Tracking the Rebirth of Ugly Chic In the Instagram Age

6:00 AM 7/20/2017

by Sam Reed

From "Jesus sandals" to Gucci's gaudy excess, "ugly" is having a moment.

Gucci Cruise 2018 - Getty - H 2017
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In the Instagram age, is ugly the new pretty?

We’re talking about the trends that make you do a double take — the oversize glasses that look like they belonged to an Apple engineer in Silicon Valley in the ‘80s, or the green-black metallic lipstick — or those pants that break every rule you've ever read about dressing for your shape. Conventionally ugly styles have been cropping up on runways for the past 3-4 years now, and occasionally cause viral outrage when they land in stores, with concerned citizens on social media asking, “How is that considered fashion?”

Ugliness has always had a place in some realms of fashion, as it has in art, however its position in our current cultural landscape has intensified. 

Ugly chic is certainly nothing new — Miuccia Prada built her business on it, challenging the notion of conventional femininity with clashing patterns and garish colors and interesting, rather than flattering, silhouettes. (Prada herself once told Gucci's Alessandro Michele that when she started in the industry, “everything was about super-beautiful, aggressive, polished beauty. And I arrived, with these kind of ugly girls. They really criticized me a lot, for years and years.”)

On the runway today, no one does authentically garish designs better than Michele, who was appointed as creative director of the Italian house in 2015, and Vetements and Balenciaga designer Demna Gvasalia, who landed on the scene around the same time.

“Ugly is beauty, no?” Michele said in conversation with Gvasalia and T Magazine’s Alexander Fury, who had quoted Gvasalia’s own take on ugliness back to the designer: “Demna, you’ve said of Vetements: ‘It’s ugly, that's why we like it.’”

Gvasalia specifically has a deeper reasoning behind his gravitation towards the mundane and turning the everyday into high fashion (a childhood in Georgia, then a part of the Soviet Union, informed his penchant for reinventing uniform dressing). However, in the age of social media, the reason for wearing these trends is, at least in some circles where "likes" are equivalent to brand worth, more shallow.

“Instagram has provided the perfect platform for sharing and it makes sense as you think about the saturation of content that’s happening — [a bold look] makes the A.D.D. scroller stop and look. It enables people to stand out,” said Vanessa Flaherty, partner and senior vice president of Digital Brand Architects, an agency which represents some of the top Instagram talent including influencers Shea Marie and Aimee Song.

Products designed to shock and awe (from a seemingly innocuous Birkenstock to a pair of clear jeans to yes, even a hairy chest swimsuit) have  a similar effect. Not only do they cause pause in the middle of rapid Instagram scroll when they are actually worn on social media, they also convey a sense of being in-the-know. And being in-the- know is powerful social media currency.

Haters gonna hate, but those bedazzled Crocs are not worn out of complete sartorial oblivion — or worse, "for comfort" — but rather as an acknowledgement that the name Christopher Kane means something to you. In the company of the right folk — those who understand the nod to the designer’s spring 2017 collection — that choice makes you cool, even if your suburban mom chooses to roll her eyes and tell you that you that your outfit looks stolen right off the back of unsuspecting nonagenarian you found playing chess in the park.

Kane himself defended the Crocs, telling WWD last October, “I don’t really care what anyone thinks. I don’t think anyone’s got the right to say right or wrong, unless they’re God, otherwise just shut up.” Wearing bedazzled Crocs communicates that you agree.

The fondness for ugly-chic has manifested itself in Hollywood, too, with the rise of such icons as Jared Leto and Lena Dunham, the latter of whom is (at least, stylewise) is the anti-Kardashian — honestly, who else would dare to wear orange socks with olive green satin bow sneakers to a red-carpet function? As a role model for the modern urban feminist, her frump-fashion has become symbolic of her cause. The actress herself once said that "fashion is fun but sometimes I'd rather not spend 3 hours and lots of cash I could give to charity or spend on books and food to get ready to go out" in response to mainstream “fashion” critic Perez Hilton's comments about her red carpet look.

Whether intentional or not (and we'd like to think that anyone who stands on a red carpet in orange and green has some kind of intention), her style is communicating her message, and her fans will follow suit.

