ART Kimberlee Kessler
It was in the height of the European summer that I first noticed something was going on with fashion. My friend texted me a picture of two baseball caps at a vintage store in East London. The first, a fire-emblazoned VETEMENTS number, the second a hot pink camo print creation made by Stephen Jones in the mid-2000s.
“Which one should I get?” she asked. “Or should I just get both!?”
This friend was once a paragon of minimalist dressing – her outfits a regular swirl of camel trench coats, crisp white shirts and sturdy black leather loafers. Now, she was haggling Depop sellers for tattoo print Jean Paul Gaultier, pairing neon yellow Adidas basketball shorts with leopard print crop tops, and saving up for Nodaleto’s chunky red platform Mary Janes (price-tag: $1,000+).
She’s not alone.
Elsewhere, my Instagram feed was filled with disco ball mini dresses from Saks Potts, neon green PVC sandals from Amina Muaddi, and fluffy lavender bucket hats. There was Dua Lipa wearing a cut-out lycra bodysuit, Bella Hadid rocking giant ‘BELLA’ hoop earrings, and Rihanna in kitschy Hawaiian shirts and cut-off jorts. It was as if the pandemic had opened the proverbial floodgates, and every signifier of “bad taste” from the last decade had exploded in a flurry of clashing prints, kitschy accessories and bizarre color textures.
It seems like only yesterday we were applauding the muted minimalism of Kendall Jenner in her tailored, logo-free The Row get-ups. So what changed?
“I think after the pandemic, the idea of dressing in the overly-styled way that we’ve been doing for the last 10 years feels outdated,” says my Gaultier-obsessed friend. “Most of us haven’t worked in an office for 18 months, we’re not wearing heels, we’re not wearing shirting or tailoring. It’s the perfect time to have more fun and experiment with fashion.”
It makes sense. The pandemic may not have been the “great equalizer” Hollywood stars promised, but it did temporarily undermine the need for fashion as social performance. Why show off your expensive designer shoes at a moment when so many people are out of work and financially anxious? Besides, nothing showcases the senselessness of spending hundreds of dollars on clothes to show off to people you don’t particularly enjoy the company of like a global health crisis that keeps you isolated from those who truly love you. Locked away in our own little pods, the groupthink of modern fashion evaporated.
“What I love about this new way of dressing is that it’s fun and flirty, and the opposite of what we’ve been previously told is fashionable,” my friend continues. “For the last ten years, it’s been all about the ‘Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen’ thing where everything is slouchy and beige. If I’m being honest, I’ve often found that style quite intimidating and inaccessible. When you’re only wearing a pair of tailored trousers and a white T-shirt, it’s suddenly important that it’s the right pair of trousers, or the right T-shirt. Now, fashion feels like it’s about wearing whatever the hell you want, whenever you feel like wearing it. It’s extremely liberating.”
Plus, for millennials like my friend and I, watching Gen Z-ers rediscover the joys of ‘Noughties’ fashion on TikTok has inspired a newfound nostalgia for Y2K dressing. Low-rise jeans, exposed G-strings, velour tracksuits, and Ugg boots have all made comebacks this year. Hadid is the face of the newly relaunched Miss Sixty, Ugg is partnering with the likes of Molly Goddard and Y-Project, and Juicy Couture is selling out across the internet. Marc Jacobs’ newly-launched diffusion label HEAVEN is an early Noughties fever dream, where he sells vintage prints of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides alongside baby tees, tartan mini-skirts, and shrunken cardigans.
Jacobs recently announced a capsule collection with Devon Lee Carlson – creator of the psychedelic Wildflower phone cases, BFF of Hadid and Miley Cyrus, and bonafide neo-Noughties dream girl. Carlson’s wardrobe staples include vintage Anna Sui and Blumarine, leather newsboy caps, and mini baguette bags. She mixes new-season ready-to-wear pieces from the likes of Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Prada with no-name vintage pieces found in thrift stores and on Etsy. Depop – now the preferred means of shopping for a generation obsessed with individuality, who find the muted tones of Instagram anathema to genuine style – is awash with one-off pieces from Stella McCartney-era Chloé, Gianni-era Versace, and Tom Ford-era Gucci. Whereas traditional influencer culture relied on the notion that you need to own the precise pieces your favorite influencers wear in order to be stylish, the new guard are encouraging their followers to embrace their own tastes – the more eclectic, the better.
It’s this ethos that earns 2021’s new style sensibility the moniker “bad taste”. The rarefied world of fashion relies on the notion that there is a “right” way of doing things – the right brand, the right shoe, the right color – and that those who deviate do so because they lack the relevant knowledge. It’s an inherently elitist idea, one that is often weaponized against those not born into wealth to demonstrate some supposedly inherent lack of style or character. As Raven Smith put it in his 2020 book Trivial Pursuits: “taste is a made up system of codes deliberately designed to stop people ascending socially.”
