Fashion in 2017 Was Ruled by Bad Taste, but Why?
Fashion used to be able to tell right from wrong. Glossy magazines, runway photos and street style were supposed to let us know what we should and shouldn’t wear. Like a velvet rope separating the ones who are in from the ones who are out, fashion was about looking attractive and feeling exclusive. This hierarchical idea, prominent for most of the 20th century, now seems hopelessly outdated. The hierarchy, of course, is still there — particularly when it comes to body shape, race and gender — but in our digitally-powered world, the idea of taste is going through a major transformation.
2017 was the year that fashion was ruled by bad taste; by the revolting, outrageous and over the top. We’ve entered a new era of maximalism, where it’s acceptable to wear everything at once, to mix styles, patterns and colors to glorious excess. Gone are the days of sleek and nondescript Alexander Wang and early YEEZY numbers; today it’s more about rainbow-colored Gucci tracksuits and vintage Kappa sportswear. This kaleidoscope of over-the-top looks raises the question: what actually is bad taste, and why do we find it so thrilling?
Shiny shirts, in-your-face logos, flame print, cowboy boots and snakeskin jackets; in 2017 we’ve seen it all, in the most unpredictable combinations and with the most ridiculous price tags. The climax came, of course, at the hand of Demna Gvasalia, when Crocs appeared on the SS18 Balenciaga runway. It was not just the world’s ugliest shoe as it is, but a hyper-Croc with a 10-inch platform, in pink, green and yellow and adorned with an array of childish pins. It was not the first time that Crocs were appropriated by high fashion — Christopher Kane decorated them with gemstones in his SS17 show — but it hit the spot. Balenciaga’s Crocs generated headlines, memes, outrage and confusion. It was cynical, it was business-minded, it was a piss-take. It was right on time.
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A lot of fashion critics wrote off this bad taste renaissance simply as a revival of ’00s style. It rings true: previously-despised Juicy Couture two-pieces, Kappa trackies and Von Dutch caps have regained cultural cache. There is nothing new to this; in the cycle of fashion, things that were repulsive become desirable, and thanks to the accelerated tempo of the industry, the memories of that repulsion are still fresh as we put those garments on.
However, this new trend is bigger than simple cultural revivalism. The Gvasalia brothers, Alessandro Michele and LVMH executives know better than anyone that ugly and tasteless make headlines and help to sustain much-needed hype. They’re certainly not the only ones using this strategy. Lou Stoppard described the trend in a recent piece for The Financial Times, titled “Why is fashion so ugly?”.
“Much of the clothing on display at the SS18 shows was deliciously horrid. It was warped and awkward. It wobbled and flapped its way down the runway: trousers puddled at the ankles at Y/Project; bulbous tumour-like creations prolapsed from seemingly normal garments at Rick Owens; Christopher Kane, the designer responsible for rehabilitating the Croc as a style statement last year, offered shoes that looked like cleaning mops. Every catwalk seemed to offer a giant, clumpy trainer, oversized fleeces or coats wrapped in plastic like wipe-clean sofas”.
Ugly is the new normal. But while ugly is a matter of aesthetic judgement, bad taste is different — it’s shaped by social stigma, and the destruction of the boundaries between high and low culture. To get to the core of the issue, we need to ask ourselves: what is taste?
Sociology defines taste as an individual’s patterns of choice and preference. Taste is drawing distinctions between things. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, good taste is defined as “good or discerning judgement, especially with regard to what is aesthetically pleasing, fashionable, polite, or socially appropriate.” We often think of taste as something intuitive and individual, but it’s a concept shaped by society and its rules.
Our idea of bad taste originates in the cultural spaces of trailer parks, suburban malls and lower-middle class domestic spaces, even if we’re not aware of it. In fact, one of the most poignant examples of “bad” taste this year came not from Gucci or Balenciaga, but from Burberry: the house brought back its notorious beige check cap, which was discontinued in 2004 for its association in the UK with football hooligans, casuals and chavs. Bringing back the iconic light-beige plaid pattern is poignant in itself: originally reserved for the upper classes, it became bootlegged so much and in such outrageous ways that it provided enough subject matter for a whole photo book (Berberry by Toby Leigh, published by Ditto Press in 2015). Seeking an edgier, more timely and rejuvenated look, Burberry was suddenly keen to celebrate these low-culture affiliations.
