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How To Dress Emo (By An Elder Who’s Worn It All)

The year is 2004. It’s my 13th birthday and I’ve spent the day shopping at Camden Market in London with my friends. I’ve bought a leather wrist cuff from one of the stalls to alternate with my Atticus sweatband. I’m wearing my favourite outfit: a T-shirt from Famous Stars and Straps, baggy skater jeans carefully selected from the Route One catalogue, and chunky Etnies trainers, which I’ve customised with flame-printed laces. At home, my mum has made me an all-black cake at my insistence (although she didn’t use enough food dye so it’s more of a space grey). My Walkman has been blaring Jimmy Eat World’s “Futures” on repeat. Life is good. 

Flash forward to 2022 and rock band Blink 182 is back together (for the second time), My Chemical Romance headlined three shows in Milton Keynes this past summer, and When We Were Young festival — which had its first ever explosive run last week, featuring bands like Paramore and Taking Back Sunday — has already sold out for 2023. The eagerly anticipated event with a lineup of more than 60 acts saw over 80,000 fans descend upon Las Vegas Festival Grounds, looking like they’d stepped straight out of Hot Topic and straight back in time. Performers and attendees alike observed the core pillars of emo dressing: plaid, studs, fishnets, stripes and leopard print. Seeing Gen Z newcomers and elder emo old-timers come together for this mega resurgence made me kick myself for not securing a ticket. 

Many say emo is back with a vengeance but for some of us it was never a phase. Like plenty of others who came of age in the early noughties, I spent the entirety of my teenage years at gigs, crafting the perfect MySpace page and dyeing my hair every shade of Manic Panic I could get my hands on. I celebrated my 18th birthday by getting my first tattoo: a replica of City and Colour’s Sometimes album artwork, which 13 years later is still just an outline (I broke up with the boyfriend who paid for it and never went back to get it finished). My dedication to the emo lifestyle runs from my now-empty, stretched earlobes to a stunted toenail that never grew back the same after being stomped on in a mosh pit. If you weren’t there the first time around, fear not. Here are my three major tips for infusing your wardrobe with a touch of emo, without looking like a wannabe (cough, cough, Kourtney Kardashian).

Know your footwear classics 

Shoes are probably the most important place to start when it comes to dressing emo. In my youth, the shoes that acted as visual indicators of being ‘alternative’ were Dr Martens 1460 boots, Vans slip-ons or Authentics, and Converse high-tops (preferably with song lyrics scrawled on the sides in Sharpie). Thankfully, all of those styles have aged well (maybe minus the lyrics) because they’re timeless classics that transcend subcultures. Today, however, I would recommend opting for a vegan pair of Dr Martens — not only does everyone know that emos don’t eat animals but they’re also easier to break in — and upgrading to the Vans with cushioned soles for long hours spent standing at gigs. 

@kamxiyahimmxrtal #fypシ #grungeaesthetic #emoaesthetic #altpoc #altpoc #alttiktok ♬ Wasssssssup – 🫶

Cop band merch, either new or vintage

Merch is booming in 2022 — it’s an important way to financially support artists in these trying times for music. And let’s not forget, emo is all about the music. Buying a tee, hoodie or cap at a gig or from a band’s online store is the best way to do this. Recently I went to see Alexisonfire (yet another band to reunite in 2022) and I was pleasantly surprised to see a heart skull logo tee, almost identical to one I had when I was 14, on sale at the Brixton venue. Take it from someone who’s learned the hard way: hang onto that merch, kids, because you never know when it will be cool again. Band tees also act as great conversation-starters but beware the inevitable “How many songs can you name?” guy lurking at the bar.

@yasminesummanx ACTUAL GENIUS #mcr #mcreden #mcruk #mychemicalromance #emo #emomeme #emotiktok #elderemo ♬ Brujeria – ✿

If you don’t have any upcoming shows in your calendar, vintage is a great route to go down, with places such as Jerks Store specialising in archive merch. The key is to keep it authentic and avoid the high street where possible. 

From ties to wallet chains, accessorise like it’s 2002 

I was 11 years old when Avril Lavigne released “Complicated”. Not only is it an absolute anthem but Avril’s outfit combo of a white vest, black tie and singular striped arm warmer was nothing short of groundbreaking. Two years later, My Chemical Romance released “Helena” and the tie was solidified as the ultimate emo accessory. It’s now back for 2022, thanks to OG emos like Hayley Williams and Charli XCX, as well as this season’s runways and high street trends.

@gutter.bratz

♬ FROM THE BIBLE – CADIE

Besides barely knotted ties, the devil is in the detail when it comes to dressing emo: wallet chains, studded belts and pin badges can all give any regular ensemble that ‘alt’ edge. At Marc Jacobs (a brand long synonymous with grunge), the Heaven offshoot has the best emo accessories around. From embellished bobby pins to striped balaclavas and even a two-headed teddy bear backpack, it’s all wonderfully reminiscent of mall goth icon Emily the Strange‘s clothing line (if you know, you know). The main range, featuring bondage trousers, slip dresses and holey knits is also spot on. In the same vein, London-based skate brand Nancy’s trucker caps feel suitably pop punk — wear at a slight side angle for a true noughties look. 

@arianamageeginn I’m Raven the acid bath princess of Human Resources🖤 some corporate emo inspired outfits! #corporateemo #alternative #alttiktok #outfit #style ♬ What’s My Age Again? – blink-182

This is by no means an extensive list; in fact, we’ve barely scratched the surface. Happily, TikTok has countless outfit tutorials so you can continue to pursue your emo education. Never did I think I would be writing a fashion feature about a subculture that I and many others were mercilessly teased for being a part of as teenagers but one thing you can always bank on is people’s lust for nostalgia. My final advice? Save every piece you invest in now to ensure you’re the one to pass it on in another 20 years’ time.

Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?

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