The front cover of Benjamin Moser’s new biography of Susan Sontag doesn’t have any words on it, just a photograph of Sontag, wearing a leather jacket. The jacket was as legible when the photo was taken as it is now: this is an image of a renegade. Sontag’s not wearing tweed or corduroy; she’s not that kind of intellectual. Instead, with her leather jacket, she signifies that she’s a kind of rebel intellectual that famously preferred erotics to hermeneutics. The jacket’s original association with motorcycle gangs gave it an aura of freedom and potential violence. While they seemed dangerous originally, those associations have become diluted over the years, so what would a contemporary writer wear to show that they are a cool renegade? There’s no obvious answer; in fact, it’s been a while since we had a new garment with the symbolic heft of the leather jacket.
In the past century, eight decades each gave us at least one strong universally comprehensible symbol of naughtiness—and then, in the last 20 years, the well ran dry. Fishnet stockings, leather jackets, sagging jeans, and then, for a long time, nothing. If a filmmaker had to dress a vampire boyfriend without 20th-century markers for his sexy badness, where would she even begin? The pussy and MAGA hats are simple declarations of group identity. Leather jackets don’t suggest the wearer is actually part of a motorcycle gang—they just imbue the wearer with a renegade aura. Billie Eilish’s decorated face mask from the 2020 Grammys is one of our first symbolic garments of the 21st century. Eilish wasn’t actually trying to hide her identity from facial recognition software or attempting to avoid sharing germs with the other attendees. Instead, the mask makes visual reference to the many groups of people who do wear face masks to respond to modern surveillance technologies or modern epidemics. Without joining with any of those groups, she borrowed a bit of their aura to symbolize her rebellious feelings.
It’s not just that there’s no symbolically naughty clothing at the moment, either. In the 1990s, every style of jeans had a meaning. Ripped jeans suggested punk, embroidery on the thighs suggested hippie idealism; one shape of oversized jeans suggested hip-hop while another suggested skaters. There were the jeans Cindy Crawford would wear, and the kind that Anna Nicole Smith would wear, and the details of these differences conveyed auras of meaning onto whoever was wearing them. Sunglasses, too: if Peggy Olson walked out of her job at the end of Mad Men wearing John Lennon-style sunglasses, it would change the meaning of that scene. Same if Audrey Hepburn had worn aviators with mirrored lenses in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The sunglasses in the sunglasses emoji are the same style as Peggy Olson, Edward Cullen in Twilight, and Emma Stone in Easy A. Clothing and accessories used to have such fine-grained associations that there’s a kind of sunglasses that mean, “I know everyone’s watching me, and I don’t care except that I feel pretty good”—and then, we largely stopped making new ones. If someone wanted to signify coolness in an emoji, there’s no updated symbol that could replace those sunglasses.
Our jeans still change styles, but those changes don’t mean anything anymore. Low-waist jeans have been replaced by high-waist jeans, but neither has any meaning about the person wearing them. Contemporary ripped jeans are just an informal version of the same absence of meaning, and while embroidered flowers and peace signs might still suggest a kind of Coachella bohemianism, the association is increasingly commercialized. Nearly every major retailer sells “festival clothes” now. As fewer people learn to sew and more high-end stores sell hippie-inspired styles, boho increasingly means brands like Free People or Anthropologie rather than individual people who made their own new designs or adapted existing styles. Certain styles still maintain the meaning of their original reference, but the transgression of transgressive styles, and the idealism of idealistic styles are all waning. All those meanings are dissipating.
Yoga pants would be a natural heir to the meaningful jeans styles of yesterday because they have moved from the gym to being anywhere clothes. But despite trends in fabrics, patterns, and lengths, there’s no difference between a person who wears floral leggings and someone who wears leggings with mesh patches. The brands signify group identity—Lululemon is famous for obnoxiously defending what kind of person, and what kind of body, fits into their leggings—but almost all brands have clusters of customers, and the stylistic details themselves don’t signify a set of beliefs or attitudes beyond group membership. There’s no symbolic way to wear Lululemon leggings or a MAGA hat—if you’re wearing those things, you’re just very directly wearing the branding associated with the garments.
