On “Ugly” Clothing

In the 1995 “crime film” Hackers, one cast member stands out from the goofy-looking ensemble of unabashed computer nerds.

The catalyst of many awakenings, from the sexual to the sartorial

Angelina Jolie was about 20 years old and her hair was cut into an elven pixie, choppy fringe on her forehead and long, triangle sideburns. In one scene, she wore an iridescent teal rashguard by Quicksilver, logo emblazoned across her chest, with a pair of skintight black pants belted at her waist. I first saw an image of this look when I was 14 or 15 years old and, though it was the dead of winter, pulled out my collection of emphatically modest swimwear. I wore rashguards to high school, sometimes finishing off my look with Keens water shoes (the trendier designs hadn’t come out yet, so I was out there wearing hiking socks with the most dad-oriented sandals of all time). Jolie looked jaw-droppingly hot and I looked like a little twerp.

Long after I graduated from high school, brands like Keens, Fila, and New Balance came into vogue for their “ugly” clothing. In fashion, “ugly” seems to connote any of the following: chunky, unflattering, brazen, misshapen, immodest but (typically) aggressively non-sexual, frumpy, confusing, perverse. I have always been drawn to clothing that would be widely read as “ugly” – my first fashion obsession was with Comme Des Garçons’ 1997 ready-to-wear show unofficially known as “Lumps and Bumps.”

These outfits tick most of the boxes for “ugliness” – they obscure the idealized forms of the rail-thin models, they bulge like tumors out of spots of the body that are “supposed to” remain dainty and unnoticed like the shoulders and thighs, they are ostentatious in their deviance from a conventional sillhouette.

Jolie’s rashguard and CDG’s lumpen garments are both “ugly,” yet the former engenders a perverse beauty in the wearer while the latter’s beauty is encapsulated in the garment itself, the wearer becoming irrelevant. Most “ugly” fast fashion skews towards the first manifestation of ugliness – the “ugly” garment is a contrarian underscore to the “beauty” of the model. Bella Hadid’s chunky New Balances or an influencer’s Bottega Veneta rain boots “set off” their comparatively not-chunky legs, “balance” a flattering top, and most importantly, prove a point: that no matter how ugly a garment they wear, they are safe in the normativity of their beauty–these looks are most commonly worn by and applauded on thin, white, cis women.

This form of ugliness in fashion is not very exciting or compelling and simply retreads the marketing pattern we all know yet fall prey to over and over again: selling an aspiration, not simply a product. 14 year olds like me watched Hackers and wanted to be so hot that they could look like a vixen in a fucking turtleneck rashguard ON LAND. Mainstream fashion capitalized upon this desire.

But clothing like the lumps and bumps of CDG’s collection isn’t about aspiration at all. You are barely meant to notice the models wearing the clothes, though one can’t ignore that they are all tall and thin as is the wont of any high-fashion show, especially in the ’90s. However, instead of viewing the models as the primary source of the collection’s aura, you can visualize the garments as living, Cronenbergian creatures in symbiotic (or parasitic) relationships with the creatures underneath. They exude presence and perversity in and of themselves – the wearer doesn’t need to look like Angelina Jolie in order to be endowed with ineffable presence by the garments. They don’t give the wearer something to prove, they simply prove themselves. It’s a banal tragedy that these pieces have never been replicated in a more accessible form so this universality remains unexplored.

What I would not give to wear this on the L train

These are half-baked thoughts on ugliness in clothing that have probably been expanded upon elsewhere and that I’d love to develop and research more myself. But for now I can say that I hope other people who are drawn to what they read as “ugly” clothing, with an ugliness that is contingent upon aspiration and comparison, also discover garments that are breathtaking and vital in their self-affirmed abjection.

6 responses to “On “Ugly” Clothing”

  1. […] The pieces sometimes render pragmatism as beside the point and often give the impression that the garment exists as a sovereign being: the piece wears you, and though conventional fashion advice says that’s bad, why does it have to be? Instead of relegating a garment to merely a means to cover up our bodies to a societally acceptable degree, why not imagine it as an almost-sentient entity with its own agenda, idiosyncrasies, and life cycle? Framing the way a garment hangs and drapes or warps and obscures the body in this light is an incredibly exciting and generative way to conceive of fashion in my opinion (and also why I love Rei Kawakubo so damn much). […]

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