the rise of the anti-beauty aesthetic
In a world of easy-to-access beauty, sometimes ugliness is the only way to stand out. We chart the aesthetic of ugliness from German expressionism to hardcore punk to the rise of Vetements.
It often feels like we're living in an age of particularly ugly fashion, one that people will eventually look back on with incredible disdain, like the 80s. Despite looking like something out of Futurama, Nike's Huarache has somehow become one of the most popular trainer of our time. Vetements, meanwhile, has become the cream of haute couture by peddling an aesthetic that, up until recently, only teenage mall goths could consider cool. Call me old fashioned, but aren't clothes supposed to make you look good?
In the case of Vetements, I can understand why people wear Demna Gvasalia's creations -- hype, exclusivity, the consumerist prestige of the price tags- but these are all symptoms of desirability, rather than its catalysts. There's undeniable artistry to his work and I can admire a piece of Vetements clothing as an object, but no one could ever convince me that I, truly, honest to God could actually look good wearing it.
Taste may be subjective but there are objective underpinnings that shape it: qualities such proportion and ratio. Classical architecture feels innately satisfying because its construction is shaped by the proportions of the human body. It's pleasing to look at because of the way that it fits within our line of vision. Its design is a constellation of golden ratios, which our subconscious finds instinctively attractive, regardless of learnt tastes that are so often tied to opinion and constructed identity. Vetements' wonky, ill-fitted drapery completely jars with these aesthetic principles, which of course has its own contrarian appeal, but maybe that's the point: ugliness is precisely what makes the brand so attractive.
There's undeniable artistry to a piece of Vetements clothing as an object, but no one could ever convince me that I, truly, honest to God could actually look good wearing it.
From Instagram #foodporn to advertising that swells with perfectly airbrushed human beings and immaculate stock photos smiles, our visual field is overwhelmed with aesthetically pleasing images. Ikea has transformed student flats around the globe into budget-friendly showrooms for Scandinavian minimalism. The Internet, by democratising information, has also made aesthetic sensibility infinitely more accessible.
Whereas once professional make-up techniques, for example, where specialist knowledge confined to make-up artists and the people that knew them, now vloggers like Zoella teach legions of 11-year-olds how to doll themselves up via YouTube. No longer do you have to hire an interior designer to help transform your flat into a Bond villain's lair when the web houses nearly as many sleek interior design blogs as it does smut sites. H&M, with its Versace and Alexander Wang collaborations, offers luxury labels at sweatshop prices to the Bluewater demographic. Looking good isn't much of a challenge anymore, it's the standard.
Ultimately, high fashion places a greater premium on peacocking and exclusivity than it does on aesthetic appeal. In our visually satisfying, Steve Jobs-ified world where everyone and everything looks so good (in the normative sense of the term), the most obvious way to stand out is by eliciting a degree of revulsion.
In our visually satisfying world where everyone and everything looks so good, the most obvious way to stand out is by eliciting a degree of revulsion.
Ugly Models, a modelling agency successfully operating since 1969, have built their entire business model on this realisation, one that has helped reel in prestigious clients such as Calvin Klein, Diesel, and Vogue. Beyond visual aesthetics, GoCompare's opera singer commercials utilise irritation, arguably another form of ugliness, to engrave themselves onto the psyche of anyone unfortunate enough to have had to endure them. Quite evidently there's a certain attraction in ugliness, something that Gvasalia is no doubt aware of when he proclaims "At Vetements it's always 'It's ugly, that's why we like it'".
He's hardly breaking new ground here, though. It may still be viewed as a pejorative, or the converse of aesthetic value, but thinkers and artists have been attracted by ugliness for over a century. German philosopher, Karl Rosenkranz, coined the term "the aesthetics of ugliness" way back in 1853. At the dawn of the 20th century, Viennese expressionists such as Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, and their predecessor, Gustav Klimt, challenged notions of absolute aesthetics and questioned the belief that beauty was the inherent purpose of all art.
Expressionism was a reaction against the stale classical beauty of the Austrian Makartstil that was so prominent at the time. Instead, it depicted the diseased and disfigured, prostitutes and those marginalised by recent urbanisation. It was a movement that equated ugliness with truth, and saw the predominant art of the era as a "ghetto of the "beautiful and true", where it had degenerated into pretty, innocuous decoration for home and fireside". The expressionists believed that the beauty of classical art rendered it impotent in illustrating the repugnant reality of the world around them.
Beauty, in all its forms, is too simplistically palatable. Ugliness has the power to subvert and, as such, is often the territory of the radical.
This same principle manifests itself in other artistic forms. In 80s hardcore scene, bands like Black Flag and Minor Threat countered the bland good-taste overproduction of the 70s stadium rock era and Reaganite yuppy-ism by playing simplistic, three-chord punk that they aborted of melody, traditional song structures and musicianship, simply playing harder and faster than any band that had preceded them. It was abrasive, jarring music with tracks that were only about a minute long and often amounted to little more than a wall of noise. Like the art of the expressionists, it was music that reflected the strife-filled times in which it was made. And while it may have repulsed mainstream tastes, it was utterly revolutionary, a scene remembered as one of the most significant of the 20th century, whose influence still reverberates today.
Maybe that's the thing about beauty: it's often too passively placating to be memorable. It soothes and satisfies, its mere presence is a source of fulfilment. There's nothing challenging or disruptive about it. Beauty, in all its forms, is too simplistically palatable; it's the aesthetic of the majority, never the fringes. Apple, with its engineered perfection, will always represent the status quo. Ugliness, on the other hand (particularly elective ugliness) has the power to subvert, and, as such, is often the territory of the radical. It has the power to transform, to shift opinion and shape taste - and that's so much more attractive than mere prettiness.
Text Aleks Eror
Photography Jason Lloyd Evans