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Aug 17, 2012

More Bad Taste

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As a few commenters pointed out, what I was calling bad taste yesterday was really out-of-date (as opposed to fashion-forward) style.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.



  1. Oh how I loathe those Kim Kardashian hooker platform heels. Seems like it is impossible to buy summer sandals that DONT make you look like you're strolling the wrong end of Las Vegas Blvd at three am.

    I would say taste is less about "good" vs "bad" than it is about "thoughtful" vs "stupid."

    I'll take an ugly outfit that has been actively "thought out" over a less ugly "stupid" outfit any day.

    Thoughtful might be Chloe Sevigny. She tells a story with her clothes, whether you like it or not it is thought out, and
    always interesting to observe.

    Stupid would be anything Kim Kardashian has worn, ever. She might technically be more "attractive" but there is a numbing emphasis on sexuality that drains her of anything interesting.

    1. Caroline I loathe them too. each and every inch of them...and when I see them on someone my age...a 50 something newscaster..I want to vomit. BAD TASTE

  2. Wow, so much to take in! Just finished reading "Overdressed" and re-reading "A Guide to Quality, Taste, and Style". Add to that list a recent political diary that somehow connected the 'casualization' of our dress to chaos theory and certain political trends. Oy my brain! Enter sewing as therapy and my own "in your face" to trends and decline of Middle Class America. Your humor and talent has encouraged me and so many others.

  3. I have excellent taste. Ask me anything. I loved your last comment about how taste reflects who we are to the world. When getting dressed in the morning, we must to allow "creative time" to put it all together. A full length mirror and adequate light are invaluable tools.

  4. SeamsterEast@aol.comAugust 17, 2012 at 12:56 PM

    To me, "bad taste" has meant dressing outside the social class one is mixing with.

    Blue collars wear brighter, even "loud" clothing, often with more -- even FAR more -- skin showing, often extremely tight in gender specific areas in a non-mating social environment.

    White collars wear a little less bright colors, and better quality fabrics, in less tight areas even in mating social environments.

    Bluebloods wear much more subdued colors in high quality, even rare, soft fabrics. Public displays of mating behavior don't seem to be known.

    Blues talk and laugh and interact loud enough to be hear twenty yards away.

    White collars talk and laugh and interact at a volume heard no more than five or ten feet away.

    Bluebloods don't laugh out loud, and talk in voices a spy microphone might have a hard time picking up. Bluebloods expect when they talk, people will listen (people usually do).

    A white dress shirt from Penney's looks different from a hundred yards away (and feels different to the touch) from a white dress shirt from Nordstrom's and yet again from a bespoke white dress shirt.

    A wool sweater from JCP looks different from a merino wool sweater seen in Bloomie's looks different from a fine, long staple wool stole on a Park Avenue woman living in the 80's. (80th Street and north, to those outside NYC).

    A blue collar man wearing pricy oxblood loafers will be seated next to the kitchen door in a fine restaurant, while a blueblood wearing cordovan loafers will be seated in a quiet corner.

    The word "vulgar", often used to indicate "bad taste", acually means "common" as in what the common people do.

  5. I think that so often, what was considered "good taste", especially among women of the past, was tied up with consideration for their neighbors and others of their social standing/class. It wasn't just an attitude of "I'm going to wear this because I like it" as much as "I'm going to wear this because of the options that others will like, this is the one I like best." We don't all have to be clones, and we don't all have to shop high-end retail to get this effect, though, high-end retail is usually safer as far as giving more options that are "classic". If one is picky about what they buy, even at Wal-Mart, options can be found that don't look, sloppy, immodest, or unkempt. It does require a certain amount of attention to one's self and a consideration for others. Even if the fashion icons of the past weren't actually as noble-minded as that would seem to suggest, the clothing they wore suggests to me that they were at least trying to project that image, which may be why they are so beloved today. Again, this doesn't mean they were clones, and it doesn't mean that they didn't wear items that weren't trendy for their time, just that they chose those items carefully.

