Beauty got so basic that the only place for fashion to go was ugly

A model presents a creation at the Gucci fashion show during Milan Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2017 in Milan, Italy, September 21, 2016. REUTERS/Max Rossi     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTSOS2N

One misconception about fashion designers is that they’re all in the business of making beautiful clothes. But beauty, in the sense of design that is graceful and harmonious, that seeks to please the eye and strives toward the exalted and sublime—is not always the goal.

“Nothing is so boring as something beautiful,” the designer Dries Van Noten said in a 2012 interview. “I prefer ugly things, I prefer things which are surprising.” He’ll often start a collection by identifying colors he doesn’t like, he explained, and then putting them to use.

Right now, ugliness is having a moment. The labels getting the most attention make clothes that are often deliberately gawky and ungainly, in a clamor of lurid or mismatched colors that knock about glaringly in an outfit.

The names pioneering the look include Gucci, which overloads its gangly garments with a riot of clashing details, as well as Balenciaga and Vetements, the two labels headed by designer Demna Gvasalia, who has used deliberately awkward proportions and downmarket fabrics to create a look that feels aggressively unglamorous.

A model presents a creation from the Haute Couture Fall/Winter 2016/2017 collection by Vetements fashion house in Paris, France, July 3, 2016. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier - RTX2JIJS
Vetements gets ugly on the fall-winter 2016 runway.(Reuters/Benoit Tessier)

Many more are testing the limits of taste too. In his latest men’s collection, Van Noten, a designer fully capable of making beautiful clothes, showed jackets that were intentionally “off,” drab plaids mixed with chintzy florals reminiscent of old wallpaper, and weird square-toed shoes. Fashionable women have been seeking out ugly shoes and unflattering pants, and guys are on the hunt for garish, clunky sneakers.

The trend has been gathering momentum for some time—arguably since “normcore” rose to prominence. Normcore was an attitude—or perhaps just a giant in-joke—first given a name in 2014 that embraced flavorless, nondescript clothing.

What’s most interesting about the recent trend is that its roots go much deeper. It reflects fashion’s deep and longstanding attraction to ugliness and bad taste. As much as beauty, these have their own irresistible allure.

What “ugly” is, exactly, gets hard to define. It’s a slippery concept, especially in fashion, where preferences shift as fast as what’s trending on social media. But even speaking generally, it is hard to pin down, as design and cultural critic Stephen Bayley pointed out in his 2013 book, Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything.

It’s often just framed as the opposite of the beautiful, and while beauty has been scrutinized at length through history, ugly hasn’t often received the same treatment. It also shifts along with cultural ideas, which themselves change with time. “I’m not much inclined to paddle in the pools of relativism,” Bayley writes, “but the more you think about ugliness, the more you look at ugliness, the more elusive the idea becomes.”

You could perhaps describe ugly as having qualities we know we’re not supposed to like, in contrast with beauty’s usual good manners and restraint. In that sense, it subverts the status quo, defined by the culture at large, which exerts its authority through notions of “good” and “bad” taste. One collection by the legendary Yves Saint Laurent that mashed together a variety of clashing patterns was featured in a 1971 Vogue story titled “Is Bad Taste a Bad Thing?” (Designer Anthony Vaccarello also played with bad taste in his debut outing as the brand’s new creative director last year.)

Those supposedly undesirable qualities can exert a strong pull. In 18th-century France, for instance, a brief craze emerged for clothing in a color known as caca-dauphin, a shade of brown meant to resemble the excrement of the infant prince Louis-Joseph, son of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The historian Carolyn Purnell writes in her new book, The Sensational Past, that the wealthy wore it to demonstrate how fashionable they were, as well as their support for the monarchy.