A Foray into the Fashion Formerly Known As “Bad Taste”

When I was growing up, tacky was just about the worst thing your outfit could be. The thought of stalking into a disco, only to realize that your dress had seriously missed the mark — thus forcing you to shimmy off stage left to hide behind the drinks table, was, to my teenage brain, a situation so mortifying that death would have surely been preferable.

These days we’re in the unofficial era of fashion’s “chaos theory,” with less of a focus on what’s “in” and what’s out. We’re no longer influenced by any one, two or even three decades, but all of them: seventies suiting; nineties logo mania; cutesy, low-heeled Mary-Janes of the sixties; the distinctly Laura Ashley chintiziness of the eighties; the reduxed velour tracksuits of the early noughties. Embracing everything at once has awakened a freeing sense, for me, at least, that anything goes. No matter how tacky. For the holiday season in particular, my dressing strategy is: the tackier, the better.

I’m all about gloriously tactile and eye-catching pieces, fabrics and silhouettes almost satirical in their flamboyance. And I’m not alone. Take the return of the 80s, for example, and with it, the many iterations of that which used to be considered garish and camp: shoulder pads, dramatic puff sleeves, gigantic bows and cocktail jewelry; shiny sweetie-wrapper lamé, satin and belted patent leather; gem-strewn accessories, feathers and sequins. Even lime green is appealing. Where once her garb was the stuff of my teenage nightmares, stylistically, Drew Barrymore’s Josie Geller wouldn’t seem so out of place anymore. (Case in point: The bubblegum pink, puff-sleeved, jacquard, satin mini dress by Rotate that I’m wearing in this story, which I saw two other people wearing at London’s Fashion Awards in December.)

All of this has me thinking: Is intentional tackiness actually camp? Much has been written of the “return” of camp in the last few months, particularly after The Met announced it as the Costume Institute’s Spring 2019 exhibition theme, Camp: Notes on Fashion. “In fashion, the ironic patronage of ‘bad’ taste has rarely been stronger,” wrote Osman Ahmed for AnOther, “with a return to the corporate realness and volcanic hedonism of the 1980s. A shocking pink mini dress with 3,000 feathers? Saint Laurent has you covered. 100 layers of orange smocked tulle? Call Molly Goddard. Crystal-monogrammed socks? Go to Gucci.”

Camp is more than simply being garishly over-the-top. In her 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag distinguishes camp from kitsch (often conflated); where kitsch takes itself seriously, camp is a mode of performance and “sees everything in quotation marks.” It is the playful suggestion that anything goes; a laugh and a shoulder shrug of the truly liberated should anyone suggest that it doesn’t. The party looks you see here? There’s no doubt they see things in quotation marks, and nothing is more knowing than a pair of multi-colored, gem-strewn tights.

In many ways, this simply means that bad taste is no longer relevant. It is no longer subjective, qualifiable, or easily defined, and this warms me to my very bones. The idea of “taste” alone is entwined with snobbery, and who needs that when it comes to fun fashion? This updated tacky mindset is about the the overall look (the sequins, the silhouettes) — not the price tag. The items shot here are on the higher end of my own shopping budget, but the internet is chock-full of wonderfully tacky items on the lower-priced end of the spectrum. The feathered shirt I’m wearing? Here’s another feathered option for $59. The vinyl skirt? Here’s another one I found online that’s similar. This vintage jacket I’m wearing in the third look was £35 — here’s its cousin for $40. Those tights I just mentioned are $25.

Sontag writes that camp is “good for the digestion.” In this case, our embracing of that which used to be considered tacky is as much a cultural digestion — a riposte to the depressing world politics — as much as an individual one. I know that I, personally, am done with style diktats. And I’m embracing clothes my younger self might have called tacky. I’m not saying day-to-day I’m dressed in shoulder pads and sequins, but for this festive party season, I can think of absolutely nothing better. So pass me the bubblegum satin and candy-hued cocktail earrings, will you?

Photos by Frances Davison.
Shot at The Zetter Townhouse

Pandora Sykes

Pandora Sykes

Pandora Sykes is a contributing editor at Man Repeller, freelance journalist, stylist and consultant of She is also the co-host of the weekly news/pop-culture podcast The High Low. Follow her on Twitter @pinsykes @thehighlowshow and Instagram @pandorasykes.

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