Through The Past Darkly

Lisa Palac last wrote for the magazine about children growing up in Los Angeles

Christmas in Chicago 1977 can be summed up in one word: gauchos. In holiday snapshots, I'm proudly wearing not just gauchos, but a belted denim gaucho jumpsuit with a billowy plaid flannel insert in one leg, platform boots the color of fried chicken and enormous plastic eyeglasses featuring a gradient rust tint and wire temples. My hair is curled back into one long kielbasa on each side.

Horrifying, I know. Gauchos, jumpsuits, Polish sausage. (I suspect those words are propelling you backward through a dark labyrinth of your own personal fashion traumas.) Of course, it's easy to laugh about the gauchos now that I'm not wearing them. Now that I've got Miu Miu's inviolable beauty on my feet, chunky high- and low-lights in my grown-out Rachel haircut, a bedazzled Princess baby-T over a hot pink--I mean, watermelon--polyester skirt, it's clear the worst is over. If I've got a fashion problem, it's that I can't afford to indulge my fabulous taste. You'll never end up on the wrong side of fashion again, my ego assures me. But the cruel voice of reason won't shut up. If you couldn't recognize how awful gauchos were in 1977, then how do you know what you're wearing right now isn't another fashion miscarriage guaranteed to make you gag in 20 years?

Bad fashion. Easy to spot in hindsight, but impossible to identify in the moment--unless, of course, someone else is wearing it.

I e-mailed a group of friends asking for their worst fashion picks of the last three decades. The response was surprisingly fast and intense. Within minutes, I was pelted with chunks of sartorial carnage: the crocheted poncho, Earth shoes, acrylic leg-warmers, cowl-neck sweaters, the "Flashdance" sweatshirt, vinyl get-ups with a million zippers and shredded black pantyhose, Members Only jackets with the sleeves pushed up, rainbow suspenders, skirts for men, giant shoulder pads, the crocheted beer can hat. Few pleasures, it seems, compare to the primal thrill of descending like a pack of wild dogs on, say, stirrup pants and ripping them to hell. We may be ruthless with celebrity couture on Oscar night, but the greatest animosity is aimed at the ready-to-wear mistakes made by our own tribe.

Some of the replies were confessional, while others shared bizarre examples of fashion blips I'd never heard of, such as girls in Little Rock, Ark., wearing tie-dyed jock straps as halter tops during the 1980s. My friend Amy Wallace, whose encyclopedic knowledge of arcane tidbits was channeled into the best-selling "Book of Lists" series, described the time Rolling Stone touted Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver's men's line, which included hot pants and bell bottoms with an exterior pouch for the, ahem, third leg.

For every bad fashion reminiscence, somebody is always trying to defend their grotesque choice by whining, "But I liked it!" Well, so what? Just because you wore it doesn't mean it looked good. (Interestingly, not a single person picked an item of clothing they were currently wearing as an example of bad form.)

But of all the abominations, the one universally hated trend nobody bothered to defend was stone-wash jeans--those faux-faded early '80s mall masterpieces, also known as acid-washed, that usually looked like they had a granite finish. Los Angeles fashion stylist Vincent Boucher points out that "if you go to the genesis for the stone-wash jean, it was a pair of well-worn Levi's." The wear and fade of fitted 501s is created not only by lots of washing, he explains, but more importantly by the personal experiences you have while wearing them. "If you take that experience and turn it into a baggy, uniformly pale-blue denim, which most people look kind of upholstered in, it's completely subverting the idea of sexy, worn Levi's denim. It's the suburban 'I bought it worn!' mentality."

Despite the overt revulsion to stone-wash, L.A. designer William Beranek, famous for the beaded-fringe skirts in his William B line, admits he's been getting requests for it. Though he's been experimenting with denim washes, Beranek admits, "I just can't look at acid-wash and think of it as cool." He can't stand beaded fringe on skirts either--even though it's what put him on the map. "I loved it at the time, but when I look back, it sends shivers down my spine," he says, laughing. "Another thing that's always looked bad to me is leather fringe on anything. But guess what? I'm putting leather fringe on jeans right now, for fall 2002." Like a true visionary, Beranek confronts his deepest fears--ponchos, rhinestones, fringe--and says the pressure to constantly create new looks is what drives him to find inspiration in the darkest places.

But what about the rest of us? Bad fashion, it seems, is like that song on the radio you can't stand, but suddenly you start humming it. Then you can't decide if you really like it or it's just become familiar or you've been brainwashed. Why do we so often criticize a new look only to embrace it, then loathe, then romanticize it?

"Think of it as the inflationary effect," says Valerie Steele, author of "Fifty Years of Fashion" and chief curator and acting director for the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. "When a style first appears, it seems exciting and cutting edge but also threatening and weird. So at first there's ambivalence, because Americans tend to regard fashion as frivolous and elitist. But as more trendsetters adopt it, the great mass of people say, 'I guess that looks OK.' Then, as even more people pick it up, it loses its cachet, and pretty soon the trendsetters recoil from it and move on to something else. And that's the end of that look." The more extreme the look, the more we'll hate it later.

As time goes by, Steele explains, and we're no longer familiar with a particular trend, it develops a sort of old-time appeal.

Apparently not enough time has passed for us to get warm and fuzzy for neon graffiti chic. My industry sources confirm the literal '80s revival trumpeted by Vogue and Harper's Bazaar as the Next Big Thing has been a retail bust. However, a few '80s items have been so successfully dissected and reinterpreted you wouldn't even guess their origin. Consider the power-bow blouse, ubiquitous among female execs from the Go-Go era.

"That was the most atrocious look, I always thought it was matronly," says Cameron Silver, owner of the Decades Inc. boutique on Melrose Avenue, which carries '60s, '70s and "very selective" '80s vintage couture. "But it got sexy because the blouse became more fitted and sheer. You didn't necessarily tie it; it could be open to show some cleavage. And, suddenly, this anachronism looked really fresh again."

The 1970s were known as the Decade That Taste Forgot, until we could see the 1980s in our rearview mirror. Frankly, we didn't really know how bad things could get until Nolan Miller came along. But if history repeats itself (and it does), then we're destined to one day look back on the Everybody in Khakis geek-sleek minimalism of 2001 and find its flaws. "I love minimalism as a foundation, and I think most people look attractive in it, but it's cookie-cutter fashion," Silver says, rattling off a few more cookie-cutter examples. "I hate the Fred Segal look--low-waisted jeans, the bedazzled T. It's a parody of L.A. But it's also what everybody wants, and that's what really horrifies me."

Bedazzled T-shirts? But I like those glittering garments!

In the end, I wonder: If I can only recognize bad fashion in retrospect or on the body of The Other, but not in my own closet, then how can I be sure I'm not currently a fashion victim? Well, I can't. And if I can't trust my own bad judgment, then there's nothing to prevent me from marching around in some super low-rise, boot-cut camouflage capris and Hanes Gold-Toe black socks with open-toe pumps and thinking, I look fantastic.

The truth is, bad fashion happens to good people. But lately I've come to believe that even when it's bad, it's good. Why? Because bad fashion, at its core, is really about violating convention, fracturing traditional definitions of beauty and sexuality, taking a political risk at a specific place in time. Sure, certain styles still unnerve me--especially when worn by all those, you know, "wrong" people. But I also empathize with folks in socks and gladiator sandals or mullet haircuts and logo shirts, because I now see that they're only trying to do what we're all trying to do, which is to fit in and stand out at the same time.

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