If one would quickly look up the term ‘gauche’ online, there won’t be much confusion surrounding the incontestable essence of the term. Awkward, tactless, tacky, clumsy, crude and graceless are just some of the derogatory synonyms contributing to the term’s non-appeal, which, when applied to an object or style, exhibit elements of disapproval, scorn and even mockery. And yet it is no coincidence that Yves Saint Laurent on September 26th in 1966 chose to open his first ready-to-wear store on Paris’ Rive Gauche, or The Left Bank, the part of Paris once commanded by artists, poets, writers and philosophers as the residence of choice—all a world apart from the luxurious universe of couture. By introducing a secondary line characterized by ‘streetstyle’ references offered by societies derelicts residing on the ‘wrong’ side of the river, Saint Laurent conducted a quietly revolutionary act (in words of Pierre Berger) by fusing two seemingly discrepant domains of the fashion industry. And yet fashion’s love affair with the crude and the clumsy was far from over at the given point – in fact, it has seemingly just begun, or this time around at least, as the industry is recognized for its notorious commitment to the cyclical canon.
What was once a subject of assiduous disdain has over the course of the last decade become lauded as avant-garde, challenging and even borderline intellectual, with names such as that of Jeremy Scott, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Vètements springing first to mind. When ‘gauche’ entered the vocabulary of fashion it was first and foremost outlined as an alternating subversion to the postulated norms of ‘good taste’ or a ‘socially acceptable aesthetic’. It seemingly made more sense to define the term by what it is not, rather than by what it is. That it is – the meaning of ‘gauche’ gained validity in the vocabulary and common speech through comparison to its antonym of social and cultural circumstances. When one chose to apply the term in the context of personal taste, it would likely have be accompanied by a derogatory smirk and eye rolling, and even give grounds for social controversy not unlike the one Mr. Saint Laurent’s collections experienced in the 60’s.
And yet it is quite evident that the jester in the box is the fact that fashion and thus taste itself is a cultural phenomenon and not a standard of qualitative or quantitative measure. As such, ‘taste’ and fashion are stipulated by cultural references of the social group they belong to. These preconditions might range from something so banal as an age group to more complex divisions such as religion or class. One can quite easily understand that these categories are in a state of perpetual change — as society evolves by abandoning the old and (re)inventing the new through constant replenishment and appropriation of references, taste transformed accordingly. As pointed out in the exhibition held at the Barbican Center (closing in February 2017) The Vulgar, Fashion Redefined, what is considered ‘tasteful’ or ‘tasteless’ are conventions playing by the rules of the current etiquette and stylistic unison of what is ‘in’.
Ultimately, it is precisely that inherently ambiguous nature of the notion of the ‘taste’ as a social construct that renders its own demise. As noted above ‘taste’ and ‘style’ are so dependent upon the group they apply to that even the slightest change in the milieu will make an impact on group’s preferences, and whether the inclinations simply morph or perish completely depends on how heavily they are rooted in the group or society itself. Thus, what was once a subject to condescending eye rolling and disapproval, can in a blink of an eye enjoy accolades.
Subsequently, the reason for such change to take place might also be the fact that not everyone can or wants to take part in the common consensus of the established druthers. The lack of space for personal zest within the postulates of cultivated taste has in the last couple of years proven to be an equally important reason for dismissal of provided guidelines of ’good style’. Growing weary of rigorous conditioning, taste has evolved into an eclectic mishmash of references proudly displayed through the art of dressing. This sudden change of heart within the world of fashion might as well have something to do modern world’s constant search for new sensations, or out of plain boredom, as the two intertwine with perpetually evolving pace.
Flash forward to 2017, and it is easy to take Vétements or Alessandro Michele’s Gucci as apparent ring-bearers of acting away from the notions du rigor of style. A leitmotif for these designers is that every one of them has chosen, in their respective decades, to distinguish their design by nonconformity. While once upon a time it was considered good taste for a belt and preferably manicure to match (forming the red-thread through the outfit), the designers above have renounced that particular assemblage by lauding a more eclectic approach to dressing. The place once ruled by rigor and poise has been replaced by personality and whimsy, heralding for all that has once been labeled as ‘wrong’.
