dresses, vests, wide collars, fringe, tie dye, paisley, psychedelic patterns, long hair and big, proud afros. With a list like that, it’s no wonder that ‘70s inspired fashion is one of the biggest trends of 2020. Led by fashion icons like Harry Styles and Wisdom, this alternative fashion trend is certainly “Stayin’ Alive.”
18. Vintage/Retro: ’80s
If you watched Stranger Things and were jealous of the costumes, you’re not alone. There’s a strong youth subculture bringing the ’80s back to the future, with clothes like mom jeans, scrunchies, shoulder pads, white sneakers, crew-length socks, oversized shirts and sweaters, and all the funky colors and patterns that our parents wore when they were our age.
19. Retro: ’90s
Even though it seems like it wasn’t that long ago that everyone got their movies from Blockbuster instead of Netflix, the ’90s are officially 30 years old, and that’s long enough ago to qualify as retro. People are bringing back ’90s classics like crop tops, tube tops, cargo pants, animal prints, maxi coats, maxi skirts, overalls, scrunchies, and chokers.
20. Mixed & Matched Alternative Subcultures
Why limit yourself to one vibe when you can do many? You contain multitudes. Whether you go for an ‘80s-inspired-Afropunk, craftcore boho, Asian-inspired dark academia, or gender-nonconforming grunge, your options for a unique alternative style are as limitless as you are.
What are your favorite alternative looks? Tell us about your style in the comments below!
Featured Image Source via fashiontrendwalk.com.
A. A. Ford is a writer from St. Louis, Missouri. She is currently a student majoring in English and Theology at the University of Notre Dame. In addition to her articles for Society 19, Ford is known for her poetry and fiction, which can be found at https://aafordstories.wordpress.com/. In her free time, she loves directing stage theater, spending time with her friends and family, and trying her best to glorify God by her life.