“Super dreamy,” is how designer Ryan Lo describes his new mermaid-themed collection. A rising star, Lo has made his name with his pink frocks, furry kitten-ear headpieces, pom-pom embellished coats in ice-cream colours, girlish ruffles and Peter Pan collars. And if this all sounds a bit, well, cutesie, that’s because it is. Lo, who is shortlisted for the NewGen award at this season’s London Fashion Week, is just one of the many designers embracing and reclaiming whimsy. They are the new, acceptable faces of twee – and they are not alone. Like it or not, twee has been reclaimed and reconfigured – and is very much with us.

The word twee started life meaning pretty or nice and derived from the sound a small child might make when attempting to pronounce the word ‘sweet’. In the UK the word became “chiefly derogatory” according to OED, meaning “excessively affected, quaint or sentimental”, and has since been reclaimed and redefined in the US by the indie-music scene.

Of course tweeness of any sort remains polarising – what is endearing for some is toe-curlingly cloying and sickly for others – but love it or loathe it, there is now no escaping it. What began as a niche aesthetic with a cult, fashionista following has grown rapidly, with pioneers such as Miu Miu, Markus Lupfer (king of the kitten-embellished knit) and Meadham Kirchoff attracting an increasingly devoted following. And whimsical, fairy-tale enchantment is a big story in fashion this autumn, from Dolce & Gabbana’s golden silk hoods and dresses adorned with woodland creatures to Saint Laurent’s Little Red Riding Hood capes.

Whimsy has hit mainstream retailing too, with kittens, puppies, owls and other cute motifs embellishing t-shirts and sweaters on every high street. And Cath Kidston, the British homeware and clothing brand, has recently expanded its empire as far as Japan. Its quaintly homespun, nostalgic look  has clearly struck a chord, with polka-dot tea dresses and floral tea towels and aprons flying off the shelves all over the world. And it’s not just fashion and homeware. Cutesiness is now everywhere in our culture – from the omnipresent smiley-faced, candy-coloured emojis that have crept into our texting and online lexicon to the apparently endless stream of adorable kittens and irresistible puppies online.

Twee tribes

Meanwhile on our movie and television screens there’s the inexorable rise of the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl, a phrase coined by film critic Nathan Rabin to describe an increasingly prevalent archetype – the bubbly, arch, otherworldly young woman. The Manic Pixie Dreamgirl is fey and (to some) endearing and is typified by Natalie Portman’s role in Garden State Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer – and, needless to say, Deschanel’s kooky, girlish persona in TV sitcom New Girl. And then there is of course director Wes Anderson, and his elaborately quirky, retro aesthetic. From The Royal Tenenbaums to Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, whimsy is at the core of Anderson’s vision.

Twee is nothing new in music, and it was British critic Simon Reynolds who first noted the “revolt into childhood” of certain 1980s indie bands, a genre he dubbed “cutie”. Nitsuh Abebe’s 2005 Pitchfork essay developed the theme. The moniker ‘twee’ stuck, and Marc Spitz, in his recent book, Twee: The Gentle Revolution, traces the evolution of the aesthetic, identifying a “twee tribe” and aligning tweeness with a radical, free, indie spirit.

In his book Spitz explores music, movies and literature and also points to the rise of comforting, arcane diversions – ukulele strumming, moustache sporting, hand-crafting, analogue-loving, artisanal loaf-baking. All these, he argues, are part of the same twee movement. “Twee can be liberating from the pressure to be cool, swaggering, aggressively macho, and old at heart,” writes Spitz. It offers “the freedom to be soft in an increasingly hard world … twee, in short, may not be all bad.”

Designer Ryan Lo also sees whimsy and humour as liberating forces. His new collection is “a love story… about dancing with the coconuts and sea-shells on a Pacific Ocean island during summertime.” A challenging look to pull off? Wearing this kind of fashion does “takes a lot of confidence,” the designer tells BBC Culture, but, he argues, “the more mature a person is, the younger, more colourful, more free the person can be. A fabulous woman’s style should never be restrained.” Not that Lo is being ironic in his designs, he adds. “It’s rather about humour. I want to make people happy.” 

Lo points to the roots of twee as an inspiration for his work:  “[Whimsical, girlish fashion] is rooted in the omnipresent Japanese culture in Hong Kong where I grew up. There has always been an explosion of kawaii.” The role of kawaii (cute style) is integral to Japanese animé and manga, and among Lo’s influences, he says, are the popular animé cartoons Chibi Maruko-chan and Sailor Moon, which features a magical girl gang.

Girl power

Acclaimed design duo Meadham Kirchoff were among the first to champion the wild and whimsical in their designs – with their pinafore dresses and fairy-tale, dressing-up-box aesthetic – and, like Lo, Edward Meadham is also influenced by kawaii, he says. “When I was growing up in the ‘90s, I used to wear a lot of Hello Kitty things, and I collected little cute things in general,” he recalls.

Yet for Meadham, the look is about more than cutesiness – it is about rebellion and subversion: “Girl culture holds a special interest for me. The riot grrrls reclaimed girlishness and their own girlhoods by using the codes and symbols of girl childhood, and this had a big influence on me.” Among the duo’s inspirational figures are Courtney Love, Viv Albertine (of early punk band The Slits) and Kathleen Hanna, feminist activist and member of Bikini Kill – all of whom have subverted orthodox notions of girlishness.

The notion of girlish style as radical is shared by Danielle Romeril, another shortlisted NewGen designer. Her Autumn/Winter 2015 collection featured polka-dot plastic raincoats and pinafore dresses. “There is a real shift away from the rather old-fashioned notion of ‘age appropriate’ clothing,” she tells BBC Culture.  “A 15-year-old and a 60-year-old can both wear the same beautifully printed raincoat as long as it’s tailored to fit their form. Grown-up women are embracing vibrant, youthful clothing and they’re showing off their personalities.”

So why in her view is whimsical fashion in the ascendant now? “Like all fashion it is a reaction to what has come before,” she says. “A change of direction from the body-con sexiness that we had for a while and then there was super-paired-back minimalism, so this feels new – upbeat, fresh, light-hearted and optimistic.”

It’s may be no surprise that Romeril counts Wes Anderson among her influences: “What I love about his work is that for him the set is another character in the story, he creates the world for the narrative to take place. Also every film has a distinct palette, which is something I like to investigate in my own work.” Like Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, the starting point for Romeril’s Spring/Summer 2015 collection is a story of youthful wild camping and a mood of freedom, fun, escape, liberation. “There are far too many serious, sombre and sad things in this life,” she says. “Fashion is about self-expression, letting clothes say out loud what you can barely put into words. After all you only live once!” 

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