Our closets are in chaos. Good.
By their shifting wardrobes ye shall know a generation's shifting values
t has been a lot of fun watching the fashion press grapple with the sartorial chaos of 2022.
Two separate pieces in late December really drove home what amazing times we live in. The Cut's Danielle Cohen tackled the abundance of frictionless hyperspecific microtrends in "Could Anyone Keep Track of This Year’s Microtrends?" and summarized: "It’s starting to feel like the focus is less on the clothes themselves than on the moods or characters we want them to represent."
Building on that: the Washington Post, Ashley Fetters Malloy used Gen Z to pry open a wider discussion "The Chaos Theory of Gen Z Fashion" and concluded that every generation is dressing in reaction to both the times they live in and the generations they view as screwing up the world. The Zoomers, she wrote, "emerged from the pandemic era simultaneously euphoric and world-weary, ready to both participate again in the world as they knew it before and burn it all down."
Louise Belcher, Gen Z icon
As a Gen Xer, I'm characterized in the WaPo piece as engaging in the "willful disharmony" of grunge and politically shaped by "a kind of slightly cynical take on the failures of boomer politics to achieve what it had set out to." So let me lean right into that cynicism by quoting late Vogue writer and archetypical Boomer Julia Reed, whose 1995 piece for Vogue, "Portrait of Lady," is an example of then-dominant media forces deciding it was time to move on from those tacky clashing cynical young people. She wrote:
Nobody wants to see your flabby thighs any more than they want to see your politics worn literally on your sleeve. But we go through these very unfortunate and often actually dangerous periods of puritanism in this country when looking nice is equaled with possession by the devil or being Nancy Reagan. Everybody is supposed to lock up their jewelry and sit around looking depressed about the environment in clothes with the seams on the outside.
This essay is available in her posthumous collection Dispatches from the Gilded Age, and like many posthumous writers' collections, it has the feeling of a time capsule. But this passage feels timeless. It could have been written after one too many trips to San Francisco spent counting the Allbirds on people's feet, the cropped Everlane culottes on their bodies, and the boiled-egg silhouettes of electric cars gliding through the streets. The aesthetics of thoughtful engagement often wobble over the fine line between "polished" and "boring."
The creative lead responsible for curating a thoughtful, sustainable colo(u)r palette.
An obvious and disruptive refutation would be to sever the symbiotic relationship between the aesthetic seesaw of chaos and polish and the cultural seesaw of revolution and reformation. It reads like an SAT analogy. Clashing prints : cynicism :: greige capsule wardrobe : ________.
The cultural talk through much of 2022 was around "vibe shifts" -- a longing to move away from the current cultural moment and murder it by dint of calling it "dated." The hope seems to be that by hitting a reboot or revival button on cultural norms, we can reset the underlying society that spawned those cultural norms.
Unfortunately, vibe shifts only work when something new comes along with a narrative that can out-compete or replace existing stories we tell about ourselves through our consumption patterns. In August 2022, Venkatesh Rao articulated the trouble with a presumed vibe shift thusly:
The weird thing about the last few years is that the general atmosphere has been charged with energies that feel like they should spark trends, but don’t … The energy is coherent energy that doesn’t have a specific direction to flow, and so it sort of dissipates as an expanding cloud of energized, supercharged, supersaturated cultural behavior that remains curiously unimpactful.
When I read that, I was reminded of William Gibson's 1999 novel, All Tomorrow's Parties, wherein one of the main characters argues that trend forecasters and marketing companies couldn't leave alternative subcultures along long enough for the culture part of a subculture to flourish:
A certain crucial growing period was lost, as marketing evolved and the mechanisms of recommodification became quicker, more rapacious. Authentic subcultures required backwaters, and time, and there are no more backwaters.
"There are no more backwaters" may as well be the slogan for the World Web and social media.
However, I don't believe we're in a cultural moment of becalmed horse latitudes. I think we're actually in the early stages of a huge cultural transition. We won't be able to see it accurately -- after all, nobody went swanning around the Age of Enlightenment in their meter-high wigs kvelling, "I feel enlightened now! Thanks, logic and reason!" If we're lucky, we'll be like the poor dolts Plato inexplicably chained in the cave, watching the shifting shapes of the flickering shadows and trying to figure out what changes are a quirk of the firelight and what changes are rooted in a genuinely different thing we don't yet have the tools to perceive.
Live footage of high schoolers learning the allegory of the cave.
In the meantime, you can safely ignore the attempted comeback of the 2000s-era dirtbag fashion. We're in a chaotic free-for-all and it'll be fun to keep the retailers and the arbiters of taste guessing what it all means.
Lisa, thanks as always. I have watched the Gens (XYZ whatever) wear new torn jeans, skinnies, bell bottoms, high waist slacks, shorts not covering behinds, shorts to knees, mini, maxi, midi dresses... like trying to dress to make a statement. But what statement? Nobody seems to wear the stuff I see on line. So your article is timely.