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Distressed Fashion: A Distressing Trend

grunge style tattered ripped golden goose yeezy

Golden Goose Deluxe Brand recently released “distressed” Superstar Sneakers for over $500. Usually, releases like this would go under the radar in the general public, but it caused an absolute riot on social media. The price tag alone isn’t much to attack, but the shoes feature scuff marks, worn laces, and literal tape wrapped around a toe and heel.

This pair of shoes is a questionable example of the popular “distressed” trend. While it can be argued to simply be a style choice, it also has a rather uncanny effect of glamorizing poverty. Everyone loves a good ripped jean for casual functions, but where does the line have to be drawn?

The fashion world is no stranger to the “distressed look.” The rips, repurposing, marking, and ruined elements of these clothes follow “street” fashion, as they mix luxurious authenticity with a more conventional, relatable look. Those who follow the trend practice their fashion fantasies without looking like they’re trying too hard, or more specifically, spending too much. The Consolation jeans from PRPS, worth $268, look as if they have been through a garbage disposal. The destroyed wool-blend sweater from Yeezy, selling for $750, looks like a moth-eaten weathered article that has been kept out of necessity to cover at least a semblance of skin. The Future Destroyed High-Top Sneakers from Maison, which cost $1,425, look as if they’ve been torn apart by a feral dog. These pieces don’t look like the couture articles that come to mind when thinking of luxury fashion. They’re understated and more equitable to everyday clothing, and life, for all the wrong reasons.

Yeezy Destroyed Wool-Blend Sweater, Off White. Photograph: Bergdorf Goodman

Distressed clothing tends to be insensitive to the humble sources it is inspired from. It’s rather ironic to see damaged or aged pieces that actually have costs and creation processes on par with well-known luxury articles. Take these PRPS jeans. The Barracuda straight leg jeans look as if it is caked in mud, and is described to portray a “down and dirty” article of American workwear. It is indistinguishable between jeans used by an actual blue collar worker with a related job, except for its $425 price tag and the laborious process to add its faux mud stains. As with the Golden Goose shoes, these pants were criticized as creating this clothing in a way specifically for the rich. It was seen as a snub to the realities of the working class in a sick fetishization of poverty for the curiosities of the rich.

If this style is met with so much criticism, why is it still so embraced? The truth is distressed clothing has a rich history that goes farther than ripped jeans from American Eagle that supports its presence on high street. Fashion has always provided a forum for rebellion and the development of uniqueness. Distressed clothing is another example of this.

Punk fashion is the most easily traceable root of the distressed style. Vivienne Westwood was the greatest champion of the style. She and her collaborators challenged the greater established society, in line with the political uncertainty and societal unrest of her time. These sentiments were channeled into shocking interpretations of fashion, resulting in what we love from punk, namely ripped clothing.

From there, distressed clothing steadily evolved to the diverse style we best know today. The Hippie era saw sandpaper rubbing for aged effects. Sun-baking silks, acid washing, and boiling wools came into fashion in the ’80s. ’90s Grunge introduced tattered knitwear, and extremely distinctive techniques, including Hussein Chalayan burying clothing for texturing and Alexander McQueen’s 1995 collection where some looks came with tire marks.

Golden Goose Superstar Sneakers. Photograph: Golden Goose

The development of the style over the past few decades has facilitated artistic creativity to generate new processes and perspectives – all in the background of the political and societal rifts of the same times. It has allowed for the fashion world’s insatiably continuous appetite for something radical to be sated. While it has had similarities to poverty(?), in this context, it never really had the intention of replication. Breaking clothing was just an expression of breaking the status quo.

In addition to this, distressed fashion has also had a long history of elitism. According to Tom Wolfe’s 1970s writings in “Radical Chic,” the practice dates back to the British Regency period of the 1810s. Nostalgie de la boue – meaning a desire to dress like the mud – was prevalent at the time. The British upper classes found thrill in taking on the styles of the lower classes. Corsets and petticoats were typical; the new money of the time instead favored the looks of tavern goers, monks, and beggars.

The distressed clothing we see today combines these two histories: there is a hidden, skillful craft that creates a facade of poverty.

On one end, as described before, the style allowed for something distinctive from anything else in the fashion world. That difference focuses on creating something hiding in plain sight. There is extra effort behind distressed clothing that can’t be seen by plain observation. Distressed jeans, for example, usually undergo sandblasting to achieve the desired look. While there are health and environmental risks with this and other processes, it’s a sign of innovation. There is so much skill going into something that makes it seem like you’re not trying too hard.

Jumper designed by Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons in 1982. Photograph: V&A’s Collections

Sadly, the art in this easily leads to exploitation and ignorance. Distressed clothing was basically a product of similar counter-cultures in the late 20th century. Due to its surface-level connection to the clothing of the less fortunate, it was easily taken by the rich to commodify poverty. The underlying elitism to the practice has resurfaced as a result.

The question arose of how the rich would distinguish this new style as their own. The answer was to take the art and meaning behind it as an excuse to raise the price and warp it into their own world. No longer was it a counter-culture of artistic and personal intentions. It was a new exciting field for the luxury-world to partake in.

The same thing happened to denim jeans in the ’90s. Originally, it was seen to be a part of the blue-collar uniform for its functionality and inexpensiveness. Over time, it began to become more widely accepted, including with the rich, as casual Friday’s became a regular practice. Eventually, designer jeans began to be made to cater to the super rich, no care given to its origins.

Distressed clothing allows the rich to partake in trends and high fashion, but also connects them to a life they do not experience, and, in the end, don’t care about. The wearer puts on a costume of poverty. The less fortunate dress this way because they cannot afford anything else. The rich dress this way to prove they are rich enough to not care how they look, but still maintain their normal lavish behaviors.

The trend has become so widespread and popular that it is a hallmark of modern fashion. There is no concern for the possible insensitivity it invites. The trend abuses both those it fetishizes and the original pioneers it forgets. Those who have the money to dress “poorly” are too busy spending to see this distressing problem. •

By Ethan Masucol

Graphics by Jennifer Jimenez

Ethan Masucol is a second-year Plan II and International Relations & Global Studies major with a minor in Chinese. He’s interested in development and foreign aid, and hopes to enter a career abroad across multiple countries. When he’s not working towards this, you can find him in his free-time shopping online, trying local eateries, and enjoying this world as much as he can.

2 Comments
  1. Hi Ethan,

    Your article points out a unique perspective on the distressed fashion trend. When the trend began to roll out, I found the high price tags tied to these overly tattered and worn out designs puzzling. Upon reading your article about the controversial issues of this trending style, that being a mock to poverty makes me question designer motives which gave the green light to move forward with these trends given public criticism. As you mentioned, the styles do trace back from the 70’s and even as far as the 1800’s but I agree with you in that brands have gone a little too far. Brands should carry a level of responsibility when it comes to risky output and in this case, their PR teams should’ve addressed this issue. Along with this, it would benefit them to rework the company’s objective statement on their website.

  2. Hi Ethan,

    Your article points out a unique perspective on the distressed fashion trend. When the trend began to roll out, I found the high price tags tied to these overly tattered and worn out designs puzzling. Upon reading your article about the controversial issues of this trending style, that being a mock to poverty makes me question designer motives which gave the green light to move forward with these trends given public criticism. As you mentioned, the styles do trace back from the ’70s and even as far as the 1800s but I agree with you in that brands have gone a little too far. Brands should carry a level of responsibility when it comes to risky output and in this case, their PR teams should’ve addressed this issue. Along with this, it would benefit them to rework the company’s objective statement on their website.

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