Aug 17, 2012
After re-reading what I wrote yesterday about bad taste, as well as your excellent comments, I wanted to add some additional thoughts and clarifications.
It's difficult to write about good taste vs. bad taste today. Pretend for a moment you're an alien visiting from another planet, and you can see that the topic of whether one should wear white shoes after Labor Day or above-the-knee hemlines past age fifty seems bizarre. These rules are specific to our culture and our times, and today many people reject them -- and I think that's a good thing overall. Many readers may feel frustrated with this kind of relativistic approach, but looking at how differently people have approached fashion throughout history, how can you do otherwise?
On the other hand, there's an ongoing debate even among MPB staff about the inherent conflict between dressing as a form of self-expression (i.e. for oneself), and dressing as a way to make others feel comfortable (i.e, honoring social customs). I enjoy seeing people dressed more formally, but if it's done with flair, I also enjoy avant-garde style, even if it challenges my idea of what's appropriate. What I don't like is complete slobbishness. But slobbishness can be very much in the eye of the beholder; I can be something of a slob myself some days. I think it's less about taste and more about just not wanting to be bothered.
As a few commenters pointed out, what I was calling bad taste yesterday was really out-of-date (as opposed to fashion-forward) style. Forty years ago it was harder to find the latest trends below a certain price point (i.e., at Saks Fifth Avenue but not at Sears). This is what has changed; you can find the latest trends almost everywhere. Whether these trends are in good taste or bad taste is a whole other can of worms. Provenance -- Paris runway vs. American Apparel -- means very little, taste-wise.
Is the following good taste or bad taste?
We're all the products of our environment and the values with which we are raised. We don't label classes as distinctly in the United States as in India, but that doesn't mean classes don't exist -- they do. And social (and economic) class is expressed in the way we dress. But as much as labels matter today in our status-obsessed American culture, there's less of a gulf between the taste level of a poor and rich person today. Fifty years ago, I'd argue, even though the average level of formality in dressing was higher (men in suits, women in gloves, etc.), there was a much greater aesthetic difference between a store like Brooks Brothers and J.C. Penney. Today, at least on the surface, the clothes they sell look similar (just check out their websites).
There seems to be agreement among many of yesterday's commenters that much of what bad taste is relates to behavior: immodesty bordering on exhibitionism, poor fit, lack of personal hygiene, general inappropriateness (as we judge it). This is what many people are referring to when they cite People of Walmart.
So what I term the demise of bad taste draws on (at least) two ideas:
1) Fashionable (meaning based on the latest trends) clothing is more readily available at a wider range of stores (and prices) than decades ago.
2) Consensus about what constitutes good taste vs. bad taste no longer exists. The long-reigning arbiters of taste have been dethroned, leaving us in a state of style anarchy. Until things settle down, anything goes, and we are left with little more than our own opinions about what suits us (or others).
Finally, despite our purported belief in freedom and equality, there's an authoritarian, even royalist vein in a lot of us Americans (Princess Di/Duchess Kate worship, anyone?) Many of us want to be told how to dress and long for rules and restrictions. What is it we are yearning for when we sewing and style bloggers idolize Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, or Jackie Kennedy? It wasn't just that they looked good in clothes (so did Doris Day), it was that they represented upper class refinement, breeding.
In her heyday, there was something embarrassing about Marilyn Monroe beyond her wide-eyed, little girl lost, vulnerability. It was that she was very upfront about the fact that she came from nothing. There's something discomfiting about that stark truth for a lot of us, perhaps a reminder of a fear we have about being revealed as not quite what our clothing -- our surface layer -- suggests.
Taste isn't just a reflection of who we are, but also of who we want others to think we are.