Fashions change. That’s kind of the point, after all.
What’s considered flattering or beautiful in one era is seen as silly in another. Yet many trend chroniclers, ostensibly on the cutting edge, remain hopelessly attached to classic notions of beauty and design. They have deemed a whole class of popular clothes and shoes—from Allbirds and Birkenstocks to fanny packs and prairie dresses—”ugly.”
Let’s end the charade this year. Everyone knows beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and most of us can admit that beholding something often enough can change our perception. Nothing is inherently beautiful or ugly—it’s culture that makes it so. And cultures are in a constant state of transformation.
Some classic brands, like Gucci, play with notions of ugliness on purpose, juxtaposing unlikely pieces and clashing patterns. Challenging conventional wisdom is an artist’s job, which is why Dries Van Noten, for example, makes deliberately “off” clothing. The sublime is secondary to surprise for him, so he chooses what he doesn’t like and works with what’s displeasing until it pleases him. This game of deliberate ungainliness can change consumers’ ideas of what’s cool. Fashion and its fans have been experiencing this transformation for at least a few years, as Quartz’s Marc Bain has noted.
That’s why it no longer makes sense to call trends that are widely embraced and represent a nuanced or new view of beauty “ugly” or “unfashionable”—be they chunky, clunky, comfortable shoes and sneakers, bootcuts, flares, and wide-legged pants, mismatched combinations, or gender-neutral gear.
Based on infuriated responses to the October Celine show by Hedi Slimane, in which models paraded down the runway in “overly sexy” miniskirts and high heels, what’s dated now is women’s fashion that’s designed for the male gaze. That also explains how the urban prairie look, with ladies sporting high-necked, long-sleeved, frilly pioneer dresses—as well as sneakers—got hot. Once the province of orthodox religious women, these dresses are now coveted by fashion influencers, as evidenced by the popularity of New York designer Batsheva Hay’s line, which is inspired, literally, by Orthodox Jewish female fashions.
In recent years, fashion began earnestly contending with all kinds of outdated ideas. Lack of diversity on the runways with respect to race and ethnicity but also body shapes, age, and ableism, are no longer totally de rigeur. In our brave new world, we’re less enamored with singular, authoritative approaches to beauty, presentation, or identification. We increasingly recognize that what’s hot is a person’s confidence, the glow they bring to the things they wear, and their personal flair. As such, it’s no longer necessary to look or dress any one way for a person’s beauty to be appreciated.
The “ugly” trend is a win for feminism, egalitarianism, and even for freedom itself. It should come as a great relief to us all. But we won’t be truly free until we stop referring to the unconventional as ugly and start seeing just how much beauty can encompass.