Other style trailblazers like rapper Tyler the Creator and even Vetements fan Whoopi Goldberg are seen as figureheads of their own subcultures, and each embrace various ugly-chic trends in different ways, communicating their distinct message to their followers.

With Gvasalia and Michele leading the way, ugly-chic is on the rise on edgier runways — see buzzy up-and-coming design collective Vaquera’s Tiffany-bag thong dress. Of course, as with any runway-to-Instagram trend, it's only a matter of time before public opinion turns from disgust to "must-have." Consider Birkenstock. Once classified as a "Jesus sandal" for granola munchers in Portland, the German brand has become so fashionable, it recently showed a collection in Paris that was reviewed by Vogue.

Here, we trace six of our favorite ugly-chic trends of the Instagram era that have either peaked in social media popularity, or are on their way to taking over your feed.

  • Jesus Sandals

    Before every woman from Paris' Saint Germain to Silver Lake owned Birkenstocks in three different colorways, the "practical" footwear was oft referred to as a "Jesus" sandal. 

    Thanks to Celine's Phoebe Philo, who elevated the flat, fat-strap sandals to runway status in 2012, the silhouette is now a classic, and has since undergone many iterations with the addition of platforms, fur and feathers. Other ugly footwear has followed the high fashion march, including CrocsTevas and Reef sandals. 

    Bonus ugly points if you wear them with socks. 


    A post shared by Birkenstock (@birkenstock) on

  • Mom/Dad/Boyfriend/Girlfriend Jeans

    This category applies not just to denim, but to pretty much any piece of apparel that uses a familial relationship as a modifier: Mom jeans, dad hats, boyfriend tees — all of the above fall into this category. 

    The cut of each of these styles isn't usually the most flattering, at least not for the typical denim-wearer. (Those Hadids would look phenomenal wearing a Hefty bag, so we're not factoring them into this assessment.) Plus, let's not forget the infamous satirical commercial from the ladies of SNL. At this point, mom jeans — which began their social media assent in 2015 — come with a bit of historical baggage, too.

  • Garish Color Clashes

    Remember when your mother scolded you for wearing black and brown at the same time? Don't let her see a recent Balenciaga show. She won't like it. 

    Bold color clashes first came onto our radar with Alessandro Michele's first Gucci show in 2015, and have dominated the runways since.

    These days, opposites attract: Orange goes with green, purple with yellow, blue with red — no color combination is off-limits. In fact, the more striking, the better. 

  • Massive Specs

    Seeing the return of oversize specs that occupy more than half of one's face brings to mind the most lovable of '80s sitcom nerds, Steve Urkel.

    Especially when they're worn with chunky eyewear chain straps, the massive frames as seen on the runways at Gucci, Prada and Fendi bring to mind a fashionable (and practical) grandma. In 2016, they began to appear with more frequency across runways around the world.

    Brands like Garrett Leight, Le Specs and even Warby Parker also offer chic oversize options, with the metal aviator style among one of the most popular picks. 

  • Patterns on Patterns

    Can't decide between florals and brocade? Plaid or gingham? Alessandro Michele thinks you should just wear them all at once. It certainly streamlines the decision process, right?

    Though pattern mixing is not necessarily new, the modern iteration was reborn at the hands of designers like Demna Gvasalia for Balenciaga in 2016.

    Some retailers have taken the trend one step further, weaving multiple patterns into the same garment. 

  • Choppy, Messy, Chaotic Fringe

    Ah, the eternal question: "Should I get bangs?" 

    Your friends and relatives will probably discourage a blunt hack, but there's no denying that wavy, curly and just plain chaotic bangs are having a moment on the runways. Brands like Louis Vuitton and Isabel Marant are ditching hair uniformity in favor of letting models' natural textures run wild, even cutting them at disheveled and angled layers to emphasize their unruly ways. This trend has only just emerged on the 2017 runways, so we'll see how long before it takes over the 'gram. 

    Models like Mica Arganaraz and Alanna Arrington are leading the messy bangs charge, and celebs like Mandy Moore, Lily Collins and Jenny Slate are following suit.