There are new clothing styles that make watered-down reference to old signifiers—the new mom jeans, the new prairie dresses, new hoodies, new yee-haw agenda cowboy outfits—but no new meanings. Clothing can still signify levels of formality, it can still show a direct group allegiance, but our new styles aren’t designed to go any farther than that.
One obvious explanation for that change is the internet now, and personal branding takes different forms. But there’s another layer to how the internet has changed the way we see each other, not only how we express ourselves.
In the past 20 years, mass culture hasn’t established new countercultural icons to embody feelings people otherwise can’t express. Law-abiding people still sometimes claim a symbolic connection with Bonnie and Clyde, whether it’s Serge Gainsbourg, Beyonce and Jay-Z, or anyone else who isn’t a bank-robber but wants a little of their lawless bad-boy and bad-girl allure without actually claiming that banks ought to be robbed, but the new criminals we admire are usually admirable because they have done something worthy rather than because they symbolize something inexpressible like Bonnie and Clyde or a celebrity gangster. Someone might un-symbolically admire Chelsea Manning or Reality Winner for their civil disobedience, but that’s not the way most people have admired Bonnie and Clyde for the way they symbolize insouciant rebellion. They feel countercultural without actually having done any literal civil disobedience that would affect the culture.
There are famous scammers now, and the stories of Elizabeth Holmes and Anna Delvey getting away with scams can symbolize regular people’s desire to be free of society’s rules around money. As I’ve encountered it, people’s admiration for these scammers seems more distant and ambivalent than the way that previous generations have admired their famous criminals. I haven’t heard anyone claim kinship with Elizabeth Holmes to express any kind of countercultural cool, for instance. It may be that in a few more years, movies like The Queen and Slim will take on the Fyre Festival impresarios as counter-cultural models instead of Bonnie and Clyde, but my sense is that the admiration for our current crop of scammers comes from a different place, more gawking and less symbolically freighted.
The change in how we relate to our criminals is why the disappearance of meaning from our clothes isn’t only about a shift of personal branding from jeans to social media. Cool criminals have largely disappeared in the same years as the auras of our jeans. There are still plenty of violent people, even some good-looking ones like the Hot Felon, but as far as I can tell, people aren’t paying attention because they symbolize profound feelings. There’s no equivalent to Lord Byron or Sid Vicious, maybe not since 50 Cent spent 2000 talking about how he was shot nine times.
Since the internet has lowered the barriers to public speech, people those barriers formerly would have stopped can now speak for themselves, which makes them less appealing as symbols. People from nearly any category of marginalization—any kind of body, any experience—once reduced to narrow symbols can now show what “normal” looks like from their perspective, and it never aligns with their supposed symbolic meaning. So one side of the change is that a lot of people have more avenues to resist being used as symbols for the feelings of others.
At the same time, social media is available to the people who, a generation earlier, might have idolized Christian Slater from Heathers to express their feelings of anger and alienation. There are more ways for people to say what they mean without having to triangulate with another person’s clothing, identity, or crimes. Even where it’s not seen as offensive, as in the aura of the motorcycle jacket or the celebrity criminal, people don’t seem to adopt other people or their clothing so easily as symbols, or to need to. This is a profound change in our culture of perception.
It will be interesting to see if masks like Eilish’s become more broadly popular with a symbolic but not literal connotation of rebellion, or if people will continue using facial-recognition-baffling makeup and masks mainly when they are directly rebelling. Perhaps the mask will also be absorbed and stripped of any rebellious meaning, becoming instead a universal accessory of protection and care.
h/t Erica Nofi.
Catherine Nichols has written for Jezebel many times since 2015.