Cheap Bitches

Have you been living under a rock?  Do you need sunglasses?

No?  So you know H&M just released (and sold out) their Lanvin collaboration right?  With lots of ruffled cocktail dresses with exposed zippers, metallic men’s shoes and over embellished T-shirts. They’re sold really well on ebay.

Of course if you were an influential fashion blogger (not me), you were invited to a preview show and sale.  Here’s Alber Elbaz, fashion’s favorite rice queen telling you about the show of clothes he designed for fashion’s favorite fast fashion retailer.

Got that?  Expensive designer brand collaborated with inexpensive mass market brand to create less expensive clothes (not cheap though, cocktail dresses retailed for over $200) then made them look more expensive to get excited influencers interested in the collaboration.

This made me think about Project Runway.  Truth be told, many things make me think of Project Runway, eg. oranges, German sausage, pretty drag queens, seals, the list just goes on, but I digress.  On Project Runway, one of the most oft used compliments that are paid to designers by the regular judges, Heidi Klum, Nina Garcia and Michael Kors is “That looks expensive.”  And when those three words get uttered, designers would suddenly look really happy, or relieved.  Some designers say that about their own work when explaining their garments “I wanted it to look relaxed but expensive.” for instance.  What does that mean?

What is the aesthetic of expensive?  And how does it work with the aesthetic of cheap? And are they opposite end of a spectrum, or are they different things entirely?

To be clear, I am not asking “How do you achieve expensive looking beauty for cheap.”
The question I am asking is, “What constitutes cheap beauty?”

Not long ago, Proenza Schouler released “Act Da Fool” a short film by Harmony Korine to market jeans that they had created in collaboration with J Brand.  The film was controversial because it depicted young women of color getting up to no good, and more interestingly, the (expensive) jeans were worn by characters who in real life would not afford them and would probably not really want them either.  Poor and low social class characters and situations was used to make commodities desirable to rich, mostly white people.

Of course this raises the issue of the ghetto fabulous aesthetic, of being poor and mentally creating a lifestyle of affluence and opulence.  In a way, I’m not really interested in the trappings of this ideal, it is ultimately about an aping by poor people of rich people.  That the aesthetics of the privileged are somehow better than those of the poor.

The most recent video of the totally cheap, probably came right after Halloween.  You know the old joke now, of women running around in store bought costumes dressed as sexy ____(fill in the blank), coupled with dining at Denny’s, and a food fight.  These girls are a case study in cheap!

We start to see some traits of cheap aesthetics here.  Cheaply mass produced simulacra is one.  So is being very loud.

To be sure, high/expensive fashion has been influenced by the style of people without a lot of money for a long time, more dash than cash, if you will.  What the happens is this slightly insidious cycle of a known designer lending “legitimacy” to a particular aesthetic.

Case in point, the early noughties (do people still say that? I like it though) flirtation with trashiness.  Particularly Galliano for Dior’s Spring Summer 2001 collection.

Note how Galliano calls the hallmarks of low aesthetics “bad taste”.

Of course Galliano was commercially very successful with the collection and a few of the others in that time including Spring Summer 2000’s Dior couture collection inspired in part by homeless people he saw by the Seine, images of which seem oddly unattainable.

There is a scene in Th September Issue in which Anna Wintour is apparently giving Edward Enniful a hard time and they agree that he needs to “elevate it”.  It’s always fascinating to me how the hand or eye of establishment, which is usually rich and white or caters to the rich and white can “elevate’ something.  I’m not suggesting that we all opt out of this system, but I am suggesting that it can be questioned more frequently.

Occasionally this narrative seems slightly turned on its head.  Take for instance how the Metropolitan museum of art is now in possession of part of Quentin Crisp’s old mattress.

This was Quentin Crisp:

In later life he lived in New York’s Lower East Side in a tiny apartment in relative poverty.  One of his neighbors was the designer, Miguel Adrover.  After Crisp died, his friends cleaned his apartment out, and as part of that, tied his old mattress and left it on the sidewalk.  Miguel Adrover picked up said mattress (so unheard of in this time of bedbugs) and used the ticking to create this:

image: Metropolitan Museum of Art

It’s a coat.  It now belongs to the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was part of their show about fashion blogging.  I suspect that Quentin Crisp would not otherwise be in the holdings of the museum.

Of course this selling of “low aesthetics” to a moneyed customer hasn’t always worked for designers.  See Marc Jacobs and his grunge collection for Perry Ellis, here modelled by Kristen McNemanny (R) before her recent re-appearance as a deliberately grey model, still as freaky looking though.

Looking at this now, it feels a bit like Perry Ellis had no idea what they were talking about when they fired Marc Jacobs over this collection, I mean it all looks like casual floral dresses and boots, nothing too crazy, but that could just be me.

Of course I can’t talk about looking cheap without also discussing looking like a hooker, or a street walker or otherwise nomadic sex worker.  An aesthetic immortalized by Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman:

She looked better before.  No?

Of course this sort of looking-like-a-hooker narrative has been thrown around a bit, notably Dolly Parton who claims that growing up, she wanted  to look like one.

And then we have Gianni Versace who built an empire on making women look really expensively cheap and slutty.  See the image at the top of this posting.

That just made me sad.

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