Refined and impeccable taste: Have they become so boring that going the opposite way is now far more appealing? Recent trends—and events—have made us wonder: is bad really better?
In a recent article about the rise in the popularity of wellies, the Guardian described the boots mostly associated with rain wear as “bad taste”. And it’s in the headline! Wellington boots, to call them by their proper, more tasteful English name, have a long history—whether illustrious or not, we can’t say. They go back to the early 1800s, and are associated with the British aristocracy. The footwear is, in fact, named after the 1st Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley. The good Duke was a military man and a Tory statesman. In fact, the chap served as prime minister not once, but twice. We do not know if he was an aesthete, but since he ruled over a dukedom, he probably had refined sensitivity towards his sartorial choices. Yet, the trusty wellies that he popularised, as well as their descendants (Bottega Veneta calls theirs by the positively low-brow ‘puddle boots’) are now associated with taste that’s not anywhere near good.
It does not require deep knowledge of current affairs to know that ‘ugly’ is, for more than half of the decade, not the ugly that we know. Ugly, the cousin of bad taste, is attractive; ugly is good; ugly is cool. We were even told that ugly wasn’t a passing fad. And it is true; it is still a trend! Ugly has redefined what is flattering just as much as it has changed what is considered attractive. In fact, chances are attractive is really not. Yet, it now encompasses so many aspect of contemporary tastes that even awful is in the jumble. And there is a word for it: inclusive. Or, the fake synonym, diverse. Both let ugly into the club. Ugly is dancing and winning. Now, if you refer to ugly in the negative, you’d have ugly-shamed! Ugly is so influential (in digital life, is influential synonymous with ugly?), it brought bad taste in too.
The thing about bad taste is that it needs it’s competitor good taste. Without good taste, bad taste won’t be that bad. One isn’t the mirror image of the other, but one can see what the other is not. It isn’t the bad that’s so bad it’s good. It’s bad that makes good look its part. What would Cinderella be without the bad—er, ugly—stepsisters? Would Cinderella stand out? Was it not the Fairy Godmother who gave her everything she needed that had some semblance of good taste? But what the Fairy Godmother created for her so that she could go to the good-taste ball came from the opposite of good: the footmen from mice, the driver of the coach from a frog, and the ball gown from rags! Oh, there is, of course, the coach; it was a pumpkin transformed, not a Yubari King melon!!!
Graphics om the Balenciaga ‘The Simpsons’ T-shirt. Product photo: Balenciaga
Fashion these days is hemorrhaging so much bad taste that it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore it as aberration that will vanish the next season. More and more, we can’t wish it away. It keeps coming at you, like mosquitoes on warm and humid days. Sometimes in ways you won’t expect. We are not hyperventilating. The Simpsons of every-town America, Springfield, for example, are not fashion darlings. As Matt Groening told the Smithsonian magazine in 2012, “I thought Simpson was a funny name in that it had the word ‘simp’ in it, which is short for “simpleton’”. But thanks to Balenciaga—the fearless bender of taste, the family of five are fashion icons. Is any of the Simpsons, now in Balenciaga and on Balenciaga, the epitome of good taste? Even poor Lisa Simpsons looks like a misguided 2nd grader who spends too much money on Shein, pearl choker intact. The Simpsons in Balenciaga seem to suggest that taste, like mood and marriages, can change overnight.
Balenciaga of the present, of course, straddles good and bad tastes, but oftentimes with one foot firmly planted in the latter. Their pairing with the Simpsons maybe irony at its highest order, but is it good taste? Or is this a sure reminder that so many people, like Homer Simpson, simply have no taste until someone comes along and gives them some. Not that Homer Simpson would be able to tell what is good or bad taste. In the case of the Balenciaga makeover of the residents of Springfield, it really depends on luck. But Balenciaga is increasingly able to make make bad taste better, so much so that it becomes good bad taste, or, as some might call it, “impeccable”. Example: Crocs. And recently it shows that on the runway or red carpet, bad taste can walk both. But with their haute couture revived, who’d dare say that Balenciaga is the arbiter of bad taste? Just badder?
