So I just went to my local supermarket to buy mayonnaise. A 15 oz. jar of Hellman's cost $5.29. Isn't that kind of a lot? I mean, I haven't bought mayonnaise in a while, but shouldn't this kind of thing be, like $1.29, or am I still living in 1987?
But I digress, and apologies to those who don't buy mayonnaise in the USA.
As I was flipping through my September Vogue yesterday -- I feel like I have to revisit it constantly to justify the $6 purchase -- I noticed something strange (or rather, among all the wacky fashions, another strange thing). In among the hundreds of pages of Prada, Gucci, Tom Ford, Valentino, Marc Jacobs, etc., were ads for stores I wouldn't have expected to find in Vogue: Target, Kmart, and discounters like DSW and T.J. Maxx.
I mean, honestly, Kmart Exclusive Collection? How exclusive can it be if it's for sale at Kmart?
And yet the taste level of what these stores are advertising doesn't seem markedly different from anything else in September Vogue, though the quality of the garments themselves is probably another story.
It occurred to me that unlike when I was a kid forty year ago, today it's really hard to find something that would unquestionably be labeled "bad taste" -- that sort of tacky-looking stuff one might have associated with Montgomery Ward in the Seventies. Am I right?
Growing up in the Bronx in the Brady Bunch era, we had quite a few local clothing stores, and these were very unlike the discount dollar stores you see everywhere now. They were first-quality stores, but the (relatively cheap) merchandise might as well have been shipped in from the Soviet bloc, that's how out-of-fashion most of the clothing was. In those days, more people shopped for clothes in their neighborhoods and didn't follow the same trends you might see, say, in tonier parts of Manhattan. Even New York City had its equivalent of the local yokel.
Today, I'd argue, you have to go out of your way to find something that is truly in bad taste. Every conceivable style or period, from Seventies trucker to Eighties cowboy to Nineties hooker, has its advocates (even if they're embracing it ironically). Nobody gets to proclaim what good taste or bad taste is anymore -- and if they do, who's really listening?
Taste used to be something that was decided among an elite, composed of A) the very wealthy, B) the professional taste-makers (like Parisian couturiers) who served them, and C) I can't think of a "C" -- can you? Now everything's different: you might call it the great democratization of "good" taste. I think this is the result of the following:
1) Globalization. Clothing is made everywhere to be sold (almost) everywhere. The clothing made by global brands like Zara or H&M is manufactured for an international market. Ad campaigns are global too, so everybody everywhere is looking at the same images and developing similar -- though not identical -- taste (and we call this taste good).
Even in the Eighties, I remember that you'd only find brands like Versace in Italy, or a few very high-end boutiques on Madison Avenue in New York. Now these brands are international and advertised up the wazoo.
2) The Internet. Even before the Internet, television had had a tremendous impact on global tastes. Before television, very few people got to see how people in other cultures (and classes) were dressing. If you're sitting in Bulgaria and watching Dallas, it's going to have an impact on what you think is fashionable.
With the Internet, the same thing is going on but multiplied a thousand times. Not only can you see how people are dressing in other cultures, you can connect directly to them (as opposed to watching a Mexican telenovela). There is such a tremendous amount of fashion online that, frankly, it's overwhelming. But it has raised the average person's taste level -- or at least I think it has.
Of course, the Internet also allows almost anyone to order clothing from almost anywhere. You can live on a ranch in Montana and wear Prada if you want to -- you don't have to fly to Italy or New York City to purchase it.
3) What most people consider discount stores are jumping on the "high-fashion" bandwagon, as mentioned above. When Kmart is advertising in Vogue, you know something's changed. I'm not entirely sure what's pushing this, but the obvious answer is that there's money to be made. It makes sense that, thanks to the Internet, shoppers at every economic level are aware of what the trends are and want to follow them whether they shop at Walmart or Neiman Marcus.
4) Every new trend is knocked off and knocked off quickly. And accurately. This is the result of points 1 & 2. Rumor has it that not only are many designer originals manufactured in China, but their knock-offs are made in the same factories.
Readers, can you think of what else has "done in" bad taste?
Or maybe you don't agree with me, and think that bad taste still exists, perhaps in your neck of the woods among the pajama and flip-flop-wearing masses at the mall. But I'd argue this isn't really bad taste, but rather no taste. These people just can't be bothered to get dressed.
One of my favorite books is Jane and Michael Stern's The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste (Harper Collins, 1990). Much of what's included in this now-two-decade-old book -- from fake fur to leopard skin, from polyester to tattoos -- would be considered fashionable today. In the last twenty years, perhaps thanks to people like film director John Waters, who embraced and celebrated it, bad taste has become good taste, or rather ironic/hipster taste. Bad taste as such is dead.
In closing readers, what do you think? Have taste levels risen overall thanks to the Internet, globalization, and fast fashion? Do you still see what you consider bad taste where you live? If so, how do you define it?
Is there still a yet-to-be-discovered vein of bad taste to be tapped -- maybe in an isolated farming town outside of Scranton, PA -- or has the well run dry?
UPDATE: Michael just got a 32 oz. jar of Whole Foods' "365" brand mayo for $3.99! Highly recommended.