    Today, there is so much, especially among celebrity figures that speaks to another type of asthetic. More of an "I don't care" attitude, or even worse, "I'm so sexy, and I don't care if I upset your family values or cause your husband to lose interest in you because he's more interested in me, etc." that really promotes a pervasive selfishness in clothing attitudes. The comments about sloppy or oversexual items being in bad taste, I think refer to a dislike of an underlying attitude of selfishness. Of course it doesn't have to be just sloppy or over-sexed, the same attitude shows in those who over-dress to call attention to themselves. For instance, sequins or mardi-gras beads at a grandparent's funeral would probably be considered by most to be in bad taste.

    1. Your take on selfishness is interesting...definitely food for thought.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Thank you for such an insightful and thought-provoking post. I removed my previous comment because of a major typo.

    This issue has been on my mind a lot lately. Over the past 6 (or so) years a particular Yahoo group has spawned a number of style blogs that are incredibly classist and catty in the name of pursuing "tasteful chic." As much I enjoy the pretty pictures, I can't take the dialog any more.

    Aside from the obvious--immodesty bordering on exhibitionism, lack of personal hygiene, general inappropriateness (as we judge it)--as a society we could stand to give people a break.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

  8. I think that context is everything when it comes to fashion. I'm always loath to say that anything is in poor taste.

    I've been suffering from Pinterest overload and trying to figure out if anybody actually has truly personal style anymore. Even outside of the Jackie/Audrey/Grace trinity, there are terabytes worth of blogs that dedicate themselves to J. Crew, Anthropologie, arm parties, and vintage style. There's not a hierarchical ordering anymore, but rather a spectrum where hipsters, thrifters, and preps all have a place that's not tied to wealth or social standing but rather to elements of a style with which they identify.

  9. "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."

    What was embarrassing was that she chose to keep presenting herself that way even when she had the means to be different. I imagine her fans would say she was locked into an image. I don't know, as I wasn't there.

    1. I want to be clear that I think Marilyn's candor was to her credit: she didn't pass herself off as something she was not, despite her fame and fortune. Today it wouldn't be so remarkable, but back then, when grinding poverty (or mental illness or foster care) were sources of shame for many people, she was honest.

  10. I think it's really easy to point to the extremes - egregious bad taste or sterling good taste. What I noticed walking around NYC today is that most of what I see is indifferent taste - loads of jeans or shorts with t-shirts or tank tops with mediocre (RTW-acceptable?) fit that were not particularly pulled together as an outfit. Most of it you wouldn't notice. I wonder if it was the same 50 years ago - the good, the bad and the indifferent in the same proportions?

  11. Would you say that good taste balances on how a garment fits and enhances a figure as well as it's appropriateness?

  12. "Bad taste" to me means ugly. My father recently found a 1976 Eatons catalogue, bad taste galore!

  13. Speaking of Walmart I bought a Norma Kamali for Walmart 6 in one black dress that can be worn as a strapless dress. It has received many compliments.

  14. Yesterday I said style could be dictated to us, but I mean fashion. Style is something else that can be created. I love self-expression, flare, etc., BUT, there must be good grooming. I also wear what I call "doggie wear", meaning to walk my dog. It is spin off from what "Wasps" wore in the country in the 60's. But ironic....Many of you have mentioned being Plus ladies. I thought to mention Barbara Deckert's "Plus Sewing". She says RTW plus clothes, and plus patterns, are for the large shouldered, small busted, flat bottomed, hipless, and with large tummies. In her book she shows how to attain fit by a grading system that is tailored to YOU. As I shop only vintage, the sizes I find are arbitary. This way, we can create style. Bravo to Marilyn Monroe, for being honest. Cathie, in Quebec.

