In 2009, Alexander McQueen sketched a shoe that would forever change footwear, even for those who, like me, would never try it on or even see it in person. The shoe was shaped like a crab’s claw and covered in glittering scales. It had a nine-inch spiked heel and an interior platform; the wearer would stand on tiptoe, feet curved into the extreme arch of a Barbie doll or a ballerina in pointe shoes. It was aggressively ugly. McQueen didn’t intend to make these “armadillo boots” (as they came to be called) available to the masses; they were designed as showpieces. The collection that season was filled with fantastical items, objects that came from a future in which “the ice cap would melt … the waters would rise and … life on earth would have to evolve in order to live beneath the sea once more or perish,” McQueen said. “Humanity [would] go back to the place from whence it came.”
These shoes are ugly, and yet these shoes are beautiful. They captured the attention of Lady Gaga, who was gifted three pairs from her then fiancé, the actor Taylor Kinney (he bought them from Christie’s New York). This was after McQueen’s death and after Gaga had become famous for her grotesque displays, her willingness to contort her body and disturb audiences with extreme costumes and extreme performances. She posted about the shoes on Instagram with the caption, “Look monsters, we got a sign of love from the beyond.” McQueen, most people agreed, would have approved.
Almost a full decade after McQueen debuted his futuristic footwear, another type of ugly shoe came tromping out. Two thousand eighteen has been the year of the clog. Fashionable girls from Brooklyn to Berlin have been clomping around in wooden-heeled shoes. Stiletto sandals reveal and pumps accentuate, but like the armadillo shoes, clogs obscure the shape of the feet. They remove all eroticism. There is no delicate arch, no pointed toe, just leather and wood and practicality.
At first glance, McQueen’s high-fashion objects seem worlds away from the clogs featured on Lauren Mechling’s popular Instagram account Cloglife. But there are similarities. Both speak to a certain fantasy world, Mechling explains. “When I think about ultimate planet clog, there is no news. There are no politics, no bad doctor’s appointments. It is a stupidly comfortable place of bad good taste,” she says. Clogs are only a “tiny part” of this vision; they’re emblematic of the aesthetic (ugly, messy, clompy, imperfect, handmade, rustic), and the aesthetic is just shorthand for a lifestyle. “There are no men on planet clog,” Mechling adds. “They’re just not there. Their gaze is not there. Their unformed desires are not there.” She admits that she’s poking fun at the privileged women around her, but she says there’s a sense of earnestness to her project as well. “It’s creative, and that is totally sincere. Cloglife is about a desire to spend more time cooking, writing, reading, being with friends, and living with other women. It’s celebratory.” This feels transgressive in a rather lovely way. Where McQueen imagined a postapocalyptic hellscape during the hopeful early days of the Obama administration, Mechling is daring to imagine a feminist utopia, a Gilman-style Herland, in the dark months of Trump’s seemingly endless reign.
Although the examples I cited are both from the past decade, ugly fashion is not new. High-design fashion has also long enjoyed the spiky thrill that comes from pissing people off and defying the norms. Perhaps the earliest example of ugly fashion comes from eighteenth-century France. In 1790, a “band of Parisian youths” called the Incroyables began roaming the streets wearing jackets and pants that “distended, padded and pulled the body out of proportion,” Alexander Fury explains in the New York Times. Rather than the lush purples or jewellike greens that were popular among bourgeoisies of the time, the most fashionable shade for this cohort was couleur de crottin,or horse-manure brown. (It was all very Derelicte by Mugatu.) Sadly, these eighteenth-century weirdos were an anomaly, and Fury writes that it would be “nearly two centuries before the Incroyables resurfaced, but they did, after a fashion.”
There are many examples of subcultures throughout the twentieth century that embraced purposefully offensive clothing, from the pants-wearing rebel women post World War I to the rockabilly babes of the fifties, but it would be wrong to call these fashions ugly. They were rebellious. Clothes that play with gender expectations and expose unexpected swathes of skin aren’t quite the same as outfits that distort the body, and this is the primary marker of ugly fashion. It has a mutating power; it has an element of unreality, a sense of the fantastic. Just as McQueen had his armadillo shoes, the Incroyables had their “creased and muddied” high-collared jackets with pleats that created “a hunchback effect.”
