The mid-noughties Tumblr era that we logged off from is ready for its resurgence—a time when self- destructive habits like eating disorders, drugs, self-harms or even crimes were glorified in the guise of different “-cores”. We’re seeing signs of its return: “succubus” chic and size zero are back, Kim Kardashian removed her BBL to look thinner, and the notorious “Soho grifter” Anna Delvey (born Sorokin) held a fashion show on her rooftop apartment in New York, because, well, she was under house arrest. The balance between liberation and glorification of fashion has been a vexing question for centuries, especially when most of the precious and phenomenal works found in fashion history were in tandem with the beauty of pain, tragedy and fragility.
A desolate example would be Evelyn Mchale’s suicide photographed by Robert Wiles. Despite landing on top of a car, the vulnerability of the incident created a juxtaposition that many dubbed as “The Most Beautiful Suicide”, and has later inspired Andy Warhol, major music videos, and even fashion shoots—against her will.
Sacrifices in the name of fashion have been the norm, from “wear Louboutin and bleed” to the talented fashion prodigy Alexander McQueen who roped his creative vision to the source of his final depression, or in his words for the final collection, “There’s blood beneath every layer of skin.” There’s a duality in fashion: as a visual enjoyment, creative direction, or worse—a lifestyle to take on.
THE HIGH IN HIGH FASHION
The demand for recreational drug use sees no cessation. Whether or not the raging amount of drug references in popular culture is a contributor, it is a question that remains unanswered. While that might not be the only reason, we cannot overlook its influence. Cult-following TV series Euphoria, for example, had caught the attention of not just the Drug and Alcohol Resistance Education (D.A.R.E) but also viewers who questioned the glorification of drugs with its appealing visual flair, especially since it’s a show set in high school.
Zendaya, one of the main characters in the series emphasised that the end goal was to be a companion to those who suffered, so they feel “a little bit less alone”. There’s a thin line between breaking a stigma, normalising, and inevitably glorifying drug use. Similarly, as an integral part of pop culture, fashion has a long and ill-famed history of glamorising drugs. There’s even a style named after Heroin, portraying a romanticised reflection of drug addiction.
A controversial photography trend that was popularised in the early 90s, Heroin Chic characterised a strikingly thin physique, pale complexion, dark eye circles, and dishevelled short hair—traits associated with drug overdose. The nihilistic style was believed to be a counteract to the 80s hedonism, spearheaded by models like Gia Caranagi (who battled heroin complications), Kate Moss (who was involved
in a drug scandal), and Jaime King. The socioeconomic state of the time like plummeting drug prices and the rise of AIDS cases were some of the reasons why the drug was widespread and eventually infiltrated pop culture through the silver screen with films like Pulp Fiction.
Although long past its heyday, the glorification of thinness and drug use remains in the cultural domain, and of course, the runway. But has it ever left? No—it’s just been labelled differently, like “indie sleaze”, twee, and even the latest TikTok trend: girl dinner. Tumblr, for instance, was an unbridled platform that unintentionally fostered self-destructive habits in the early 00s to the point where “Tumblr Girls”, as G-Eazy sings, were known for their “skinny waists and drug habits.”
As the fashion runways cashed into the idea of sylph-like waifs, the Tumblr Girl was (and still is) the equivalent of high fashion. Favouritism for small frames could also be one of the main reasons why drug culture and eating disorders are still rampant. It is, without a doubt, a stressful industry that in order to stay on top without actual food, drugs became the go-to. Though often shrugged off and swept under the rug, it is not unfounded that the people on and off runways were addicts. That lifestyle inspired fashion shoots, campaigns, and of course, fashion shows. Some examples include Alexander Wang‘s 2016 Pothead collection where marijuana was plastered all over the pieces, from dresses to handbags. It was “stoner-chic”, Vogue said. The following year, Jeremy Scott also introduced a “capsule” collection and quite literally, capsule pills were made into shoulder bags. The satirical notion did not go unnoticed; even after the uproar and backlash Wang received after his showcase, he found ways to slap the weed motif on every possible item that later became a fad among irony-loving frats.
THE GIRLS AND THEIR BOWS
While drug culture in fashion has incurred visible impacts on our mental and physical health—whether directly or indirectly—it is not the only problematic item on the list. Aesthetic, an overused and overpopulated term, describes a set of visual standards that may not be instantly detrimental to one’s life but will fabricate our collective mindset in the long run. One recent aesthetic was the obsession with girlhood. Just when we thought girl bossing was cheugy, more girl-related trends sprouted: girl dinner, hot girl walk, girl math, and more.