  15. It's interesting what you say about Marilyn. She was often vilified by women gossip columnists who considered her 'vulgar' for her in-your -face sexiness and not wearing underwear at a time when girdles etc were not only part of the Fifties look, but indicative of modesty... Grace Kelly may have been much more promiscuous than Monroe but at least she dressed in a ladylike manner!

  16. Good topic. I think today's slobbishness comes from a lack of personal respect combined with the perception that it is not only acceptable, but "normal". Contrast that with how people dressed to go out in NYC in the 19th century and first half of the 20th. Dressing properly had a lot to do with etiquette (a lost word today). In the 60's most women owned several pairs of gloves for different outfits and occasions. All good stores carried a large selection even into the early 70's. Wearing gloves was considered good taste and was (and still is) required etiquette for receiving lines.

    In terms of reflecting our society's norms, contrast the total package - style and class of women in popular TV shows from the 60's, 70's through to the 80's with the slob women/mothers and their vulgar behavior on reality shows like Toddlers and Tiaras and the spin off of that trashy family of slobs from Georgia. And to show that money can't buy class or good taste, how about those Housewives of (fill in the blank). If you were from another planet watching TV today, you would think that gross and trashy is the norm in this country.

  17. I think the number of times 'reality TV' has come up in conversation is telling. In the last 20 years, being odd, common or obnoxious can make you a celebrity. It's the 21st C equivalent of the circus freak show. *shudder*

  18. I think it's more a matter of America having gone too informal. When I got divorced someone else was wearing jeans & curlers (1997) and last month when I attended the funeral mass of my good friend's sister the deceased's nephews were in jeans & sneakers. I wore a black dress, white jacket & bronze clogs which seemed appropriate - but at least the chief mourner her daughter was in a black dress & pumps as opposed to a photo I saw of one of the funerals of the Colorado movie theatre victims where the chief mourner was in a black dress and flip flops.

  19. I lost my respect for NY Magazine when they featured and put that icon of bad taste and vulgarity, Kim Kartrashian, on the cover of the fall issue. Diana Vreeland's editorial elegance and good taste is sorely missed.

  20. I don't care where she came from: I find Marilyn Monroe embarrassing because she made a career out of playing stupid and was such a train wreck in real life.

    I find Gracie Allen and Lucille Ball embarrassing for the same reasons. Well, for the "playing dumb" reason, at least. I understand that they weren't dumb in real life and that the fact that I can afford to be embarrassed by them now is kind of a sign of how far women have come, and that we owe them a lot for that privilege, but I still find it embarrassing.

    1. I don't think that Lucille Ball played dumb in "I love Lucy"- her character was adventurous, willful, shameless, and often in-over-her-head with grandiose schemes, but she never played a simpleton or a one-D character. Furthermore, the male characters of the show were often shown involved in similarly foolish misguided schemes of their own, so I don't think that her character can be taken as a theatrical trope for women being dumber than men.
      It's ironic that modern culture celebrates Monroe as a model of body acceptance when she wasn't even comfortable with her natural hair color and had had plastic surgery to alter her looks. I think that actresses like Bette Davis and Elizabeth Taylor (who were not afraid at times to play ugly characters in film) had fewer insecurities.

  21. Bad taste is inversely proportional to individualism.

  22. Good taste is the ability to put someone else at ease, it is also the ability to be at ease with yourself.
    It is hard to claim that we value our individuality when everybody dresses more or less the same.
    At one time the idea was aspire to,or ape, your betters. Today it seems to be a race to the gutters. It seems to be that people have mis-interpreted the phrase egalitarian society to mean striving for the lowest common denominator rather than trying for the highest. I think it is a product of the misguided sixties where we have people like Mic Jagger with his middle class accent and education pretending to be a lower class icon, politicians pretending to be one with the people, which they can't be because most of them are lawyers and law school is expensive, and none of the rest of us will ever wield that kind of power. You also have the full blooming of the youth culture; few, if any of us-unless you count the toddlers dressed as hookers- dress as adults anymore. Casual Friday has morphed into I don't give a s**t Monday - Friday.


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