Ugly fashion also has a fetishistic tinge, and few people know this better than Vivienne Westwood. The “mother of punk” began her career selling punk clothes in 1974, when she renamed her London shop SEX. (It had previously been called Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die, and before that it was known as Let It Rock. In 1976 it was renamed once again—Seditionaries—and again in 1980, when it became World’s End, which is the name it bears today.) The store was a joint venture with the art student Malcolm McLaren and sold fetish wear like spiked heels and plastic corsets. In a few years, they would begin designing and selling ripped graphic T-shirts, jackets festooned with metal studs, and skirts covered in buckles and straps—all items that would become staples of the punk-rock look. One of their more iconic designs was the “genderless” bondage suit, which mimicked a straitjacket and made no effort to flatter the figure. This outfit was meant to make the wearer look insane, wild, and more than a little dangerous. “The best way to confront British society was to be as obscene as possible,” Westwood once said. By mixing elements of BDSM into her designs, Westwood created a new visual style that was twisted and complex, imbued with highly erotic imagery but also an element of madness. (The buckles and straps, after all, were typically used in a sexual context to contort the body into strange and unusual shapes, distorting the human figure until it was a series of parts—the ultimate objectification.) A talented seamstress, Westwood could have made great gowns, beautiful gowns, but she didn’t want to make pretty things. She wanted to offend, to shake things up. She wanted to push back against capitalism and the patriarchy and colonialism and what she called in her memoir “a world of torture and death organized by the western world.”
As long as there’s been a capital-f Fashion industry, there’s been an element of shock value present on the runway. Designers push the envelope because the capitalist beast demands more. There are only so many ways you can redesign an elegant bias-cut dress or a perfectly tailored suit. But there are infinite ways to create something ugly, something chaotic and strange, something that offends sensibilities and pushes back against the traditions of good taste and reputability (and maybe even sheds light on all the blood spilled to keep these neoliberal ideals alive). A similar movement happened in the nineties, thanks to the influence of grunge and the general dissatisfaction and anger of Generation X. In both the seventies and the nineties, the movement toward ugly fashion started with a subculture (punks, grunge kids) and moved into high fashion. It began with a street-level rebellion and ended with clothes retailing for thousands of dollars. Fashion capitalizes on the anger against capitalism, again and again. That’s how this particular monster works. It swallows its critics and its detractors whole.
In our turbulent political times, it’s fitting that ugly fashion has risen again, stronger and uglier than ever. But it’s no longer enough to rip a shirt to shreds or wear an oversize flannel or stick safety pins in your ears. Now we have ugly dad sneakers and ugly floral dresses, ugly work vests and ugly sweaters. The rise of ugly fashion in the Trump era has been thoroughly documented by fashion sites and news outlets. Some places, like The Strategist (New York magazine’s shopping vertical) and Refinery 29, approach ugly fashion like they would any other trend, offering readers suggestions on what ugly sneakers to buy, how to “succumb to the siren song” of unflattering pants, and what to wear with Teva-style sandals to make them look urban chic rather than granola crunchy. But equally common is the quizzical coverage, the “Why Is Fashion So Ugly?” articles, and the explainers, which often read like this one from Harper’s Bazaar Australia—it posits that we’re “a bunch of hyper-aware hypebeasts” obsessed with “peacocking.” The fashion critic Robin Givhan at the Washington Post argues that the recent glut of ugly trends—prairie dresses, fanny packs, orthopedic sandals, et cetera—are “aesthetic provocation” designed to agitate. “The gateway to ugly … was the Birkenstock,” Givhan writes, calling the German sandal “an exemplar of the rise of anti-fashion.” While many fashion writers have established a link between the proliferation of unflattering clothes in street wear and the torrential downpour of assaults against women’s bodies and rights, Givhan also smartly points out that ugly fashion has a populist tinge to it. “The Seventh Avenue elites have ceded control to the hoi polloi,” she argues. “Customers are responsible for these waves of ugly. We the People are trolling ourselves.”