Thankfully, the industry has regularly pushed back against this idea. In the 80s we saw “bad taste” elevated to dizzying heights: Jean Paul Gaultier made the ‘cone bra’ haute couture; Karl Lagerfeld took the tasteful string of pearls that characterised the early century Chanel woman and piled them on in kitschy layers; Versace gave us lashings of gold atop garish scarf prints and leopard motifs. It was no coincidence that this trend accompanied the rapid upward mobility of the middle class, accelerated by the roaring success of Reagan-era economic prosperity. The explosion of ‘new money’ – best exemplified by Donald and Ivana Trump, who lived in a gilded tower but appeared in ads for Pizza Hut – was accompanied by fashion that made one’s wealth and status immediately obvious. When the early 90s was rocked by a global recession, the economic uncertainty was accompanied by a disdain for all the trappings of 80s money-worship. Grunge replaced glam-rock, Carolyn Bessette’s discrete Calvin Klein wardrobe became the new uniform of the uber-rich, and Kate Moss and her slip dresses became the height of nonchalant elegance.
Everything changed again with the advent of the internet. Or, at least, with the primitive stages of the digital news cycle. The turn of the millennium ushered in the democratization of information and the quick dissemination of tabloid fodder. In 1999, conversative bloggers had helped break the Lewinsky scandal. By 2004, Perez Hilton and TMZ had launched, most of their early reporting centred around a 21-year-old Paris Hilton. There’s no question Hilton was mistreated by the new digital tabloids, but she also expertly courted them, using the whims of the new fashion climate to do so. In the burgeoning 24/7 news cycle, relevance hinged on newness, so Hilton created a rule for herself, one she still adheres to to this day: she never wears the same thing twice. With a magpie-like sartorial sensibility she gravitated towards items that were pink, rhinestone embellished, lined with marabou, or skin-baring (often all at once), guaranteeing her continued media relevance. Hilton presented a unique spectacle: as the daughter of an esteemed American family she held the prestige of ‘old money’ and yet she dressed like the archetypal ‘new money’ bimbo. While Ivanka Trump named her children ‘Theodore’ and ‘Arabella’ and took to wearing soft blouses and pencil skirts, Hilton wore $40 Von Dutch hats and T-shirts that read “I <3 SHOES AND BAGS AND BOYS”.
Which brings us to the inevitable moot point in all discussions of taste – class. “It’s almost impossible to talk about ‘bad taste’ without talking about class,” says Ione Gamble, editor of the cult zine Polyester, which was founded on the ethos ‘Have faith in your own bad taste’. “Part of the reason I launched Polyester was because I saw a real hierarchy in fashion at the time. If you liked Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons – brands that embraced that minimalist aesthetic – it instantly gave you intellectual points that you didn’t get if you were interested in brands like Miu Miu, Meadham Kirchhoff and Luella, which I just found ridiculous. I loved the idea of creating something that celebrated “bad taste”, which, to me, is just about embracing what you like unashamedly, and ignoring what anyone else tells you to like.”
Gamble cites the legendary film director John Waters, and his muse, the actor, singer, and drag queen Divine, as ongoing inspiration for Polyester. Waters is the famous poster child for bad taste as high art – his films Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Cry-Baby pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable to show on screen, and went on to become cult cinematic classics.
“John Waters and Divine were kind of scrappy,” says Gamble. “They weren’t rich kids, and it took a long time for his art to be recognized because of that.”
In this sense, the return of “bad taste” should be a democratizing force on fashion. And it is affecting fashion. Far from a simple Instagram trend, “so-bad-it’s-good” style has already found itself in the collections of our generation’s most esteemed designers. For JW Anderson’s Resort 2022 collection, Jonathan Anderson showed navy tracksuits covered in strawberry prints and lavender longjohns, worn with knee-high socks and neon poolsides. For Fall/Winter 2021, Miu Miu sent models into the Dolomites mountain where Miuccia Prada had “skied in her bikini” as a teenager (is there anything chicer?) to show a collection complete with pink knitted snoods, thigh-high furry boots, bubble-hemmed dresses, quilted leotards and heeled clogs. At Balenciaga, Demna Gvaslia’s forays into bad taste fashion include hotel slippers fashioned into heels, camo print fleece gilets, and a high-end version of *those* toe shoes. These collections are a hodgepodge of disparate parts that somehow, in spite of themselves, work perfectly together. This is perhaps as close as one can come to defining “bad taste” properly: the touch of wrongness that turns out to be inexplicably right. After all, Waters did say that “to understand bad taste one must have very good taste.”
The opportunity to have fun with fashion again is particularly tempting after almost two years where bursts of fun have been few and far between. Granted, fashion does tend to come in 20-year cycles and we were due a Noughties Renaissance.
But this current style moment feels more profound than that. The pandemic has shaken the foundations of what many of us thought to be universal truths. Our sense of stability, security, and certainty has altered, impacted not only by the health crisis, but by the myriad of other reckonings our society faced during its year spent indoors. After this shared experience, our relationship with fashion was bound to change.
“Before the pandemic, I was already getting quite fed up with the ‘Instagram aesthetic’ – it felt as if everyone was dressing the exact same way, and it felt like the opposite of style because it was so homogenous,” my friend tells me. “Now I look at people like Bella Hadid and Dua Lipa, and the way they throw clothes together feels so original and organic. It’s like they’re wearing what makes them feel happy instead of what they think will please the algorithm. It’s the first time I’ve been really inspired by fashion in ages.”
Gamble agrees. “Seeing people on the internet who are able to confidently be themselves, who don’t care about other people’s perceptions about whether or not they’re ‘fashionable’, has always been hugely inspiring to me,” she says.
Besides, as the old saying goes (originated by Diana Vreeland, and immortalized by Byranboy on Twitter): “We all need a splash of bad taste… no taste is what I’m against.”