Late this summer, after ten years in New York, I moved to California. Four months into my new life, I found myself at work, wearing a giant sweater, leather shorts, and a pair of sandals that showed off a November pedicure. “I look insane,” I kept commenting to my coworkers. No one agreed with me. One person visiting from the NY office specifically told me that I looked different, but good: “Not sure how to describe it,” they said. “But you look more chill. It’s cool!”
Let me be clear: I have never been cool. My many attempts to adopt a West Coast look have always been more costume than genuine self expression. As a teen in the midwest, I wore puka shells with cut-up sweatshirts, mukluks with miniskirts, and bell-bottom jeans with such a low rise, I carried around a special cardigan whose only purpose was to cover my backside when I sat down. I told myself that I was dressed like a California Girl — like Marissa and Summer, or LC, or Kristin — but I was really dressed in California drag. Rather than relaxed, I looked perpetually tormented.
What I was going for was the California Girl look: sun-dried hair; a tan and no makeup; clothes that have been described as boho, for sure, but also “gamine-like,” “tomboyish,” and “genderless,” depending on the respective decade. This persona has enjoyed cultural relevance ever since Gidget introduced the then-niche subculture of surfing to the rest of America, because she is so goddamn likable. The California Girl is beautiful, but she doesn’t wield it. She’s open-minded, but isn’t a pushover. She’s confident in herself, always down to hang, loves being outside, is immune to stress, but she’s got a streak of existential sadness that grounds her cheerfulness. She’s the healthier version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl — a male fantasy, but a female one, too. When I think of California Girl, I think of a carefree Tippi Hedren in her backyard pool, her wet hair plastered onto her back, playfully spitting a stream of water into the face of her family’s pet lion. I, on the other hand, was once yelled at by a stranger for petting her lap dog incorrectly.
Despite the name, California Girl describes an ethos, not an address. Some of our favorite California Girls — Joni Mitchell and Goldie Hawn, for instance — hail from Canada and Washington D.C.. The French actress Brigitte Bardot, who oozes easy glamour and free sensuality, is considered by many to be the quintessential example. She’s spent more time in St. Tropez than California.
Likewise, even though they're both real Californians, neither Paris Hilton nor Kim Kardashian are the kind of California Girls I’m talking about (they’re Valley Girls, the ‘80s-born cousin of California Girls, and their sworn nemeses). Neither is Katy Perry, who sings about them, or Mischa Barton, whose most famous role as spoiled, sad teen Marissa Cooper in The O.C. revived the California Girl aesthetic for a generation of millennials; Barton, the person, is far too unchill to qualify. This prerequisite of “chill” means that most California Girl icons are those who can afford to be relaxed. It’s no surprise that the ones we think of are nearly always white, conventionally beautiful, and generationally rich.
So, clearly left out, I turned to archetypes that mirrored my own nervous energy. The gritty Downtown Girl. The unimpressed French Girl. The nostalgic and man-repellant Brooklyn Girl. It also made sense that the California Girl would take a backseat more generally. As generations of youth suffer through recessions, uncertainty, and the degradation of the planet and institutions, the wide-eyed, unaffected worldview of the California Girl hasn’t seemed as fortifying nor protective as other more aggressive styles. In times of turmoil, it almost seems naive.
But despite the way we live now — and perhaps in response to even more turbulence — it’s back. And it’s more relevant than ever.
To be fair, you might not recognize this current trend as California Girl. It’s far less obvious (it’s also far less skin-baring). In some ways, it can hardly be considered boho. It’s more business-casual, anchored in oversized cashmere turtlenecks, billowing dresses, high-waisted trousers, market totes and minimal leather bags, threadbare tees, and impossible sandals, all in the various hues of the bulk-grain aisle. In California, and across the country and world, people wear it with dewy skin and undone-wave lobs, the modern version of sun-bleached hair.
The author in New York.
But California’s unique properties — the seasonless weather, its counterculture-as-dominant-culture, its proximity to both natural wonder and natural disasters — shape New California Girl, just like every other iteration of the look since the ‘50s.
First of all, California has no seasons (sorry, “rainy” does not count). In California, the weather fluctuates between fifty degrees to ninety degrees in the course of a day, all year long. Here, it is common to see people who wear both puffer coats and flip flops, or beanies with their tank tops, without an iota of irony.
But in climates across the country, weather is becoming increasingly unpredictable. It’s not just in California anymore where the modern trends of wearing corduroy trousers with barely there sandals, thick sweaters and silk slips, or massive shearlings and tissue-thin dresses actually makes sense. These combinations are engineered for women who don’t want to ever feel too hot or too cold; for those who consider coziness a competitive sport, as well as a feminist proclamation of self-worth. “Women want to feel good in their clothes all day long. Comfort is so important right now,” says Caroline Belhumeur, the creative director of Vince, an L.A.-based fashion label whose high-end cashmeres and silks have won them fans across the country.
Seasonless design is also practical if you’re interested in getting the most wear out of your clothing. “That seasonless quality has legs. It can live in your wardrobes for longer, and we’re finding that it resonates with our customers. It can transition from one season to the other. It’s more useful in your wardrobe.”
This deep utility extends beyond just temperature. The look is also classic, well-made, and straightforward, which means it's trend-resistant and looks good on all ages. It's appropriate for and interesting at most occasions and dress codes. This universality facilitates a sustainable way of shopping and dressing. If you’re buying long-lasting clothes that you'll always want to wear, it means you have to buy fewer, less often. That, on top of shopping eco-friendly brands, buying vintage, or engaging in clothing recycling programs, is an honest way to love clothing and practice sustainability.
The trend is beginning to peak all over the country. According to a spokesperson from Nordstrom, trends that ladder up to the New California Girl look — oversized trenches, slouchy sweaters, and jumbo pants made all made in luxe materials — is not only popular overall, but it’s popular in all price categories, from fast-fashion to high-end. When trends become available for every customer, no matter how much they want to spend, they achieve staying power. “The minimal is on the rise,” the spokesperson confirmed.
And in the same ways that contrarian California Boys of decades past have borrowed their jewelry, caftans, and slinky pants from their female counterparts, the New California Girl is heavily influenced by menswear, for the sheer notion of going against convention. “I’m always attracted to a guy vibe. I think there’s some sort of nonchalance to it that I like,” says Belhumeur. But, while there are fewer exposed midriffs and tanned legs this time around, there’s still a private Bardot-esque sensuality that underpins the look. Deep-cut sweaters look best when worn without anything underneath it. Silk skirts show off every arch and dip.
This summer, Vince released a advertising campaign that showed their newest collections on their ideal customer: Californians, obviously. “No one in the campaign was a model,” says Belhumeur. “They're all California creatives — writers, photographers, artists, actresses, and musicians. It was a way to define the California vibe, by looking at our own community out here.” During the creative process, Belhumeur told me that all the designers in the Vince studio check their work by looking down at what they’re already wearing. “We’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘Would we wear this?’ ‘Is this silly?’”
It might take me a while longer to not see silliness when I look down at my bare feet and a woolen torso. But for the time being, I can’t deny that — at least regarding what’s in view — I’m comforted by what I see, how I feel, and where I am.