Granted, most of these buzzwords have come about as society encourages women to embrace their femininity in a playful and whimsical way, ideally in a world without the male gaze—which is something to applaud. However, the fact that most of the participants are actual adults and not “girls”, we can’t help but notice the infantilisation—or even ageism—in these supposedly female-empowering terminologies. It begs the question: Are there any women-related positive buzzwords out there?
Things went off balance when Hollywood’s leading male celebrities were called “baby girl”. While it’s understandable that the shift of language is heading in a more gender-neutral direction, calling grown men “baby girls”—regardless of how gentle-looking they are—will never sit right with me, at least. Pedro Pascal and Paul Mescal are charming and beautiful, yes, but definitely not a baby girl. The same irk goes for seeing any grown adults, regardless of their genders, being called a “baby girl”, only to make them look more affable and lovable. There’s a sense of internalised fetishes, a general misconception that it is only great if it is labelled “girl”. In this case, men are only appealing if they are perceived as girls, especially when the term is deeply associated with being physically vulnerable, further proving that fragility is indeed attractive.
The girl-everything also leaves an apparent trail in fashion. Fashion brands like Sandy Liang or Simone Rocha are thriving with their girly-girl designs. The internet fashion “girlies” tirelessly source for puffy sleeves, empire waistlines, and Cecilia Banhsen. Celebrating femininity and not succumbing to the patriarchal-led fashion is commendable. Still, it is also mind-boggling that the context is so simplified now that we’re witnessing a bow-driven inflation. Take Sandy Liang and Baggu’s collaboration, for example: by simply adding two ribbon bows, the cult-favourite Baggu bag now retails at a higher price. While there’s no glorification involved, capitalism has surely made its way into the picture, toying with the consumer’s girlhood obsession and the significance of ribbons in “girl” fashion. It is eventually just a “logo” with a staggering price tag. What a hefty price to pay to be a girl again. We’re chalking it up to the glorification of fashion again.
COUTURE IN COURT
Courtrooms and fashion, or “courtcore”, is like “babygirlification”—an aesthetic instead of a lifestyle. Officially coined during Gwyneth Paltrow’s recent ski-crash trials, the style is typically made up of classic pieces to evoke an intellectual, preppy, and prim look. It’s designed to leave a good impression on the judge, as style is paramount to one’s personality and credibility. Hardly any logos or brand names were shown; it’s all in the stealth wealth subtlety, echoing the sartorial selection of hit series Succession. The quiet luxury aesthetic quickly garnered the public and fashion critics’ attention, but it’s no novelty for the general public to find courtroom wardrobes—women’s especially—fascinating. The style usually rides on the halo of celebrities like Winona Ryder, Naomi Campbell, Anna Delvey, Paris Hilton, or Amy Winehouse, to name a few.
We can see the appeal: in a grim situation where formality, restriction, and laws are involved, we would all love to see how far a long line coat from The Row can tip the scale, or sashaying out the courtroom in a blue velvet double-breasted blazer after saying, “I wish you well”. Fashion is a tool for rebellion as well as a form of expression. But where do we draw the line between the graver stakes and the fashion moments? Take Naomi Campbell, for example, who appeared on the last day of her one-week community service shift in a bedazzled Dolce & Gabbana couture piece, turning a punishment into her fashion runway. And then there was Winona Ryder, who was hired to be in a campaign with Marc Jacobs, ironically after her charge for, well, stealing from Marc Jacobs.
Glorifying court trials or even penalties with fashion is a public relations tactic to divert attention from the seriousness of the matter. But when such incidents turn into a fashion opportunity, the balance is skewed. Not only can the wrongdoers throw a full-blown fashion show like Delvey, they can also receive new job offers like Ryder. As much as we want to disdain from admitting that the courtroom has become an aesthetic, it has in fact inspired the latest viral Poster Girl Spring/Summer 2024 campaign. The campaign, as the collection notes stated, was “a nod to the Winonas, Lindseys and Britneys of the early noughties whose scandals intrigued us…a wink at the end of a dichotomous display of feminine rebellion.” Shot against the New York Supreme Court as a backdrop, the brand showcased shapewear in “criminal-level confidence”.
While the tongue-in-cheek campaign is filled with gimmicks and commercial success, it also begs the question worth pondering: how can fashion balance between moral and visual appeal, especially in an inherently visually-dominated industry that, at the same time, carries a profound influence on social phenomenon? What is the price to be paid for the glorification of fashion?