The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in Fashion

Skimming through the images on the Vogue Runway app on my iPad, I cannot help but be impressed by the continued creativity and skills of fashion designers. Overall, there was a bit too much nostalgia and ‘retro’ going on (were the 1990s really that memorable?), but some designers still showed compelling runways. A special shout-out to Tom Ford for banishing sneakers and other fashion atrocities from his (again nostalgic; really, what is it about the 90s?) runway.

But still, not all is well in the realm of fashion and style. As one of my favourite fashion writers Robin Givhan recently observed, ‘desperate to find grist for its mill’, the American fashion industry displayed on the S/S 2019 runways bad fashion. Provocation has replaced inspiration and articulation of new sartorial directions. Givhan’s judgment is harsh: designers are ‘elevating fleeting passions to the status of lifestyle brands. They’re allowing a thrill for unorthodox or jarring aesthetics to impede thoughtful consideration about technical skill and clarity of message’.

Driving the willingness to indulge (or endure) these designers is fashion’s inherent need to constantly produce novelty. Yet representing an ‘edgy’ or ‘provocative’ runway does not necessarily translate into better, or indeed novel, fashion. I share Givhan’s critical assessment of the Telfar collection, which to me appeared rather monotone and poorly fitted, constituting a puzzling regression from his Spring 2018 collection. There is also Vaquera’s rather unfocused attempt to be… provocative, I presume, although I fail to see how a top made of whistles (Trillerpfeifen, for those of you who speak German) could even raise an eyebrow other than in bewilderment. But maybe this ‘edginess’ is enough: ‘Telfar Clemens won the CFDA-Vogue Fashion Fund award in 2017. And the three-person collective known as Vaquera is a finalist this year’.

Perhaps it is possible to distinguish between this ‘bad fashion’ and ‘ugly fashion’.

What I mean by the latter is the selective use of ‘ugly’ stylistic elements in an otherwise ‘conventional’ runway. Hence, ‘fanny packs, Crocs, prairie dresses and chunky orthopedic sneakers’ are now an acceptable part of a fashion show, suggesting that the rules of sartorial appropriateness are increasingly relaxed these days. Now, such ‘aesthetic provocations’ and ‘pokes’ as Givhan a bit sniffily calls these contemporary fashion items, are in and of themselves nothing new. The most significant one to this day, I would argue, remains Punk and its boisterous deconstruction of traditional sartorial code. Compared to this radical style change, today’s provocations seem tame, perhaps even lame, and indexing bourgeois comfort rather than class confrontation. Why does fashion pay attention to the ‘ugly’ in the first place? Certainly, to make a sale, as Givhan argues, but I think there is more to it. As one of my (currently) favourite philosophers, Jean Baudrillard, wrote in his early work,

fashion continually fabricates the “beautiful” on the basis of a radical denial of beauty, by reducing beauty to the logical equivalent of ugliness. It can impose the most eccentric, dysfunctional, ridiculous traits as eminently distinctive.

So in this sense, there is no absolute ‘ugly’, just as there is no absolute ‘beautiful’, there is only ‘fashionable’. The latter is in this sense a strictly structural property of garments, whatever sets them apart from last season’s style is now the current sartorial code. But arguably, there is more to it. To quote Baudrillard again (I referred to this in the blog on Heavenly Bodies)

Fashion is immoral, this is what’s in question; and all power (or all those who dream of it) necessarily hates it. … Fashion … knows nothing of value systems, nor of criteria of judgement: good and evil, beauty and ugliness, the rational/irrational – it plays within and beyond these, it acts therefore as the subversion of all order.

This of course can and should be interpreted as an invitation to marginalised social groups to turn to ‘ugly fashion’ in order to increase their social visibility. Punk made visible what a rigid British class society tried to hide: the desolation of the young working class. Hip-hop fashion and some of its most gaudy elements brought into social visibility African-American and other ‘minority’ inner-city youths. And perhaps we can also include the latest turn to ‘modest fashion’ as an attempt to ‘visualise’ a different kind of female subjectivity, articulated not least in response to the sartorial anti-Muslim discourse in Western societies. ‘Recognition’, writes Andrea Brighenti, ‘is a form of social visibility’. And ‘[o]nce we see social recognition as embedded in a visibility field’ we can appreciate how fashion reflects and upsets social power structures. In its simplest way, fashion theory refers to Thorstein Veblen’s work on the Leisure Class. To summarise and simplify his argument about fashion, Joanne Entwistle’s summary does an excellent job:

Veblen [is one of] the most famous proponents of the theory of fashion as emulation, according to which styles start at the top of the social hierarchy with an elite class opting for a distinctive style of dress; the classes below, seeking to emulate the status of this class, gradually adopt the style and fashion thus ‘trickles down’.

Interestingly enough, Givhan opens her lament about ‘ugly fashion’ and its sartorial provocation with the famous soliloquy by Miranda Priestly about the ‘trickle down’ of high fashion into the sales bins of department stores:

But as Entwistle and others have argued, this is not how fashion works in general. ‘Low class’ or ‘ugly fashion’ very much undermines this logic, with non-conform elements being absorbed into high fashion. Does this constitute a ‘trickle-up’ or does it level the fashion playing field? You decide…

The price for the newfound social visibility of previously ‘hidden’ communities is of course the ultimate defusing of their anti-establishment purpose. Punk has been feted at the 2013 Met Gala, aptly entitled ‘From Chaos to Couture’. And Hip Hop is today a million dollar industry.

Visibility clearly comes at a price, and for a price.

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