Human history, it is comforting to believe, is on a steady trajectory of self-improvement. As the centuries pass we get better at how we treat ourselves and each other, though this progress is often punctuated by setbacks, the repetition of old mistakes.
Fashion history may be similarily read. From purely practical animal skins and toga robes we've developed self-expression and sartorial panache. And yet fashion too has suffered it's fair share of awful moments along the way: lessons not properly learned, with horrifying results.
Here we round up the ten worst warnings shots from the fashion past, so we can persue our shared quest to dress better with greater focus. Or to put it another way: here is a reminder why we must never wear a zoot suit or pull on a pair of flares again.
It's for the good of mankind, after all.
Despite the best efforts of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, the casual jacket and trouser combo in matching pastel shades never made it out of the early 80s. Instead, the disco suit quickly became consigned to American kitsch and was made synonymous with clueless dressing (see Leisure Suit Larry or, for a premonition of the faux pas, Fredo in Godfather Part II). The disco suit’s resurrection should be feared just as much as the next ABBA reissue.
Inspired by the man who wrote a song called ‘I Hate Myself And I Want To Die’, grunge was unsurprisingly not notable for its use of bright colours and fastidious tailoring. Rather, it was the ultimate anti-fashion fashion movement, incorporating any combination of jeans, t-shirt and sweater as long as they were dirty, dull and full of holes. Grunge was the fashion equivalent of the average teenage boy’s bedroom, which is why we hope the world has grown out of it for good.
During the mid-18th century, polite society was briefly rattled by the emergence of flamboyant, androgynous young men in powdered wigs who called themselves ‘macaronis’. As the name suggests, we can firmly blame the Italians: these upper-class twits with their long curls and spying-glasses were inspired by their travels to Europe, a rite-of-passage for the wealthy then just as gap years in Asia are now. On top of their tall weaves they wore a chapeau bras (a small hat), that could often only be reached using the tip of a sword. We don’t need to point out the practical reasons we hope this look never returns.
The great jazz musician Cab Calloway described the word ‘zoot’ as meaning ‘exaggerated’, and he wasn’t wrong. Oversized jackets, giant collars and high-waisted trousers with legs so long they called them ‘drapes’ characterised this look – suits, in other words, that didn’t fit properly. The Zoot Suit grew out of the 1930s Harlem Renaissance and at the time was an expression of individualism for hip African-American and Mexican-American club-goers, many of whom pulled it off with aplomb. Today, thankfully, it’s revived solely to depict gangsters at fancy dress parties.
Not so much a ‘trend’ as a grinding necessity for any man with social status from the latter part of the 18th century up until World War II, the top hat was not only unwieldy to wear but became a potent symbol of the ruling elite and Britain’s rigid class system. In the rebellious aftermath of the war, hats in general were made scapegoats for Victorian conservatism and duly thrown on the sartorial bonfire. Today, the top hat’s only hope for a revival seems to lie with London hipsters, who may one day tire of penny-farthings and seek further inspiration from our distant past.
Fears about the return of the flared trouser or ‘bell-bottom’ are not unfounded – since they first appeared on sailors in the mid-19th century, they’ve proven to be the dandelions of British fashion, sprouting back every time you think they’ve been killed off. The nadir of the flare came in roughly 1967, when hippies paired them with garish tye-dye t-shirts, love beads and mind-numbing anecdotes about mind-expanding drugs. They were last seen echoed in the only slightly less hideous boot-cut jeans epidemic of the early 00s. Beware the next incarnation.
Originating in the United States prison system in the 1990s – where belts were prohibited to prevent them being used as weapons or suicide tools – it didn’t take long for the wear-your-trousers-beneath-your-underwear look to spread, predominantly via crime-glorifying hip-hop. Accordingly, since the 2000s, sagging pants has been the go-to expression of misplaced bravado for adolescents across the Western world. Thankfully the trend seems to finally be in its death throes, meaning the number of pimply teenage non-arses you’re forced to confront on the average high street is steadily decreasing.
When they say fashion is cyclical, they’re generally referring to the decades within living memory, which is why your parents are allowed to say emerging trends ‘look a bit 70s’ and one day you too will take pleasure in dismissing new fads as ‘what we wore in the 00s’. By this rule, we should be spared the return of the ruff, the unsightly human doily that afflicted the necks of William Shakespeare, Louis XIV and any other men painted during the 17th century, an accessory which, at its peak, could be up to a doorway-bothering one foot in width. That’s should be spared – with fashion, of course, you never really know.
There is something about the mullet that triggers a deep-rooted repulsion in the human brain. Perhaps we were once hunted by dinosaurs with long fur on their necks and short fur on top. Anyway – during its 80/90s heyday, the mullet was bad enough. But at least Andre Agassi, Barry Venison and the rest appeared to genuinely believe they looked good. This is the crucial difference: the hipster mullet came about when the world knew the mullet was the worst haircut of all time. It came about because of it. And it is precisely the faux-causality and misplaced irony with which they're grown that makes this form of the mullet more excruciating than ever.
Possibly the most derided moment in British fashion history – and not just because its chief advocate was Jimmy Savile – the shell suit represented a moment when we as a nation lost any semblance of self respect. The polyester trouser / jacket combo came in a range of bilious colours, and had the unfortunate affect of making everyone look as shapeless as discarded Quality Street wrappers. If the shell suit ever comes back to Britain, it is safe to say humanity is damned for good.