I’ve been a lover of low-hanging fruit ever since I rediscovered Showgirls, the 1995 drama about badass stripper Nomi Malone, who favours skintight lamé, animal print, and exaggerated acrylic nails. If audiences were meant to glean anything about her from the outset, it was that she was, well, a bit trashy. They did, along with criticizing the film for being overdramatic and over the top.
Showgirls grew into an ironic cult classic, due in part to its exaggerated nature and trashy aesthetic.
Dressing like Nomi today would likely be considered a subversive style victory, as would flaunting the aesthetics of teenage rebellion tropes.
In recent years, films like Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2012) have dressed their gritty heroines in fluorescent bikinis, butt-grazing miniskirts, and even Pepto pink balaclavas. “To me, it’s sort of like they’re putting on the trappings of what they think of as lesser,” says Nathalie Atkinson, a culture writer and film critic. “They’re revolting against respectability.”
In the case of Spring Breakers, said heroines are dabbling in gang culture. “You can’t talk about this aesthetic without talking about race and class,” says Atkinson. “The white girls who are trying it on for size don’t have to live the life that goes along with it. They are wearing it almost as a costume.”
Similarly, in Elizabeth Wood’s White Girl (2016), the heroine actively seeks out the underbelly. “The main character is an almost naively provocative white girl who can dress however she wants,” says Rachel Dainer-Best, White Girl’s costume designer. “She is both exploited by the system and exploits the system. And while she becomes victimized in a really tragic way, she ends up coming out relatively unscathed.”
The archetype for teenage rebellion flicks is Kids (1995), a Larry Clark and Harmony Korine masterpiece in which a group of teens get into varying degrees of real trouble. “Kids is really interesting because it’s set at the cusp of the Internet image age, but they don’t care about image. They’re dressing for function. They’re dressing for skateboarding,” says Atkinson. “The characters in Spring Breakers or White Girl are putting on a look. One is ironic and one is not.”
Today, so much cultural currency seems intrinsically linked to an ironic worldview. The two most influential fashion brands of late are steeped in satire—Vetements, with its anti-fashion appropriation of the everyday (read: DHL logos) and Gucci, with its clashing prints and cacophonous kitsch.
Online, ironic memes rule all forms of communication. One such meme depicts a burning dumpster fire, and has been used frequently in the wake of Trump. Designer Jeremy Scott put it on the runway, showing literal trash as part of his Fall 2017 collection for Moschino. On a runway made of packing tape-affixed cardboard, models wore pieces that looked like what you might find after a fruitful dumpster dive—piled high with plastic bottles, wrappers, and grocery bags. Scott is known for his mining of low culture Americana, as is designer Adam Selman, who frequently cites filmmaker John Waters as an inspiration. For fall, Selman took a page out of Waters’ 1990 film Cry-Baby, pairing delicate rose motifs with denim mechanic suits.
Waters’ subversive early films sell a twisted version of 1950s America, often replacing the female lead with Divine, a legendarily in-your-face drag star. In Pink Flamingos (1972), Divine battles it out for the title of “filthiest person alive,” wearing a garish red fishtail gown, diamante drop earrings, and glittering eyeshadow coated so high that her bouffant wig had to be placed mid-scalp.
“I wanted to frighten people,” says Waters in the 1998 documentary, Divine Trash. “I wanted other drag queens to run in tears. Back then, they were all so square—they wanted to be Miss America.”
Sure, it’s for antics like this that Waters is often referred to as the “king of bad taste.” But what is taste anyway? “Taste is like a sense of humour. Nobody wants to be told that they don’t have it,” says Atkinson.
“My favourite colours together are a chartreuse avocado and a nasty chocolate brown,” says Eric Schlösberg, a New York designer known for his takes on gaudy glamour. “It’s different, twisted, and what the masses consider to be ugly. But it’s so ugly that it works so well for me.” Schlösberg frequently references trash icons like Anna Nicole Smith, with his barely-there glitter minis, slinky sundresses, and pink velvet overcoats. “I grew up in Miami Beach and I was just surrounded by bad taste,” he says. “But I don’t think of it as bad taste—it’s so beautiful and sparkly and excessive and glamorous.”
As the nostalgia clock ticks towards the early 2000s, Instagram has been flooded with images of Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears at the heights of their meltdowns, as are endless odes to Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie wearing Juicy Couture sweatsuits and thong-baring jeans circa The Simple Life. “Often people think that looking back with nostalgia and being sentimental means that automatically the thing that you were nostalgic for must have been good in the first place,” says Atkinson. “And in reality, it wasn’t.”