On Wednesday, a review of Fall/Winter 2020 collections by the CBC praised designers like Marc Jacobs and Marine Serre for creating “practical clothes that people want to wear.” At Marine Serre, models were covered head-to-toe in voluminous garments bereft of color. They wore gloves and high-fashion face masks as a nod to coronavirus anxiety. At Marc Jacobs, models wore giant coats over roomy dresses, everything sadly practical, even the pastels made a bit gloomy by monochromatic monotony. Most high-fashion looks this year have been heavy on sweater-vests and giant double-breasted outerwear. Oversized, sleeved, wool, and sturdy, with nary a midriff or sequin or feather in sight. It’s all very tasteful. The muted colors and boxy cuts could go from board meeting to cocktail reception to Connecticut funeral without raising a single eyebrow.
This conspicuous performance of good taste is ubiquitous off the runways as well. Everyone from teenagers to bar patrons to officemates seems sartorially prepared at all times to receive bad news in somber turtlenecks, oversized tees and solid-color hooded sweatshirts paired with straight-legged pants boasting conservatively high waists. I recently read somewhere that ankle boots are finished, which is evidenced by the fact that overnight, we all seem to have purchased identical pairs of practical black Doc Martens. The rise of athleisure means that even at the gym or on hiking trails, leggings and tanks are perfectly matched. Everyone not wearing the Doc Martens now owns the same pair of sensible, lightweight black Nikes and perhaps one pair of trendy but not flashy chunky white sneakers.
Maybe it’s the times. Designers are struggling to shake off criticisms of the frivolous fashion industry’s history of contributing to global warming, and so their clothes have become the color of dirt in order to signify their Earth-friendly sustainability. Perhaps non-fashion industry folk are concerned with seeming too loud, even with their clothing choices, because America’s president is a technicolor human bullhorn whose supporters display their loyalty with garish blood-red hats. Meanwhile, everyone who disagrees is attempting to wordlessly relay that protest through earth-tones and frumpy white sneakers.
This communal mourning attire bridging the gap between high fashion and regular people is new. In the early 2000s, Paris Hilton was our nation’s Barbie in head-to-toe confection colors, complete with candy floss hair and tiny dog accessory. The public hated and loved her for it, making her a perfume-shilling tycoon while lambasting her vapidity in the headlines.
As recently as 2014, I remember scrolling through Moschino’s Spring 2015 collection from a cubed-off desk in an office where most things—the ceiling tiles, the desktops, the wall of our cubes—were the color of tofu, contrasted only by our black computers, black chairs, and black conference desk. That year, Moschino’s reimagined Barbie for grown-ups lit up my computer screen with models in short-sleeved, aggressively pink cropped moto jackets that would serve no function whatsoever in cool weather, yet would be much too stifling for sun, belts pointlessly encircling naked rib cages, and shirts that read “Moschino for ages 5 and over.”
“This is so dumb,” I remember thinking of the bouffant-ed models, dressed in clothes the colors of a friendship bracelet and identical Barbie pumps, as I scrolled through the slideshow over and over. I didn’t mean dumb in a bad way. The colors, the styling, and even the silly little phrases on the t-shirts were a very welcome, very stupid distraction from two-toned, 9-to-5 professionalism.
Though the runways hadn’t yet caught up, 2014 was the year when everyone in New York under 30 seemed to decide in unison that color was over, high-waisted black Levi’s were the only pants worth owning, and sad-looking tofu sweaters were the only acceptable topper for that dreary lower half. Even as many younger workers fled boring offices for startups in cooler, colorful loft spaces, they took the corporate color scheme with them, dressing in work colors even for fun. Perhaps the turn toward utilitarianism owed to the fact that millennials were and remain cash-strapped and need wardrobes that camouflage their economic insecurity. Those black pants and beige tops could have cost a fortune, or they could have cost nothing at all.
Fashion is cyclical, taking its cues from the trappings of young city-dwelling tastemakers and repackaging them, with cleaner lines and a higher price tags, to sell back to rich people as an original idea before the trendy youths move on to avoid looking like the grown-ups and the whole cycle begins again. Except it’s now 2020, and we seem to be stuck. The tastemakers are still in those baggy Levi’s and thrift store Carhartt jackets, and the fashion houses’ runway shows look like a 1980s memorial service for an elderly stockbroker.
As the Kardashians have moved into Paris Hilton’s place at the nation’s revered and reviled pretty rich girls, they seem to have adopted a stark aesthetic almost as armor against criticism. In contrast to Hilton’s sparkly, tacky, party posturing, the Kardashians radiate expensive joylessness. They are a reflection of the catwalks, the sidewalks, and the somber headlines. Kim Kardashian-West and Kanye’s house looks like they were too afraid of gaucheness to decorate, hoping bare walls and the odd expensive chair will denote wealth without opening room for allegations of thoughtless tackiness. How can something be in bad taste if there’s nothing there?
When we begin to catalog this moment in fashion, tastelessness, not bad taste just the absence of choice, might actually be the style for which millennials are remembered. We started off so strong—all those exposed midriffs and horrible skinny scarfs dressed over jeans—bad decisions that seemed primed to inspire nostalgic throwback fashion in 20 years’ time. Maybe the shitty mid-2000s economy and fears that we will never have enough money to retire, let alone risk a splurge on an ugly pair of pants, got to us, leaving millennials too scared to make any missteps. Even our pink—prefixed “Millennial” for its ubiquity in things marketed to Gen Y—is barely even a color contrasted with the tacky fun the color conveyed on Paris Hilton or Barbie. Even Moschino is all grown up now, playing with serious adult color palettes and tasteful homages to Marie Antoinette. No one could call it dumb, and that’s sad.
Back in January, Jean-Paul Gaultier, the longstanding arbiter of thoughtful tackiness retired by throwing himself a fashion funeral, looking back on his history of attention-grabbing creations like the cone bra and BDSM daywear. It felt larger than just Gaultier’s retirement. The death of frivolous bad taste leaves very little room for dumb fun. Right now I would really love the distraction.