Sometimes bad taste comes in the clever guise of ‘eclectic’. This eclectic is a parody of bad taste, often with kitsch as a partner in crime, and the devil around the two. That it might be steep in historicism does not take away bad-taste-as-eclectic’s parodic heft. The pied piper of this constantly jokey, retro-tinged pastiche is Gucci. Like stablemate Balenciaga, Gucci has made bad taste impossibly good, even gauche, galvanising the glaring and the glamourous into action. But few drawn to Gucci see the parody, nor, to be sure, the bad taste. When overexposed to such bad taste, we become immune to it. Bad-taste eclectic has a special—even sexual—power over those seeking fashion that looks like fashion. The nouveaux, like part of China’s social class tuhao (土豪), as well as the new-to-fashion are especially drawn to eclectic, like the proverbial magpie to shiny things. Or, a scene we get to see, flying termites to street lamps!
Chanel’s attempt at bad taste as seen on Lily Rose Depp in a recent campaign
When Balenciaga leads others follow. Bad taste is so potent that many can’t resist its pull, like boba tea. Chanel, once the epitome of good taste, is now moving away from it, baring so much underwear (above), just to name one transgression, that it would be considered bad taste just three pandemic-unheard years ago. Even Lily Rose Depp in the fall campaign couldn’t reverse the course. In fact, none of them nubile young things could. Blackpink’s Jisoo in the promo video Exploring Dior with Jisoo, expressed no taste, good or bad, when she saw the clothes; she was only able to utter, “I love this… I love this… Oh my god, I love this”. Is good taste daft? Chanel and its ilk joined the circus, but others have always been the ringmasters from the start. All-out bad taste at Dolce & Gabbana (including their marketing communication) keeps it in the spotlight. Others may fare less triumphantly but are no less trending, such as Roberto Cavalli and Virgil Abloh’s also-designer/DJ pal Heston Preston. Even to be named the “King of Bad Taste”, as Philipp Plein has, is an accolade. Zoolander, it seemed, saw the future.
To be sure, the Guardian isn’t the first to have ‘bad taste’ in its headline. Vogue, ever the seer of the future, already declared in 2018 that “Bad Taste Is the Best Thing to Happen to Fashion”. It did not conceal its enthusiasm for looks that were “about the hodgepodge style of looking like you don’t care at all coming into fashion”. But of course they cared (and still do), and the media continually shines a spotlight on bad taste, sending it on its inexorable rise. They do this by featuring the many artistes and celebrities, for whom bad taste is also the passport to ‘cred’, such as the Beibers, as well as so many American artistes-turned-whatever. Hip-hop stars have a big part in the rapid rise of bad taste. Whether by designing stuff or wearing them to effect insider advantage and cool, the sum of which frequently courts bad taste. But it isn’t just American stars who succumbed to taste aligned with bad. The Berlin rapper UFO361, a proponent, who attended the Balenciaga couture show, enthused in Stay High, “Nobody rocked Balenciaga. Crazy man. Long live Demna”. Ditto bad taste?
Perhaps bad taste is still taste, and in the world of fashion, it is increasingly better to have some taste than no taste. As the English novelist Arnold Bennett wrote in the Evening Standard in 1930, (even back then) “good taste is better than bad taste, but bad taste is better than no taste”. Although Mr Bennett was commentating on literary taste, what he said is just as applicable to much of today’s culture, not just fashion. In fact, bad taste is so much better that we have become used to it, and to the point it isn’t bad anymore. For many here, bad taste is who are: this is how we dress and behave. Accept it! And who even calls out bad taste when they can wallow in the repository of bad taste—TikTok, even YouTube? Has social media accelerated the consumption of bad taste? Its widespread use has certainly put bad taste persistently visible online. Bad taste manifests in not just what we wear, but in how we behave, in how we speak, in how we write, in the expletives we prefer, in the division we sow, in the crassness we consume, in the asinine jokes we rollick through, and in the private lives we expose—all delightfully. Even the most ardent among the promulgators of bad taste have become the arbiters of good taste. And our appetites only grow. And grow.
Illustrations by Just So