Gen Z and the Death of Pretty
Roughly 4,953 years ago, my fourteen-year-old self stood staring into a full-length mirror, wide eyed and mildly sweaty. I was minutes away from heading off to my first ‘real’ party and I was a wreck. The issue?? What should I wear to make me look pretty? I had tried on all 5 shirts that I owned, (and possible 2 or 3 of my sister’s) but all I saw looking back at me was someone who was scrawny, flatchested, and well, just unattractive. I don’t remember what I ended up wearing to that party, but I DO remember offering up a silent prayer for the day when I would not even glance in a mirror before I went somewhere – I would be that confident, and that chic!
Today’s teen might just be kicking those moments of stomach lurching self-doubt to the curb.
Throughout time, so much of women’s fashion served to cookie-stamp a woman’s body into the desired shape of the moment. From corsets to Dior’s wasp-waisted ‘New Look’, clothes were designed as vessels to contain us, to shape and to mold us. Their purpose was to make us appear taller, thinner, leggier, more shapely. Clothes were essentially the ‘right’ body we put on over our own incorrect one.
Well, Gen Z is having none of that.
Fashion has come a long way (baby) from the rigid taskforce issuing What To Wear edicts. Inclusivity, body diversity, gender fluidity – these are the new rules of the road for today’s designers looking to appeal to a younger market. After all, according to a J. Walter Thompson study, 52 percent of the Gen Z participants surveyed don’t identify as “completely heterosexual” and 78% agree that gender no longer defines a person as much as it used to. Nearly half of them are of racial minorities. So, what does it mean then if clothes and cosmetics are no longer constructs to make us a look a certain way?? What then is their role in our lives?
In a recent interview in Vox, Barbara Kahn, a professor at the Wharton School of Business, muses on this shift. “Advertising used to be more ‘aspirational,’ and people looked to brands to show what people hoped they could be,” Kahn said. “But the younger generation is much more accepting of all kinds of diversity — and that brands are embracing all of these different ideas and allowing people to accept who they are is definitely a selling point.” Today’s consumer doesn’t want to be told how to look. They look just fine, thank you. But they DO want to play with the textures and elements that allow them to discover and share all the different facets of themselves.
The recent dramatic shift in gender at the head of many fashion and cosmetics companies is serving this new desire. Rhianna is launching a couture line after having crushed the game with her wildly diverse Savage Lingerie and Fenty Beauty lines. Lady GaGa is dropping a new makeup collection this week with a focus on fantasy and diversity. And last week’s Haute Couture show in Paris saw three of the most famous French Houses helmed by women. We are entering a new era of clothes and cosmetics designed from a fresh perspective: the female gaze. And it seems to be a view of release, as opposed to constraint. Sonia Saraiya, a television critic for Vanity Fair, believes that the female gaze, rather than being a simple reversal of the old trope in which women are viewed as objects, instead seeks to avoid objectification completely. “When it comes to the nuts and bolts of what the female gaze is, you see art that is created by women or queer, non-binary people – the treatment of things is so different. Instead of seeing bodies as something to be consumed, maybe everyone finds a way to act with agency.”
Dior’s new lead designer, Maria Chiuri explained her view… “clothes are the first space in which you define yourself.” Both women are pointing out a huge sea change – today, how we express ourselves physically is our business – no one else’s.
Today’s atypical icons like Lady Gaga, Iris Apfel, and Leandra Cohen are showing us how to use clothes as a means to express attitudes and interests, rejecting its prior role as a magical wand shape-shifting the human body into a pre-approved look. Clothes, to this newest generation, are a statement, not an apology. Binary concepts such as male/female, or business attire/workout wear are increasingly looked at as simply tired, and with their release, comes levity and inclusivity. Just watch the sheer exuberance of boy beauty bloggers like Patrickstarr and James Charles and try not to grab a mascara wand! Our inner game is serious work. Our outer game is simply a sandbox to experiment with, and to enjoy.
I spoke with designer Elaine Kim about this, and she lit up with excitement: “Young people look at clothes as art, as pieces to experiment with, elements for exploring different ways of feeling and being. They are so bold and adventuresome, and it allows me to really express my own art. No one is asking me to make them look skinny – they simply want amazing clothes.”
Gen Z is a serious group. They have strong values and are intent on saving the world. But in one area, they lead with lightness. Dressing up, or down, playing with gender, celebrating the bodies and cultures they arrived here with is changing the game for all of us. Their self worth is firmly in their hands. No designer, beauty company or magazine will take that away.
Diana Vreeland once described fashion as “the intoxicating release from the banality of the world”. Gen Z will no doubt take this concept to a whole new level. And I, for one, can’t wait to wear it!