The desire to wear something unflattering and unattractive, something that you know people will dislike, is a strange one. Many critics have rightly pointed out that ugly fashion is inherently elitist—not everyone can “pull it off,” so to speak. On some bodies, ugly fashion can look like ugly clothes, which means the entire enterprise has failed. The person wearing the ugly fashion must be in on the joke, and often the clothes must be expensive, in order to prove their intentionality. This, too, has historical precedent: the Incroyables were rich-kid royalists, rebelling against ideas of equality, and many of the early punk rockers weren’t exactly coming from poverty. This paradox is perhaps why fashion writers often fail to include one of the most culturally significant objects of dress in recent years in their roundups and think pieces—that red MAGA hat. Do Trump supporters know their hats are ugly? I think they do. I think the offensiveness—the bright, flat color; the bad kerning; the made-in-China-ness; the uncaring hypocrisy—is the point. It’s trolling, plain and simple, and it’s a far more influential form than high fashion’s tragically niche designs.
Even though there are problems with ugly fashion, I love how raw it is, how strange and how varied. I love that it flows and moves in weird ways. We can predict that hemlines will rise and fall, and we can predict that jeans will taper and flare, but who would have predicted the rise of Birkenstocks, the ubiquity of Ugg boots, the popularity of ironically worn Tevas, or the praise heaped upon Shia LaBeouf’s dadfits and Justin Bieber’s sleazecore? There is something organic about ugly fashion. It springs up, like weeds growing in sidewalk cracks, and spreads outward until it’s consumed the entire parking lot—or, at least, until it begins to look less ugly, until our eyes become used to the eyesores, and the cycle begins again.
But the real reason I adore ugly fashion is deeper than that. At my most generous, I think ugliness is a form of power. The disability-justice organizer and writer Mia Mingus argues that “ugliness is a pathway to intimacy.” We fear ugliness, she says, because we place too much value on beauty. And yet beauty is a limiting political construct built on our society’s prejudices. If we were to accept and celebrate ugliness, to embrace our individual “magnificence” over our facial symmetry, perhaps we could foster a stronger sense of empathy. In the words of Jia Tolentino, we could all stop jostling for space on the “narrow, precarious beauty bridge” and instead “howl like animals and jump right off.”
While Mingus and Tolentino are both talking about bodies, there’s a lesson to be learned from worshipping ugly fashion, too. Ugly fashion is a mirror; it reveals the repulsive nature of our consumerist desires. All ugly fashion is political, but also, all fashion is ugly if you look at it through a politicized lens. In her book Why I Am Not a Feminist, Jessa Crispin rips into lean-in feminism, girl bosses, Hillary Clinton, and the commodification of rage. “Even if women go in with good intentions, good intentions are nothing against the system,” she writes.
The system is older than you. It has absorbed more venom than you can ever hope to emit … In order to gain entry, you will have to exhibit the characteristics of the patriarchs who built it. In order to advance, you will have to mimic their behavior, take on their values. Their values are power, the love of power, and the display of power. By then, you are part of their culture.
This is precisely what ugly fashion reveals, if you look at it long enough. Like ugly design, ugly clothes show that there is no outside to culture. Every choice we make exists within a complex matrix. Our clothes are polluted and bloodstained before we ever put them on our bodies. This is always true, but the irony is especially potent when it comes to ugly clothes. No matter how rebellious you feel when you buy it, no matter how much you long to rail against, to counter culture, you are still feeding the machine.
This is not to suggest that there’s no significant difference between the man wearing a MAGA hat as he screams at a rally and the twentysomething waif wearing a pair of ugly-chic Birkinstocks as she skitters to Whole Foods. There is a difference, but there are more similarities than we would like to admit. Goop sells the same wellness powders and vitamin supplements as Alex Jones. Trolling is irony turned up a few notches. These cultural elements are all connected, bound together by falsely positing an “outsider” identity in a system we create and perpetuate. When I treat these ugly items like crystal balls, I’m frightened by what I see, but also a little thrilled. I always suspected that bad days were coming, but now that they’re close, the other ugly shoe has dropped, and with it comes a sense of relief. Soon enough, we may be fashioning our own wooden-soled shoes from trees, not out of whimsy but out of necessity. Soon enough, we may be so far past a discussion of aesthetics that we’ll have to start rebuilding the world.
Katy Kelleher is a writer who lives in the woods of rural New England. She is the author of Handcrafted Maine.