They used to be called ‘crows’ said Suzy Menkes of the attendees of fashion shows dressed in the chicest widow’s weeds from Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto. Now they could just as easily be called clowns, as the current dictum seems to be any colour so long as it’s not black, with ridiculous shoes, statement lipstick and brightly coloured hair all de rigueur.
Whether you see it as virtue or vice, there is no denying that social media has changed the fashion world irrevocably. Look at old pictures of editors who are street style all-stars now, and you will see they weren’t always so photogenic; for the audience, a fashion event used to be about buying into clothes and ideas, they still are but you’re expected to sell yourself too. Of course, there have always been women who stood out from the crowd – the Piaggis, Blows and Yaegers of the world, women who were noticeable specifically for their peacocking tendencies. They were the ones who could be relied upon to question the status quo by wearing total looks straight from the catwalk, or a couture creation normally reserved for the red carpet; but now it seems ugly is the new black and it’s being worn to death.
Of course it wasn’t always thus, the nineties were a time of restrained minimalism that led to a celebration of delicate girlishness, sexiness and power – all of which were handled in an explicit way. When the recession rendered the haves and the have nots further apart than ever in 2008, the world of fashion was as effected as every other industry based on built-in obsolescence. Suddenly there was a trend for inconspicuous consumption and so for a while we were presented with collections that were restrained and polite to the point of being insipid while designers tested the waters around their wealthy clienteles’ spending power. Minimalism was once again key and classic pieces – albeit made of cashmere, silk and the finest leather – were the order of the day, if only so as to appear in tune with the world.
But designers have to give the people what they want, and it seems that whatever the economic climate people want fashion to be a fantasy. And so, gradually we saw a return to the exciting, exuberant ideals of days gone by – at Celine, Phoebe Philo, that great bellwether of what women want, demonstrated a particularly perverse sense of humour when she presented court shoes in super plush mink dyed vibrant yellow and red - that were redolent of a certain fast food chain, or at least the condiments that are splashed on its burgers. Furry footwear is surely one of the most impractical concepts ever, especially for those of us who live in a rain-lashed land like England, and yet it took off with aplomb. And while there are still brands that idolise glamour or traditional ideals of sex and gender above all else the backlash against them is gathering pace with pieces that in the words of Dolly Parton: 'cost a lot of money to look this cheap.'
Of course, it’s almost impossible to talk about the rise of ugly fashion without mentioning the ‘n-word’. Normcore was coined last year but came to prominence when New York magazine ran an article February of this year defining it as ‘stylized blandness’ shorthand for the sort of plain, simple and often downright ugly way that people were dressing. But, it was decided, this isn’t just the sort of dressing that prioritises comfort over style for people who don’t care – it’s anti-fashion as fashion statement.
Is that the sort of world we live in now? One in which it’s so important to define someone by the way they dress, that every decision about style has to be perceived as a conscious one? It seems that as fashion becomes further commodifed it’s more important than ever that we buy into the ideal behind the brand – not just something that we like the look of, or heaven forbid think would be flattering.
In fact it seems that flattery is the furthest thing from many designers’ minds, as they push the boundaries of classical taste. But fashion ugly isn’t just the antithesis of traditional ideas of beauty – its current incarnation alludes to intelligence and social comment heavily laced with irony. We’ve got the same approach as the more is more eighties, but the current mode is wrapped up in intellectualism and the avant-garde rather than the fur and diamonds of yesteryear. Have we become so insecure in our celebration of the classically beautiful that we are looking for messages that aren’t even there and is the celebration of the weird and wonderful, the naff and nouveau in danger of tipping over in to pastiche?
The rise of ugly fashion is a symptom of the speed with which the industry now operates – anyone can see collections in real time and the high street knock offs are often in store within weeks so that by the time the catwalk version is ensconced in its carefully designed boutique window it has inevitably been sullied in some way by these associations. The way once exciting designs are distilled into the most easily-digestible fashion fodder cheapens them in our perception; the shock of the new can never be underestimated but it’s wrong when the original somehow feels old hat.
But there’s a difference between something we see as ugly because it is so unusual, and the blatant use of pop culture and low-brow, mass-market references in order to create some sort of shocking appeal. How else would you explain Jeremy Scott’s first collection for Moschino? With its references to McDonalds, Hershey’s and Budweiser it was deemed scandalous, and divided opinion in the fashion world, with both sides sneering about whether the other ‘got it’ or was being ‘taken for a ride’.
A sort of quasi-puritanism has settled over fashion of late – designers are asked not only to push the limits of their creativity every season but to make social commentary with every step. Fashion has always held a mirror up to society at large, but is what it now reflects in danger of cracking the glass?