We also shouldn’t forget that fashion’s obsession with bad taste is not bad taste as it is, but an orchestrated imitation. High-end bad taste has its own rules, and it’s never sloppy — in fact, you have to try very hard to look “bad” in just the right way. Certain items are officially allowed into the category of acceptable bad taste, like Vetements tracksuits, cowboy boots and speed-dealer sunglasses. Some counterfeit Louis Vuitton might pass, but you’re not able to get away with Uggs just yet.
A trip to a local discount store also wouldn’t do, either — bad taste verified by Gucci or Balenciaga is going to cost you big bucks. Cutting-edge tackiness also heavily relies on styling: for example, to avoid looking like a guest of a cheap wedding, a shiny suit needs to be combined with just the right sneakers and just the right outerwear. High-end labels like Gucci, Calvin Klein and Balenciaga borrow the aesthetic of tastelessness in the same way they’d reimagine the dress code of a historic subculture. It’s a tireless search for the exotic other, just like our obsession with working-class aesthetics or the fictional spaces of Gosha Rubchinskiy’s Russia.
The alien and exotic nature of tastelessness was at the centre of “The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined,” an exhibition at London’s Barbican in 2016. “Most will never genuinely think of themselves as vulgar; “the vulgar” are always others”, says Jana Melkumova-Reynolds, doctoral researcher in culture, media and creative industries at King’s College London. “And whenever one “does” vulgarity purposefully, through fashion, it’s a form of masquerade, an attempt to imagine and embody that other. If you speak in cultural studies’ terms, vulgarity is a form of cultural appropriation; almost blackfacing.”
Society is undergoing major transformations, and ideas of class, nationality, labor and progress are gradually receding or being redefined. If bad taste can become good fashion, it means that the categories of low and high culture don’t have restrictive power anymore. It’s hard to abandon the concepts of “us” and “them”, but at least it’s good to know that they can switch places at any moment.
We also shouldn’t forget that in the last couple of years, fashion fell for people like Demna Gvasalia and Virgil Abloh — guys who were seeking to disrupt and reinvent the system. And although the impact of their work is serious, it couldn’t have happened without a great deal of irony. Bootlegging Champion, photographing high-end garments on ordinary Zurich passers-by, selling hijacked Ralph Lauren garments as your own (as Abloh did with his first label, Pyrex Vision) — it was rebellion, but it was also a good laugh. In 2017, we might have finally learned to look at the fashion system with a sense of irony, to admit that sometimes it’s just a game of vanity and attention. What’s the fun in playing if you always play it safe?
Today it’s either go big or go home. Risk to be ridiculous or become invisible.
In the end, there’s another factor behind our obsession with bad taste, one that overcomes social and cultural analysis. Dressing whack is just incredibly fun, and an ultimate guilty pleasure. “People are drawn to bad taste fashion because — well it’s so bad, it’s good”, says Vogue news writer Liana Satenstein, who has been covering the topic with enduring interest for the last few years.
“It’s probably just as cringey and fascinating for some people to see how something like a square toe shoe, for example, has become a trend on the runways due to brands like Balenciaga and Calvin Klein. A few years ago, women wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a monogrammed bag — it was too reminiscent with the whale-tailing years of Paris Hilton that we would all rather forget. But now, more than ever you have brands resurfacing their monograms i.e. creating full jackets out of it (hello, Vuitton!) I think the best example right now is Y/Project stylist Ursina Gysi. Her Instagram is the anti-fashion. It’s almost as she uses MS Paint to cut out her body and then plasters it on a bad karaoke background. It should be so uncool, but she has a way of owning it, along with her monogrammed bags, and making it cool again. And we’re embracing that.”
Today our culture is narrated by memes and insta-stories, so there’s no such thing as true, unspoiled seriousness anymore. Gone are the days when one could be serious about fashion 24/7 — in the age of post-truth politics and all-encompassing political crises, it just doesn’t make any sense.
Joining this new tackiness trend means you’re aware of the current state of the fashion industry and the world, you’re in on the joke, and, most importantly, don’t care about boring things like looking “good.”
Today, lacking self-awareness is perhaps the only thing that’s actually bad taste.
Next up, find out why 2017 is the year fashion pushed normcore to the extreme.