Why We Stay Ugly

By Landuo Yuan

From unflattering, bulky silhouettes and monochromatic palettes to mix-matched patterns and accessories reminiscent of the disastrous early 2000s, a style wholly unconventional to the history of high fashion has gained incredible momentum in the social media age, restlessly trickling up and down the consumer chain until a few daring souls began to question – is this just another game of “The Emperor’s New Groove”, where every influencer rules their own kingdom of followers succumbing to any eye-dropping trend, even if it calls for rhinestone embellished fanny packs?

Balenciaga Fall 2016 RTW

Picture this – you’re standing in the Met’s Costume Institute’s Spring Exhibition. Yes, the one with Rei Kawakubo’s brilliant cocoon dresses and deconstructed garments setting a fire under your fabric-hoarding, jewelry-DIYing, Elsa-Schiaparelli-memoir-reading ass. Your twitter livestream of the Met Gala was so precise (“nobody followed the theme!!1!111!”) that your friends from Texas actually thought you were there. Crouching between tourists, you try to capture an angle which will give an edge to your instagram post compared to all your fashion school peers, when you overhear a pair of fur-lined Gucci loafers scoff – “I really just don’t get this” – in despair, “it looks like she made it from scraps.”

4 minutes later, the exact same pair of Gucci loafers runs to the merchandise kiosk and purchases several distressed Comme Des Garcons shirts and a $75 brown paper tote bag, praising frantically on social media the “avant-garde beauty” conveyed through garments which she just referred to as scraps, all in the hopes of portraying an aesthetic connection with who is now one of the most respected creative geniuses in the western world, thanks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s tasteful endorsement.

With dozens of sights like these permeating New York City daily, one can’t help but wonder – when and why did we start embracing what was once considered “ugly” fashion? Are we seeking individuality, or simply attention?

Those who support the latter, such as Quartz, argue that several high fashion brands now attract dazed consumers with new pieces which are “often deliberately gawky and ungainly, in a clamor of lurid or mismatched colors that knock about glaringly in an outfit”. Namely, the Gucci loafer previously mentioned. No longer constrained by the concept of a “statement piece”, fashion-forward influencers began to style several loud, unique pieces within an outfit, in an effort to achieve harmony among chaos. This styling technique, along with their jaw-dropping pieces, quickly trickled both up to high fashion designers and down to trend-savvy consumers.

Paris Fashion Week Street Style, F/W 2017

But what about self-expression? The wholesome intention that so many claim as inspiration to their impeccable style? The need to form and convey an identity through what one chooses to dangle from one’s body? Surely such an authentic approach to fashion could not be dismissed as a superficial call for attention. In New York we embrace all sub-cultures and thus all fashions which spring from it, even calling out appropriation when necessary – we are so hyper-aware of fashion’s relation to one’s identity that we would do anything, wear anything to make ourselves stand out, be perceived as interesting, thoughtful, and unique – anything but basic.

Vika Gazinskaya Spring 2018 RTW

Sadly, gone were the days of visionary celebrity/designer power duos such as Gaga and McQueen. Welcome to the age of instagram marketing campaigns, where fame is quantitatively measured by follower count and post impressions. Demographics instead of threads are dissected backstage for trend-forecasting purposes – the line between contemporary and avant-garde blurs as fast fashion giants start to highlight deconstructed jackets and blocky pants in store windows and “customized” online ads. Soon, everyone on the streets of SoHo and their mothers are channelling their inner Public School and Vika Gazinskaya, desperate for a street style snapshot that will allow them to rise to the ranks of an influencer, a personal brand, or even, in their wildest dreams, an internet celebrity.

In 3018, our descendants may look back on normcore, Demna Gvasalia, and Balenciaga’s Men’s ad campaigns wondering why we succumbed to “ugliness” for decades on end. More likely though, they will be VR-posting on flying ubers with their Google Glasses and iPhone 3000s, hoping to generate some sort of worldwide buzz through every outfit, persisting just as their ancestors did – staying fashionable, staying non-basic, and staying unapologetically ugly.

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