The term “fashion victim” came into vogue during my lifetime. It was apparently first used by Oscar de la Renta (1932-2014) to describe people who try too hard to keep up with the latest design trends. Perhaps you’ve seen such poor souls, thoroughbred clotheshorses who apparently don’t know the difference between putting a look together and putting on the ritz—turning their daily life into a runway show for flaunting the zaniest new creations out of Paris and New York.
Imagine someone decked out like the late fashion maven Vivienne Westwood—punk-Burberry ensemble with safety-pin earrings and eye shadow applied with a paintbrush—walking into the local bingo night at the Kiwanis Club. Fashion victim!
To be honest, when I looked the term up while writing this blog, I realized that I had always had the meaning exactly backwards. I thought “fashion victim” connoted a person like me, someone with no fashion sense at all. But my lifelong confusion about its meaning highlights, I think, the dichotomy that the term is meant to convey. Some people, like me, are as drab as flagstones in their sartorial palette. Others, the real fashion victims, dress like Debbie Harry ca. 1982 when a simple off-the-rack shirt-and-jeans combo would do just fine.
What I take de la Renta to have meant by “fashion victim,” now that I finally understand the term, is someone who doesn’t get that the beyond-out-there flamboyance of fashion shows is not for direct consumption by the hoi polloi. Just as moviegoers are not expected to try their hands at dogfights in fighter jets, say, or pirating in the Caribbean, those of us on this side of retail are not expected to try to emulate strobe-lit supermodels strutting and preening on catwalks. If we do, we look ridiculous, clueless in our slavishness to the ultra-latest trends.
“Stay in your lane,” the great de la Renta seems to have been saying in his exasperated use of fashion victim. “Haute couture is not the real world. There’s a difference between red carpet and Red Lobster. Even supermodels dress down to run errands at the shopping mall.” Good advice. Not that I need it, though. Uniqlo de la Walmart is my tailor for all occasions.
But I have been thinking lately that not all fashion victimization is sartorial. As the number of people “identifying” as homosexual, transgender, non-binary, or any of a dozen new categories explodes, I am wondering how many of them are simply highly impressionable, or even lost souls who don’t know the difference between reality and make-believe.
Consider the connection between gender and fashion. The latter has been pushing the limits of the former for a very long time. In the 1970s, rock bands in totally outlandish costumes and sporting hairdos straight out of Versailles staged sound-and-pyrotechnics shows that were unlike anything seen on Main Street, USA. All of it was obviously dress-up. As a little kid, I remember one time when my next-door neighbor, a high school-age KISS fan, decked me out in a Gene Simmons get-up for Halloween, replete with black-and-white face paint. It was as far as one could get from my daily kindergarten uniform. That was the whole point. Dressing up as a tights-wearing, high-kicking, guitar-smashing, black-leather strutting Marie Antoinette was carnivalesque, something to do once in a lifetime—for fun.
David Bowie, too, sported wild fashions in the 1970s, his hair and makeup modeled, I am told, on Kabuki actors in Japan. Bowie combined his stage act with gender-bending, piling on shock value as his record sales climbed. Lou Reed crooned about the dark side of the sex world, about femme fatales, countesses from Hong Kong, and prostitution. It was all so weird and anti-everyday, so obviously a pose, that nobody, I thought, could mistake it for real life.
And yet some did. In the 1980s, fashion-gender fads trickled down to our little Louisiana town. Not that anyone imitated the New York Dolls or anything quite so androgynous, but I do remember seeing the odd mohawk at public gatherings, and a Boy George-wannabe in pretty much every crowd. Cyndi Lauper’s checkerboard hairdo cropped up among true convention-defiers now and then. Many more dressed like Madonna, the entertainer whose loose morals and loose clothes became a kind of norm unto themselves as the 80s gave way to the 90s. Michael Jackson’s crotch-grabbing dance antics—was that comedy, or perversion, or what? Never mind, everyone was doing it. We thought that wearing sequined gloves and busting moves like the King of Pop was hilarious, but looking back I am not so sure.
It was during the 1990s that gender became a focus of the fashion world, with boyish Kate Moss-types suddenly the hot item for photo shoots. The rainbow flag became prominent during that decade, as did fashionistas making political statements about sexuality. Michael Jackson began to look more like a woman with each plastic surgery, and to talk like one, too. Michael Stipe, lead singer of the now defunct rock band R.E.M., turned the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards into a soapbox for fashion-gender-politics, sporting a t-shirt that read “Wear A Condom.” Stipe was notoriously bisexual, and his style was casual enough that teenagers across America (I was one of them) could easily copy it. And not just the clothes; if one was really paying attention, the lifestyle too. It was becoming fashionable to thwart sex and gender norms.
But as the rubes in the cheap seats began to adopt the shock-the-bourgeoisie poses of the performers, the performers had no choice but to rev up their transgressions to stay ahead of the fashion curve. It was not long before being gay or lesbian in America was as common as preferring Pepsi over Coke. After Ellen, the public played the parts in their daily lives that used to be reserved for the floodlights. The fashion victims who emulated the trendsetters were in a hopeless vortex. The people on stage would always be ahead of the ticket-buyers in terms of bourgeoisie-shocking. And so it continued, turning and turning in a widening gyre.
Today, as transgenderism becomes a social norm and institutions anxiously accommodate the vanguard of sexual identity, the fashion frontline is catching the next wave in the sexual revolution: the sexualization of children. A recent ad campaign featuring children playing with teddy bears in dominatrix outfits [Balenciaga pulls controversial bear ads amid child abuse fears (nypost.com)] extended fashion-victim status to the most vulnerable demographic group.
The play-acting and make believe are part of a performance—by musicians, models, and others in the public eye. But the public eye, it turns out, is much more susceptible to influence from the stage than performers seem to understand. People who pay attention to celebrities tend to mimic their ways, their styles, their beliefs. I thought Michael Stipe was a good singer, and I idolized him for most of my teen years. But my fan-worship didn’t go beyond buying his albums and a couple of R.E.M. t-shirts and trying, disastrously, to sing like him in a garage band. I wonder how many other Michael Stipe fans made the political the personal and fancied themselves bisexual as well.
How many people today, convinced that being transgender is a kind of exercise in lived social justice, are deluded into thinking they were “born into the wrong body”? Young children, highly impressionable to begin with, pick up on the social trends and “come out” somewhere along the “gender spectrum.” What used to be one English rocker on a stage pretending to be Ziggy Stardust is now the clinical sorting-out of pronouns before Zoom meetings begin. We aren’t pretending anymore. Although we still are. We just don’t see any difference between the act and the actor.
Even the person who claims to have invented the “gender reveal party” apparently now regrets it. Why? It’s demeaning to “assign sex at birth,” which is what gender-reveal parties unavoidably do. The world is moving from extreme to unthinkable next extreme at an ever-accelerating pace.
And as this mechanism revs and races, more and more fashion victims fall by the wayside, children now as well as adults. I don’t mean people with closets full of outfits that they wore once and wouldn’t be caught dead in again. I mean people with closets full of skeletons, and often bodies full of scars, horrible memories of the things they have done to themselves to fit in.