A look at the resur­gence of bad taste in film and fash­ion

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 Ritchie 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.”

As I add yet an­other im­age of a “Dir­rty”-era Christina Aguil­era to my Pin­ter­est board, I won­der the same ex­act thing.

“It’s dif­fer­ent, twisted and what the masses con­sider to be ugly. But it’s so ugly that it works so well for me.”

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