Since the beginning of time, largely speaking, fashion has been about separating men from women, for the two sexes to flaunt what they had and attract the opposite sex – though the way to dress to make this happen, has varied immensely from period to period.
Throughout history, the female and male body ideals have changed – from Henry VIII squared figure to the waisted, elongated body of the 19th century dandy, and from the accentuated hip of the 17th century women, to the boyish flapper of the 1920’s. Within all periods, the body ideals have been separated for male and female. Dividing the sexes so people of the period could find their counterpart interestingly unlike themselves in appearance. In a way, fashion, for a long time, was all about the sexual jungle-dance.
But something changed in the late 20th century, and now, well into what could be called the 21-teens, the spectrum of fashion is wider than ever.
Looking at the past decade, a tendency that continues to play out is a desire for the individual to appear intimidating or fear-provoking.
If fashion were about attracting a partner (however understated is may be done), then dressing in this manner wouldn’t obviously appeal to an individual.
Walking through modern cities seem to tell another story, with the newer generation walking down the streets, seemingly dressed in a mourning costume. Black, serious and sinister.
And the fashion business follows in this appreciation of the dark. Dubbing Lee McQueen fashion icon for his savage designs, and crowning Gareth Pugh the Prince of Darkness*.
But why is dressing scary appealing?
A perfect conclusion of this is unfeasible, but this article throws a few perspectives into the air for you all to juggle.
In reference to the fashion of wearing all black, the reason could quite simply be the widely accepted statement that “black is slimming” – if black makes us look 3 kilos lighter, no wonder it is popular. Furthermore, there is no worry about colour coordination; black clothes will make your troubles disappear.
Dressing extraterrestrially, villainous or scary on the other hand, is somewhat a conundrum.
Personality through dress
A readily perspective is that dressing this way is self-reflection from the wearer**, thus, you’re dressing scary – you are strong, fearless, serious. Yet interacting with, say, a person wearing shredded black tees and skull rings does not necessarily give the impression of a sombre, dark soul – sometimes quite the opposite. Maybe they like the idea of what they are projecting?
Reading i-D’s article “The seductive appeal of the horror film” gives a few clues as to why dressing in this manner could be appealing.
As Sophia Satchell-Baeza puts it, the seductive appeal of horror is “evocative of the combination of dread and transgressive pleasure brought on by these films”.
We humans seem to take pleasure in the uncomfortable/fear-inducing – need we mention the popularity of BDSM, people stimulated by the sensation of getting inked etc.? For the majority, this liking needs to be a controlled painful pleasure. But what do we have more control of than how we dress? Perhaps we are choosing to dress scary, because we like the controlled feeling of unheimlich it can give us.
We are all a bit psycho
An extra angle can be placed on dressing scary through Satchelll-Baeza’s article: “The horror film creates a space for dealing with demons, unstable behaviours and our deepest, darkest perversions. All rehearsed and dealt with from the safest of our cinema seat/sofa.”
Perhaps this is further applicable – is it so that clothes create a space for dealing with demons, unstable behaviours and our deepest, darkest perversions too? Controlled and dealt with from the safest of our wardrobe?
In his essay “Why we crave horror”, Stephen King describes the appeal of scary:
“The mythic horror movie, like the sick joke, has a dirty job to do. It deliberately appeals to all that is worst in us, it is morbidity unchained, our most basic instincts let free, our nastiest fantasies realized.”***
With the liberty to dress as we like with very few precautions, some individuals in the 21st century, Nick Genest (Zombie Boy) and Daphne Guinness among others, take an uncompromised approach to these instincts.
The mysteriously attractive baddie
So why would other people be attracted to these personalities? Maybe for the same reason that we preternaturally are attracted to the villains of films (You find Ray Fiennes strangely alluring as Voldemort? Don’t worry – you’re not alone!).
Gore and gunk can evidently be aesthetically pleasing. It may well have to do, as film critic Martyn Conterio says, “the recognition of beauty in ugliness”. The monster of the horror film can be transferred to fear-provoking fashion: It’s appealing for its uncanny resemblance to the human form****.
Bravery through style
According to Maria Mckinney-Valentin, Post doc at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts there is a “social appetite for the irregular, abnormal or even monstrous in fashion”. In her text, which mainly focuses on subversive beauty ideals in fashion marketing, she explains that looking unorthodox and transgressing boundaries implies courage by “doing something wrong”. The strategy of adopting something that is socially, culturally or ethically abnormal for the purpose of creating distinction is often applied in marketing – a strategy she names “The logic of wrong”*****: A stunt that catalyzes a scope of emotions – shock, awe and fear in the human. It seems not only the industry, but also the consumers are opting for this strategy – provoking fear to show courage.
Is the appeal of looking intimidating simply to look provoking – to seem bold and brave? Is it to deal with inner emotions or outlive our fantasies? Is it about taking pleasure in pain, or seducing other people?
There are many more perspectives that haven’t been explored in this article – aesthetics, sociology and culture. It is an inexhaustible phenomenon. The more perspectives applied, the harder the juggling becomes.
Hopefully, we have given you an appropriate dose to reflect upon.
***** Mckinney-Valentin, Maria “Face Value: Subversive beauty ideals in contemporary fashion marketing”, Fashion, Style and Popular Culture, volume 1, 2014.