Alessandro Michele championing an overly flamboyant eclecticism is notably the most ‘fitting’ candidate that would tick-out every box underneath the term ‘gauche’. Take for example the extensively embellished garments (or sunglasses) paired with strong flower print as a new-age take on ‘granny-chic’ and ‘retro-styling’, that, alongside the apparent genderlessness, were instrumental in forging Gucci’s new look. The virtuosic appropriation and styling of ‘aesthetics of wrong’ in order to achieve the intense mix Michele has become lauded for began, according to the designer, with the notion of ‘freedom’ within culture (and consequently, style). Thus, cultivated taste (and with it, fashion) – once a mark of the upper class– has been hijacked by liberation and democratization.
By insisting upon that precise liberation from antiqued postulates of ‘good taste’, Gucci rendered a cultural manifesto whose impact will probably be felt for many years to come. And while the fashion critics were ambiguous and divided on whether the ‘gauche aesthetic’ heralded by Gucci fell into personal liking, there was little doubt about the global impact something so indisputably discerned as ‘bad taste’ has achieved. Michele fought the case for the quirky and the odd, the eclectic and the personal and has won, proving that that personal zest was the spice the fashion needed in order to appeal to wider audience, simultaneously becoming a profitable success.
The case of Vétements was a slightly different affair, but with no less impact. Eschewing the romanticism and the ornate, the Vétements collective opted for an elevated street-grit aesthetics that was rooted in lacking means rather than the need for personal exploration. By heralding the ‘wear what you have’-aesthetic rooted in poor economy of Eastern Europe from where their design team hails, they became as notoriously known for conceptualizing the basic and the banal, as for the borderline impish mockery of cultural hypocrites of ‘good taste’. The no-go aesthetic and floral print surpassing their once seasonal restriction culminated as Demna Gvasalia – the lauded head of Vétements – took over for one of the most respectable Parisian fashion houses, continuing the legacy of Cristobal Balenciaga. ‘Granny chic’ won once again, albeit the granny wasn’t the opulent and quirky aristocrat, but rather an old communist living in a rural 1-bedroom apartment. Notably, this is just a part of the story Demna delivered, but nonetheless a good example ‘getting the rules wrong’ and of crudish style perfectly appropriated to cater and define modern tastes.
The most evident example is the floral boots juxtaposed against another strong floral print, or the tent-dress consisting of entirely clashing prints, equally appalling and grisly in its boldness as it is perplexingly appealing. Something similar can be said for the handful of other designers with Glenn Martins’ Y/Project coming to mind, who delivered a fine balancing act between the tactless and the desirable for his AW17 collection. If one can recall the last prêt-à-porter show staged by legendary Jean Paul Gaultier set at Le Grand Rex it screamed ‘gauche’ in all its full rightness, but it also screamed fun; and what makes any tacky, gaudy fashion faux pas so deliciously irresistible is that splash of spice it ads to seeming conformity of ‘good taste’.
Although the sleek women of Upper East Side in the 50’s and 60’s may smirk on Michele’s braggadocious garments, in many ways, ‘gauche’– the tactless, crude aesthetic that embraced the street and opulence all at once – has defined the second half of 21st century. As the society has taken a form where breaking or eschewing the rules has become mandatory, it is quite clear that abstract virtues of old age no longer imply. Modesty is one of them, as it has become evident that existence of formula for propriety is an antiqued notion. It seems that appropriation once surrounding clever styling and cultivated taste is no longer a requisite for good taste. We don’t longer need for our clothes to be noticed for skillful virtuosity that insoluble trinity of taste, style, and fashion once provided, we just need for clothes to be seen. And whether it is because a certain liberation has taken place or it is an act of plain decadence or boredom is a discussion for another occasion, one thing is certain, wearing floral tents with velvet panta-shoes never felt more right – just don’t forget the ribbon on top.
Words by Irina Lakicevic