It’s hard to imagine a retro throwback as polarising as the return of that eternally divisive 90s hair accessory: the scrunchie. Over the last 12 months, these flimsy, fabric-covered elastics - once the domain of a generation of girls who took style tips from Full House’s Stephanie Tanner - have been rescued from the annals of bad taste to become the fashion equivalent of a secret handshake. Bella Hadid wears a white satin version post-workout. Poppy Delevingne paired hers with a flowing cape at this year’s New York Fashion Week. Balenciaga has remade it in lambskin leather - that is, if you can afford the $225 price tag.
Designers have always mined the past for inspiration. But the scrunchie, the accessory that Carrie Bradshaw famously insisted no fashionable New York woman would be caught dead wearing, symbolises the newest chapter of fashion’s love affair with all things vintage. It’s one consumed with retro fashion that’s either purposefully ugly or rejects traditional ideas about what’s acceptable to wear.
There are stone-washed, high-waisted Mum jeans, once beloved by Jerry Seinfeld and since embraced by stylish women everywhere from London to Sydney. There are tiny, polarised sunglasses that make the wearer look like Neo from The Matrix. And there’s the revival of footwear from the orthopaedic (Crocs, Birkenstocks) to the unsightly. The bulky, athletic running shoes that you may have worn to your high school sports carnival are newly fashionable, thanks again to Balenciaga, whose cult Triple S sneakers channel a sitcom dad from 1996.
The fashion world’s obsession with obscure vintage trends has drawn its share of criticism - especially when they accidentally conjure retro racism such as the recent case of monkey-shaped keyring by Prada with striking similarities to “Sambo”, a blackface cartoon from the 19th century. But, interestingly, this new focus on ugly retro fashion is being hailed as progressive and subversive, proof of a world in which rejecting the aesthetically pleasing reflects a growing desire to challenge cultural norms.
An August 2018 article in Harper’s Bazaar argues that the move away from aggressively feminine clothes represents a refusal of the male gaze, prompted by the #Metoo area and a January 2019 article in Quartz praised it as a “win for a win for feminism, egalitarianism and even freedom.” Meanwhile, a compelling December 2018 essay by Diana Tourjee in Broadly suggests that it’s an attempt to wrest back control amid mounting political chaos. “By glorifying the grotesque, we have culturally advanced back to where we were in the 1990s, or perhaps more distinctly, to the winter of 1999, preparing for the Y2K digital doomsday,” she writes.
On one hand, this moment in fashion could be read as a leap forward, especially given that the latest Oxfam report into the rights of garment workers is instant motivation for buying your next pair of Mom jeans from an op-shop. But on the other, it highlights the ways in which your ability to “pull off” clothes that are vintage or intentionally unappealing depends heavily on your relationship with race and class. For example, immigrant families might shun second-hand because a mall-bought outfit is often a signifier of hard-won economic prosperity.
It also forgets that for many people of colour, the rules of self-presentation are always tied to the rules of assimilation. Deliberately ugly sneakers and ill-fitting trousers are edgy and daring when your tastes are already sanctioned by society. When you’re forced to adhere to a dress code at a citizenship ceremony? Less so.
In a January 2018 Buzzfeed essay, Korean-American writer Alexander Chee writes about the experience of being treated better on a flight if he’s wearing a suit jacket. I can relate. Through my life, the clothes I’ve loved best have telegraphed a confidence I didn’t feel. Stovepipe jeans in my 20s. In my 30s, jumpsuits and leather jackets - garments that feel like protective armour, no matter the circumstance. Lately, I’ve become attached to a set of corduroy scrunchies gifted to me by a dear friend. At first, I worried if they looked hopelessly unfashionable. Now I can’t take them off and it feels like a small form of progress.